Swamp Monsters

Searching through history for the Romanian outlaw and folk-hero, Terente—and his preserved penis

The raucous dirges of frogs, the port city of Braila, Romain Rolland, In The Clutches of Terente, a Greek pastry chef, cotton balls, the Minovici brothers, Nicolae Ceausescu, A Study on Strangulation, Palladian windows, Haroun al-Rashid, alkaloids, feral dogs

Illustrations by Leela Corman.

As far as I know, there are currently two pickled penises—human, that is—on public display throughout the world. The first is housed in St. Petersburg, and is said to have once belonged to Rasputin—the Siberian mystic who at one time served as the Romanov family’s private seer. A quick google search for Rasputin dick yields a bottled organ that resembles something long buried underground, like an overgrown parsnip or a cankerous tree-root. Some of the images in my search feed include, somewhat pornographically, a blonde woman bending over to inspect the specimen, apparently both intrigued and repelled by its unsightliness. But despite the impressive appearance, there is scant evidence to corroborate this member’s illustrious provenance. Was it really Rasputin’s? Or was it merely pilfered from the corpse of some unlucky (and far less famous) character? No one knows. 

The second penis is on display in Bucharest, Romania, and is currently kept in the Mina Minovici Institute of Legal Medicine. Its appearance differs considerably from the first. It is not so much root-like as aquatic: a lowly marine mollusk, such as a sea-cucumber or perhaps one of those tube worms that desperately cling to thermal vents on the ocean floor. It is also striking for its large tattoo: a column of text printed lengthwise down the shaft in the shape of an upside-down cross. It reads: “Fucks Fine when you Squeeze the Beak.” Unlike its Russian counterpart, however, this phallus has a decidedly clearer pedigree. It was at one time attached to an infamous outlaw named Stefan Vasali, known locally as Terente. 

In Romania, this artifact and the story behind it have long been a source of intense fascination. In 1995, a modestly-budgeted feature-length film was released that attempted to retell the fabled exploits of the outlaw, along with his tragic end. I tried to watch it recently but gave up after twenty minutes, when it became clear the movie was nothing more than a compendium of fantasies and outdated sex jokes. 

In 2014, a Bucharest nightclub owner thought it would be a good idea to make a replica of the severed member (with tattoo) and display it on the wall of his establishment for the amusement of drunken ravers. 

Today, the Romanian press still can’t seem to let go of the storied penis. Occasionally newspapers will drudge it up again like the milled bones to an old fossil, struggling to reimagine the animal that was. These articles are always replete with hyper-sized images of the orphaned penis, suspended mournfully in its formaldehyde soup—perhaps in the vague hope that its ugliness might elicit a few extra clicks. The pieces are diligently written, and do their best at reconstructing ninety-year-old events, despite the dearth of verifiable acts to work with and a turgid, century’s-worth of mythos to debunk. Even so, writers continue to try.

However impossible a task, deciphering the genesis of this unhappy member is, at its heart, a question of identity. Over time, the penis has become a kind of Rorschach test, a canvas on which an overlooked (and far less fortunate) slice of Europe projects its warring wishes for how it ought to be perceived by the wider world. 

Often, when people struggle to pronounce my name, I feel compelled to explain my existence, my origins, which is an impossible task not because of any geographical ambiguity, but because of ever shifting narratives: my birthplace, Romania, has never quite decided which story of itself it wishes to tell; most threads get lost in a hermeneutical knot of upheavals, makeovers, and catastrophes. Answering the question “where am I from” is no more rewarding than grasping—pardon the image—for a definitive truth behind that sea-slug of neutered manhood: any answer is bound to disappoint.  

But still, the penis exists. It belonged—evidently—to a man. And this man lived a life that can, to an extent, be reconstructed. And so, perhaps against my better judgment, I too will take the plunge. 

