22 May 2012


In a past life UK Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption, whose recent lecture on national security is noted here, wrote an excellent book on pilgrimage and sacred relics, the basis for a market that Chaucer questioned in The Pardoner's Tale.

The Pardoner obligingly satisfied consumers by offering -
... a pillow-case
Which he asserted was Our Lady's veil.
He said he had a gobbet of the sail
That Saint Peter had when he went
Upon the sea, till Jesus Christ pulled him out.
He had a cross of metal set with stones
And, in a glass, a rubble of pig's bones.
And with these relics, any time he found
Some poor up-country parson to astound,
In one short day, in money down, he drew
More than the parson in a month or two
And thus, with feigned flattery and japes
He made the parson and the people his apes. 
Guibert de Nogent's 1106 Treatise on Relics had earlier noted that
Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, eagerly desired the body of St Exuperius, his predecessor, who was honoured with special worship in the town of Corbeil. He paid, therefore, the sum of one hundred pounds to the sacristan of the church which possessed these at relics that he might take them for himself. But the sacristan cunningly dug up the bones of a peasant named Exuperius and brought them to the Bishop.
The Bishop, not content with assertion, exacted from him an oath that these bones brought were those of Saint Exuperius. "I swear," replied the man, "that these are the bones of Exuperius: as to his sanctity I cannot swear, since many earn the title of saints are far indeed from holiness." Thus the thief assuaged the Bishop's suspicions and set his mind at rest. 
In the US there is currently a brouhaha about efforts to sell - via an online auction site - what is claimed to be a vial containing  blood from former President Ronald Reagan, the amiable buffoon and budget fantasist whose wife relied on astrology in guiding the big guy with a finger (intermittently) on the button.

Guernsey-based PFC Auctions claims that the blood was taken from Reagan after the failed 1981 assassination attempt by John Hinkley. The executive director of the Reagan Foundation has reportedly vowed to stop "this craven act" -
If indeed this story is true, it's a craven act and we will use every legal means to stop its sale or purchase.
The PFC site features an image of the five-inch glass vial,  labelled with Reagan's name and described as housing "dried blood residue". Who owns the blood? Can the Foundation stop the sale, or even claim ownership? (Let's not think about whether the Foundation would be better occupied doing other things, albeit activities that wouldn't get global media attention and rally the faithful.)

I'm unfamiliar with the law of Guernsey - my image of that island is cute bovines and shiny brass plates in front of tax shelters - so cannot comment on the legality of flogging off Reagan's blood, Marie Antoinette's hair, Napoleon's pizzle or the numinous fingernails of Saint Exuperius. In relation to Australian law two thoughts spring to mind.

The first is the restriction on selling body parts (and people) online. As far as I'm aware there has been no attempt in Australia to auction off a fresh whole cadaver and you are unlikely to find human kidneys, eyeballs or skeletons at your local retailer. Sale of the 'preserved' or 'processed' corpse reminds law students, with a taste for the macabre, of lessons about  Doodeward v Spence [1908] HCA 45; (1908) 6 CLR 406.

The second is whether we regard blood, and in particular discarded blood, as property. Law has tended to differentiate between organs - non-renewable - and blood, nail clippings (sacred or otherwise) and hair, all regarded as renewable and of a lesser value. What is discarded typically is not regarded as the property of the person from whom that 'refuse' came and a generation of students has now grappled with the implications of Moore v Regents of the University of California and Ors 793 P 2d 479 (Supreme Court of
California, 1990) and other cases involving intellectual property or other rights relating to exploitation of leftovers.

What about Reagan? He's no longer around to assert property rights in his remnants or relics. On the face it the Foundation doesn't have a legal claim to the vial, the blood inside that vial or associated paperwork. Neither does Reagan's family. What's left of the vital fluid is instead typically going to be the property of the health service provider that extracted and processed the blood.

The PFC usefully supplies what is claimed as provenance information, a letter indicating that the seller's late mother worked at the laboratory that undertook blood testing for George Washington University Hospital after Reagan was shot.
These articles have actually been in my family’s possession since 03/30/1981, the day that President Reagan was shot in Washington D.C. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, my mother worked for Bio Science Laboratories in Columbia, Maryland. Her laboratory was the laboratory contracted by Walter Reed Army Medical Center as well as the George Washington University Hospital to handle blood testing as well as other types of testing. Her lab did the blood work and testing for President Reagan. The test tube and the lab slip that I have are for his blood work to be tested for lead on [Monday] 03/30/1981. The testing was completed and the test tube was sitting on my mother’s desk. At the end of the week, she asked the director of her laboratory if she could keep the paper work and the test tube. The director of the lab told her no problem and really never gave it a second thought. It has been in my family ever since. My mother passed away back in November last year [2010] and my father passed away in January 2009. Prior to their passing, they knew that it was the only thing that I wanted with regards to their personal property or money that they accumulated over the years…
About 3 to 4 months ago, I contacted the Reagan National Library and spoke to the head of the library, a Federal Agent. I told him what I had, how I came across it and so on. We spoke for about 45 minutes. The reason that I contacted the Reagan National Library was to see if they would like to purchase it from me. He indicated that if I was interested in donating it he would see to it that he would take care of all of the arrangements. Prior to hanging up the phone, he said to me, do me a favor, don’t move from where you are, I will call you back within 30 minutes but I have to make a couple of phone calls to seek legal counsel, consult with National Archives, the FBI and other three or four letter agencies that I have heard of. I said am I in any kind of trouble or will there be some black cars/suv’s or helicopters hovering above my home and he said not yet but possibly in the very near future depending on what he learned from the phone calls he had to make. I told him alright, I will not move from where I was sitting and would await his return call. He called back in 25 minutes and said that everything was ok, National Archives was not interested in what I had, nor was the Secret Service, the FBI and other agencies. Since 30 years had passed by, he thought that it was simply something that was of no importance at this time and that I was free to do with whatever I wanted with it. He then stated that he felt the family would be interested in it being returned to them and if I was interested in doing so to contact him and he would make all of the arrangements. I told him that I didn’t think that was something that I was going to consider, since I had served under Pres. Reagan when he was my Commander in Chief when I was in the ARMY from ’87-’91 and that I was a real fan of Reaganomics and felt that Pres. Reagan himself would rather see me sell it rather than donating it.
I'm reassured that the "black helicopters" won't be hovering over the seller's home, although I do wonder about the Addams Family grotesque implicit in the seller's claim that
Prior to their passing, they knew that it was the only thing that I wanted with regards to their personal property or money that they accumulated over the years. 
Yes, don't worry about the family photos (or the cold hard cash) ... covet the dinky glass container with the dried haemoglobin and rely on title passing via authorisation from the lab director.