On June 5, 1927, newsstands in Bucharest were abuzz. At last, the legendary Terente had finally been captured and killed. For years, the outlaw, who roamed the wild swamps near the Danube Delta (the marshland where the largest European river empties into the Black Sea), had succeeded in evading capture. In one instance, he was said to have escaped the prowl of local gendarmes by improvising makeshift scuba equipment out of a goat bladder and a hollow reed-stalk. This, along with countless fantastical tales of escape and brigandage had earned Terente his mythical moniker: “King of the Marshes.” Some of the local peasants even believed that he had been born with gills, and that he slept in a sub-aquatic bed, beside the terrifying fishes of the deep. Now, with his capture, all of this rumor could finally be dispelled: the famous outlaw was just as prosaically human as anyone else. 

Before this climatic finale, Terente had been on the run. His efforts to dodge the law had taken him on a three-year-long odyssey along the lower Danube, rampaging his way through Balkan port-towns and villages (in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece) where he left a long trail of mischief (and misery) in his wake. Yet after many months of wanderlust, the outlaw—struck by a sudden bout of homesickness—chose to return to his muddy homeland. There, during the Easter vigil of 1927, he was accused of slipping into the home of a village priest, and brutally raping his wife. Whether this accusation could be substantiated in any way remains unclear, but for the local fishermen it had a certain whiff of truthfulness, enough to write off the bandit in their midst. After some discussion, the villagers chose to sever their old alliance with the outlaw, whom they now viewed as a godless rogue, and thus refused to protect him any further by feigning ignorance of his whereabouts. Thus, on June 4th, a fisherman broke the long silence and identified Terente to a soldier. The bandit was spotted in the village docks, about to climb aboard a canoe and set across the thick reed-forests of the marsh. The soldier opened fire immediately, shooting the fugitive in the face. 

Accounts of what happened next vary. Some sources suggest that Terente died instantly. Others mention that he survived this first attack; that he was then dragged to a local hospital, where he attempted to escape a second time, only to be shot in the back and killed. A sepia image of Terente’s first capture, once front-page material, still exists: five men—some dressed in uniform and wearing pith helmets, others in civilian clothes while flaunting panama hats and bowties—crowd around what looks like a crouching, mutilated hominid. His shirt has been unbuttoned, and a dark Danube of blood spills over his bare chest, spouting from his head. One of the soldiers, presumably the marksman, proudly places his hand over the captive’s unruly hair, as though resting it on a prized boar captured in a hunt. The outlaw’s expression here is hard to discern. Only one eye is exposed (it is severely bruised), the other lies buried under a stained bundle of gauze. His lips are grimly shut, perhaps in resignation—but they could just as easily belong to a dead man.           

I have always imagined this famous capture as a largely solemn affair: soldiers, journalists, and fishermen crowd around the body, their thoughts muffled by the raucous dirges of the frogs, perhaps now mourning their fallen king. Photographers are preparing to take pictures. Just then, one of the younger reporters ventures to ask a question. The older gendarmes tell him to speak up; they cannot hear. He nods his head and—more loudly this time—asks whether this is really him, whether they can verify that this is indeed Terente (after all, he’s escaped so many times before). Could it not be a decoy? Is it not possible that he has tricked them somehow, as he had done in the past? But it is him, they assure the boy. It truly is the “King of the Marshes.” The young man blinks. But how can they be sure, he says. This man, and he gestures downward at the rotting grandeur of the corpse, has been shot him in the face; the blast has blown off segments of his jaw. He doesn’t look human anymore. How can they be sure? The older men stop and think. They deliberate amongst themselves. But before they can come to a consensus, one of the fishermen—perhaps divinely inspired—bends down and removes the dead man’s colossal undergarments. There, he says pointing, it is him. They huddle around. Along the shaft of that oversized tool, the black letters “Fucks Fine when You Squeeze the Beak” have been tattooed in gratuitously huge letters. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. So it is, they say. 

After the capture, Terente’s body was sent to a morgue in Braila, where a coroner performed an autopsy. Shortly thereafter the outlaw’s body was dismembered, severing first his head, then his member, which in its flaccid state officially measured 22cm in length. Once removed, head and penis were quickly shipped by train to Bucharest, where they were delivered directly to Professor Mina Minovici, director of the Institute for Legal Medicine on Strada Cauzasi. 

The remainders of the outlaw’s body then required burial. However, none of the local villagers were willing to do the deed. If he had indeed raped the priest’s wife, then no self-respecting Christian would go through with it. Eventually, they prodded their Jewish neighbor to perform the distasteful chore. Perhaps in protest, the man dug too shallow of a grave, so that later that night the bandit’s remains were promptly dug up by feral dogs and devoured. 

In the Balkans—it has been said—the peasants have long worn their shackles without complaint. The philosopher Emil Cioran even went so far as to praise the humility of his countrymen, noting the “nobility of their bondage.” Other times, however, he seemed to despise them for these very reasons: “I blushed to be descended from them, repudiated them, rejected their sub-eternity, their larval certainties, their geologic reverie.” When mutiny does break out, then, it tends to be of the most violent and ferocious kind. For this reason, outlaws and brigands command universal respect in the region; they are mythologized, memorialized in song and folklore because they alone can actualize the bloodlust, the vengeance that everyone else can only dream about at night. 

Terente belongs to this breed of folk-hero, and perhaps represents the ending of an era, what some might consider a more romantic age where famous bandits fleeced the rich to subsidize the poor. Of course, as befits any other mythological animal, no single representation or account seems to agree with another. The two or three photographs that still exist of Terente seem to show profoundly different men, with dissimilar faces and fundamentally different body types. There are also competing birthdates, competing villages that lay claim to his nativity, and competing kinsfolk all eager to eulogize an ancestor they are certain never to have met. But despite these ambiguities, Terente is consistently cast as a creature of the swamp, a product of that steamy wilderness where the Danube River—the great thoroughfare of Europe—finally abandons itself to the sea. 

At one time, the great Danube wetlands stretched uninterrupted from the Black Sea in the east to the port city of Braila in the east, merging with the expansive swamps to the city’s south, where the river forks and fans into the surrounding meadows, forming the two islands of Braila. During the Communist era, particularly the 50s and 60s (but also later throughout the Ceausescu regime) these primordial marshes were drained to make room for tillable land that could be exploited for mass agriculture. This was completed through a series of dams and canals, built exclusively through the coerced labor of political detainees condemned to die in Stalinist gulags. My own maternal great-grandfather toiled eleven years in such a place.     

The expansive wilderness here is by all accounts a veritable Eden, home to the largest ecosystem of bird species in Europe: a sweltering empire of frogs, snakes, Pelicans and Cormorants. The place literally boils throughout the summer months, so much so that in parts temperatures can reach an unimaginable 60 degrees centigrade. It is a landscape ruled over by canebrakes, lily pads, and dense jungles of willows, with leaves that spill back over the water like wax drippings, giving rise to verdant grottoes and tunnels that branch off into a vast maze of feral growth. 

Beneath these waters live true terrors: the great Beluga Sturgeon and the Wels Catfish, primeval entities that can swallow men whole and live for over a hundred years. As a child, my grandfather once took me to see a great stuffed Beluga at the Antipa Natural History Museum in Bucharest. Perhaps the true king of the marsh, the specimen had been heaved to the surface world during the nineteenth century, and must have measured over twenty feet in length: a colossal, gaping pillar of muscle and bone. Today, whenever I think of Terente the outlaw, I also imagine these, his monstrous brethren, and I can’t help but conjure up magical getaways in which the bandit swims off astride their backs, just like Arion atop his dolphin. 

When the Danube overflows in these parts, it swallows everything: wild beasts, livestock, people, sometimes even villages—digesting entire histories in the span of hours. The river does not discriminate: it consigns everything to the same soupy oblivion, prompting some to declare the land too wet to have a past. 

In another sense, the Delta catches what the rest of the world is willing to discard. Its everglades are a brew of all those human elements uprooted by the river and sea. When the Ottomans ruled these marshes over a century ago, its canebrakes and jungles formed a natural refuge for outcasts, criminals, and exiles, seeing as the Turks deemed it too difficult to maintain permanent garrisons there. In his 1895 guidebook, charting the Danube’s path from its more wholesome beginnings in a Bavarian forest, Baron Amand von Schweiger Lechenfeld (a former officer in the Austrian navy) describes the river’s climax as a true melting pot, a muddle of men of “every type and race, Turks and Caucasians, gypsies and negroes, Bulgars and Wallachians, Russians and Serbs, sailors from half the globe, adventurers, delinquents and escaped criminals.” “Murder,” he writes, “was the order of the day.” 

Among the very few parts of Terente’s past that can be verified, is that he came from a clan of Lipovans, also known as Old Believers. Lipovans at one time made up the most populous ethnicity in the Delta and its surrounding marshes. Many still continue to live there. They keep chiefly to themselves. Their patriarchs sport long Abrahamic beards; the women—even the very young—wear tightly wrapped headscarves. Amongst themselves, the Lipovans speak an antiquated Russian, preserved for three centuries by the hermetic vapors of the swamp. They are said to be descendants of an obscure religious sect, dissenters who broke off from the mainline Orthodox Church sometime in the seventeenth century, rejecting priesthood, the military, and—most egregious of all—refusing to pray for the Czar’s wellbeing. Followers of the messianic monk Filipp (their namesake), the sect fled persecution in their homeland and settled in these steamy regions, where they made their living as fishermen. Their homes and villages are traditionally made of mud and thatched straw; and their long black canoes can often be found sprawled along the shores like sunning sea-lions—their bellies overstuffed with fish. This, then, was Terente’s inheritance. These were his people. He was born among them, married among them, spoke their antediluvian language, and in the end, he died according to their vengeance.    

Terente’s early life is largely a blank spot. His childhood is anonymous, though his mother claims that he was a “good boy.” It is likely that he fought in the First World War. It is likely that he was a fisherman. And it is also quite likely that he suffered unimaginable loss. After his first two children drowned, after his first wife perished in agony following a sudden outbreak of plague, and after attempting to murder his second wife in a jealous pique, he succumbed quite naturally to a life of outlawry. Gradually, he gained a following of thieves, bandits, and social lepers willing to assist in his heists and hijackings. He escaped from prison on multiple occasions, and almost always through the aid of female accomplices who were fiercely (and inexplicably) dedicated to him. One of these—Didina—was said to have doubled as his lover. Many years later, when Terente would become a household name, apotheosized for his titanic manhood, this liaison would inspire numerous bawdy limericks, recited often by street urchins and insolent school-boys. 

Throughout this time, Terente and his gang were alleged to have built their stronghold in the dense swamps to the south of Braila (a region referred to as Balta Brailei). Throughout this time, he was a glorified river-pirate; commandeering larger vessels that delivered goods to Europe, then confiscating their merchandise. Other times, when traffic was slow, he would simply seize lone fishing boats, rob them of their catch, and later sell the bounty for meager profits in Braila. Some, eager to decorate the brigand as a virtuous proto-socialist, insist that he then shared the spoils of his brigandage with the poor and disenfranchised of the swamp, but there is little to suggest that such generosity ever occurred. 

It wasn’t until 1924, however, that the outlaw became truly famous. In June of that year, Terente kidnapped two young women from a hostel (one was twenty-two years old, the other seventeen) brought them to their hideout in the marsh, where they were sequestered for a week until ransom was paid. As with countless other stories involving the outlaw, accounts differ. And a spirited debate often emerges around this episode. Were the girls assaulted by Terente’s lackeys, or were they well taken care of? There are reports to back up each side but, once again, there is no way to gauge the veracity of either statement. As is so often the case, the answer depends primarily on what one prefers Terente to represent rather than on who he was in actuality. 

Upon release, one of the ransomed girls, Sylvia Bernescu, wrote a serialized and sensational fictional account of her experience, entitled In the Clutches of Terente. Although no copies of the book can be found today—at least as far as I know—one can only assume that it was a kind of bodice ripper, maybe even a swampy retread of Beauty and the Beast. The first installment was published on October 28, 1924. The subsequent book sold well in Bucharest, and it was quickly published into several other languages as well. Once a French translation hit Paris bookstores, the novel became an instant bestseller, propelling this little-known swampland villain to international stardom.  

In many ways, French readers had been well primed for Terente’s debut. Many had already been immersed in these very same marshes, in the port of Braila with its desperate outcasts, its bandits and humiliated poor-folk, all of which had trickled into Parisian homes through the writings of Panait Istrati, perhaps Braila’s most influential native son—today commemorated with a small and rather sad bust in the city’s public gardens. Istrati was born in extreme poverty, the son of a laundress and a Greek smuggler who never knew of his birth. His childhood was itinerant and troubled; his early adulthood wasn’t much different. Growing up in Braila, Istrati ran the full gamut of poorly-paid and dehumanizing work: apprentice to a Greek pastry chef, fisherman, dock-worker, night-porter in hotels and brothels, mechanic, lock-smith, and cauldron-maker. In 1921, after years of nomadic homelessness, floating across Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean from one odd job to another—and all the while battling both illness and depression—he was hospitalized in Nice after attempting to slit his own throat. 

It was there that he received the letter that would reawaken his desire to live, a reply from the French novelist, mystic, and Nobel Laureate, Romain Rolland. Istrati had written to Rolland on the eve of his attempted suicide, a frenetic lament composed in a rudimentary French that he had taught himself. It was a hopeless appeal to a literary idol he had never met and—under most circumstances—would never hope to meet, much less befriend. But through a rare, almost surreal stroke of luck, Rolland not only received the letter, but was so enchanted by anecdotes from Istrati’s childhood (punctuating an otherwise long and self-pitying dirge), that he instantly replied with full-throated encouragements. Almost overnight, Istrati’s fortunes had changed. 

Rolland gushed to the world about his new discovery, extolling the virtues of this “narrator of the orient” whom he’d affectionately baptized “the Gorky of the Balkans.” The novelist wholeheartedly promoted and published Istrati’s books, and within a few short years, the depressive, half-Greek drifter suddenly found himself vaulted to literary fame, admired and celebrated, his books translated into twenty-five languages. 

For many French readers, Istrati’s writings were appealing primarily for their eastern themes. The Braila that emerges from his fictions is an “oriental” port-town, a place of continuous and hallucinatory drama populated by fez-wearing effendis; flush but miserly Greek merchants; Armenians; Sephardic Jews; prostitutes; and a great many vagabonds and derelicts (most modeled on himself). For close to four hundred years, Braila had been a thoroughly Ottoman city, a heritage that has left a lasting imprint on the place. And it was this kaleidoscopic identity that Istrati attempted to channel in his own writings—the central element that so enthralled a Western readership, still hungry for orientalist fables and dreamscapes. 

Outlaws and brigands appear often in Istrati’s writings. And much like “The king of the Marshes” they too either live in, or possess a fluid knowledge of the swamp. Thus, when Terente (or his fictitious avatar) first arrived in the French capital, readers were already familiar with him. For the many admirers of Istrati’s work, Terente must have felt like the living, breathing incarnation of the writer’s cosmogony, a confirmation that there was indeed such a place, and it was every bit as exuberant and wild as they had been led to believe. Not only that, but Terente was a far more thrilling, and thus legible, illustration of the same themes and elements: he was more ferocious, more tragic, and above all more sexually covetous. It is therefore not hard to imagine how a lurid portrayal in Bernescu’s novel could feed into the worst kind of orientalist stereotypes: exotic, savage, and sexually rapacious men despoiling virgins in the remote and untamed shadows of Europe. Terente the swamp monster, then, was a kind of flesh-and-blood Dracula, another predatory miscreation from the East, and thus a source of both bafflement and excitement for Western readers. It is no wonder that In the Clutches of Terente became an instant bestseller, even eclipsing sales for Istrati’s novels.  

For an immigrant like myself, questions of identity are ever present. Which of my two homelands do I feel most kinship with? Is it the adopted country; the abandoned one? Which civilization am I a more authentic expression of? The Terente debacle posed a similar conundrum. Exactly what sort of thing was Terente anyway: a monster, a rebel, or a kind of mirage? And furthermore, what sort of place could generate such a brute? Was he the product of strictly European pathologies or the remnant of a more “savage” East? In a sense, the vagueness surrounding the outlaw’s own identity communicated the larger ambivalences of his nation.    

Even within the Terente sexual mythology, two wildly divergent strains emerged. At times, he was the boorish rapist—an animal, essentially—while other times he was the charming lothario, sought after by countless women for his dexterities in lovemaking, even by those of a high social standing (it was likely around this time that rumors of his fabulous endowment first began to circulate). Some rumors mention that he rendezvoused with eminent ladies by attending plays, operas, and festivals throughout the city, all while wearing clever disguises, like Haroun al-Rashid in the streets of Bagdad. In this manner, Terente embodied the contradictions of a vampire—at once beast of prey and suave Casanova.   

The mystery of Terente eventually became so irresistible that several large Western newspapers, including the Daily Express in Great Britain, Corierre de la Serra in Italy, and the Austrian Neu Freie Press, sent their own correspondents to scour through the reed-jungles and cholera-rich waters at the edge of Europe, all in the hopes of finding the elusive bandit who had become the talk of Paris. 

Despite the failure of foreign journalists to locate Terente, the sheer concentration of Western media attention suddenly anointed the story, and its protagonist, with a significance they would not have otherwise possessed. In Bucharest, a Terente hysteria quickly emerged. Post-offices were flooded with letters addressed to the outlaw, all supposedly penned by lovelorn women begging the bandit to pay them a visit. Soon, a Terente brand of nylon stockings (along with other women’s accessories such as underwear and hats) took hold throughout the country. 

Meanwhile, police in Braila took advantage of the outlaw’s fame by attributing to him all manner of robberies and murders they couldn’t explain. They soon set a bounty for his capture at two hundred thousand lei and declared the three-hundred-sixty-five square-kilometer marshland south of the city a “war zone,” its perimeter patrolled round the clock by feisty gendarmes all eager to score the big bounty for themselves. Feeling the heat, and soon running out of places to hide, the bandit abandoned the familiar wetlands of his youth and set off on his long exile. 

Three years and nineteen infractions later—spurred either by nostalgia or simple desperation—Terente, “King of the Marshes” returned home at last, where one hot June day he was shot in the face by an overzealous soldier, dismembered, and later consumed by feral dogs. 

The only physical traces of the outlaw’s existence were sheltered in the Bucharest Institute for Legal Medicine, and kept there for nearly a century. The institute, which served as the city’s morgue, was built in the late 19th century by the Minovici brothers (Mina and Nicolae), famed researchers who pioneered the field of legal medicine and forensic studies.  

Born in Braila to a large and impoverished family of ethnic Vlachs from Macedonia, the Minovici siblings proved to be intrepid overachievers, emblems of a triumphant human will, and agents of change in a country anxious to westernize shortly after gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire. Receiving their doctorates from prestigious universities in Western Europe (Mina had studied in Paris, Nicolae in Berlin) the brothers returned to their poor and undeveloped homeland with grand ambitions of modernizing it. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Doctor Minovici had already made significant contributions to Legal Medicine, particularly through his treatises on toxicology and cadaverous alkaloids. In 1892, only thirty-four years old, he opened the Institute of Legal Medicine—Bucharest’s first morgue. Until his retirement in 1932, Mina Minovici served as director of the institute, with his younger brother as subdirector.

Before it was demolished in 1985, the building could be found on Strada Cauzasi in Bucharest, along the banks of the Dimbovita river. It was a huge, overbearing structure, built in the neoclassical design characteristic of the late nineteenth century, with commanding Ionic columns, a stately rotunda, Palladian windows, and many other extravagances redolent of ancient grandeur. The interior was equally impressive, if not delusional in its loftiness: massive marble stairways, several large allegorical murals and frescoes; a vast amphitheater accommodating some three hundred seats; a library with great oak shelving and cabinetry; eight dissection tables; forensic laboratories; a photography studio; and the museum itself—accessible through a narrow spiral staircase made of intricate cast-iron—where the pickled penis was lodged for close to sixty years. 

Doctors of a certain generation still remember the lectures they attended in the grand amphitheater within, or the autopsies they were asked to perform, often on victims of failed back-alley abortions, which for a time were uniformly outlawed throughout the country. By the early eighties, the building had largely fallen into disrepair, and its heyday as a jewel of modern forensic medicine was mostly a thing of the past. To get inside, one had to use a side entrance, a dark and unassuming gangway that led directly into the bowels of the morgue. The more illustrious iron doors in the front however (reminiscent of a mausoleum entrance) remained perennially locked—a Kafkaesque flourish typical of the Ceausescu era—and were opened only for rare visits by some Communist Party big-wig. To get to class, students had to step over the bodies of the dead (and the occasional rat feasting on them), who for lack of space had piled up along the passageway. The halls were always wet; in lieu of proper refrigeration, bodies were hosed with cold water to delay putrefaction. It was never lost on the students, however, that to reach the baroque and well-lit opulence on the floors above they had to first brave the subterranean squalor below, like a crude parody of Dante’s journey toward redemption.  

The Minovici brothers nurtured a wide and eccentric range of interests. Professor Mina Minovici had long harbored hopes of identifying the predictive physical traits of criminal behavior. Like most criminal anthropologists of that era, he believed that physical anomalies (such as an uncommonly large penis or an oddly shaped skull) could reliably foretell an individual’s disposition towards crime. He was equally determined to perfect the methods of embalmment and mummification. Once, he even mummified a homeless man. The experiment was deemed a great success: unlike his ancient Egyptian predecessors, Professor Minovici had managed to embalm a human body without removing any of its inner organs. 

The younger Minovici, a physician perhaps more self-sacrificing than innovative, was equally fascinated by criminal anthropology. His doctorate thesis was entirely dedicated to tattoos and their significance throughout the criminal underworld. For Nicolae Minovici, the tattooed bodies of the underclasses constituted a coded system of hieroglyphics, a hidden world of obscenities. Over the years, he collected thousands of tattoos, ripped directly from the arms, chests and thighs of sailors, criminals or prostitutes (the greater part of this collection was filed away in the morgue’s Anthropometric Department). 

It was during the latter half of his career that the younger Minovici embarked on his now infamous study of asphyxiation, attempting to identify reliable methods for differentiating between suicide by hanging and murder through strangulation. In order to advance the field, he performed multiple experiments on himself. To better understand the physical sensations of asphyxiation, he hung himself on twelve separate occasions—always with the help of his assistants. In 1904, he finally published his findings, replete with statistics and clinical studies, in a work prosaically titled: A Study on Strangulation. There, he summed up his experiences as “unbearably painful.” 

Decades later, he translated into politics the same diligence and rigor he had once applied toward hanging himself. Elected mayor of Bucharest’s Sector 3 borough, he passionately set about cleaning up the squalid slums in his custody, building a proper sewage system, as well as special housing for the garbage pickers he relied on to tidy up his streets and alleyways. He was so thorough in this regard that residents referred to him as the “sledgehammer,” a man who would not hesitate to demolish everything in sight. 

In short, the brothers were exactly what they seemed: two serious and useful men. In a later era, they might have been dismissed as dilettantes, but in the one they lived in, they were heroes. 

I suspect that when Terente’s severed head and penis arrived on the doorstep of the Institute, the specimens were warmly received as the ideal intersection of the brothers’ research. There was something there for each of them: another lewd tattoo for the youngest Minovici, another brigand skull to prod and pick at for the older, and a prodigious chunk of manhood begging to be embalmed according to the latest methodologies. The artifacts constituted yet another step in the sibling’s heroic efforts to bolster the reputation of their fledgling institution as a vanguard of modern scientific innovation, thus legitimizing themselves (and their country) in the eyes of Westerners. The penis would thereby play a small role in the nation’s new makeover, tugging it a little further from the East and a little closer toward Europe. 

I’ve often wondered what the brothers must have felt when they first opened up those shipments from their hometown. Did they feel any sympathy for this man, whose severed cranium they now cradled in their hands? After all, here was a creature who had come from the same place, born to an analogously poor and oversized family, from an ethnic minority much like their own. Was it at all easy to overlook these pointed overlaps in their biographies? Would either one of them, while staring into Terente’s shattered face, wonder: “Maybe I, too, could have been like him.” 

Once the penis had found its final resting place, inside a glass tube of formaldehyde, it was placed in the Institute’s museum, a relatively small room that professor Minovici had set aside for the instruction of future generations of physicians and coroners. There, the penis shared its shelf space with other relics that charted the restless obsessions of the two siblings. These included the glass jars filled with deformed fetuses and hydrocephalic infants crowded close together, so that bottles shivered whenever the trolley lumbered along the street outside, perhaps prompting some to wonder if the tiny souls were stirring. There were also skeletons of giants as well as of dwarfs, or rather children, who—according to legend—were kidnapped by gypsies, disfigured, and then forced to beg in the streets. There were a range of severed skulls that once belonged to famous bandits, murderers, and thieves (to which Terente’s head was dutifully added) all of them fruitlessly horded by Professor Minovici to substantiate his working theories on criminal anthropology.

The museum also accommodated various weapons, used for the purposes of both murders and suicides. These included all manner of slipknots (which the younger Minvoici had diligently classified in his treatise on strangulation), pistols, axes, knives and many other items still pregnant with destruction. Lastly, the museum also served as home to the blind and desiccated mummy of the Institute’s former night guard, who for decades had patrolled the morgue and laboratories with his lantern, and had selflessly offered his remains to the Minovici siblings in hopes of aiding their efforts in refining their practices of mummification. This way, even in the world beyond, he could continue to perform his duties, keeping vigil over his beloved institute, even though he now lacked the eyes to spot intruders.             

In 1985, the Institute was demolished at the instruction of Ceausescu himself in order to make way for a large highway christened, lamentably, “The Victory of Socialism.” At that time, the Ceausescu regime happily destroyed countless landmarks throughout Bucharest in order to manifest the dictator’s utopian visions. Allegedly, Ceausescu could not understand the purposes of such an Institute, and why dead people needed doctors in the first place. 

After considerable scrambling, The Mina Minovici Institute for Legal Medicine was moved to a new location in the southwest of the capital: a gray brutalist construction typical of communist 60s architecture. The old museum, complete with the manifold fever dreams of the Minovici brothers, was relocated as well. 

Terente’s pickled member survived the ravages of the dictatorship, as did many of its sad sister artifacts, including the mummified night guard and the shivering fetus jars. By now, of course, the museum and its many ghoulish relics have long lost their relevance to science. Instead, they merely stand there, alone, as the odd and incongruent survivors of a past wrecked by a great many forces. To me, this museum now merely expresses the piecemeal record of a place that has always been peripheral, a region that has long stood in the shadow of the world’s more central narratives. The histories of small places are easily pulled apart, minced and atomized by the interests of passing regimes, or the hallucinations of ephemeral autocrats. Whatever escapes this destruction is often random; merely the crumbs and scraps of a richer whole. 

In a sense, the outlaw’s grand endowment stands as the lone and homeless representative of a vanished world. His native swamps, and the great many monsters within them, have largely been drained and emptied by gulag laborers, and the eminent institution that chose to preserve his remains for posterity—that former jewel of medical innovation—has likewise been annihilated. The real and authentic parts of our story are few and far between. The rest is myth, so much of it in fact that it has not only superseded history, it has become history. Indeed, today, not even the penis itself is entirely real.   

In 2007, researchers at the Institute of Legal Medicine discovered that the octogenarian manhood was in fact deteriorating and, most concerning of all, shrinking from its formerly impressive size. In a hasty effort to save what they could of the famous artifact, they removed the flesh inside, and stuffed the skin (together with its memorable tattoo) with cotton and wire meshing. 

This seems like an appropriate, though largely expected, finale. It also does the best job, I think, of summing up our saga: impressive from the outside, but substantiated by little more than cotton balls.   

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