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Chicago-area school to unveil photos, coffins, artifacts in horror writer's 'Death Collection'

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EVANSTON, Ill. - Acclaimed horror writer Michael McDowell couldn't get enough of death.

He collected photographs of people after their demise, whether from natural causes or after crossing paths with someone with a noose, knife or a gun. He gathered ads for burial gowns and pins containing locks of dead people's hair. He even used a coffin housing a skeleton as his coffee table.

Now Northwestern University, which months ago purchased the "Death Collection" McDowell amassed in three decades before his own death in 1999, is preparing to open the vault.

Researchers studying the history of death, its mourning rituals and businesses that profit from it soon will be able to browse artifacts amassed by an enthusiast author Stephen King once heralded as "a writer for the ages."

McDowell's long career included penning more than two dozen novels, screenplays for King's novel "Thinner" and director Tim Burton's movies "Beetlejuice" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

"We are very removed from death today, and a lot of this stuff we see in this collection gives us a snapshot in how people have dealt with death generations ago in ways very different from today," said Benn Joseph, a manuscript librarian at the school. "We look at it nowadays and think this is inappropriate or gory ... but when it was done, it was very much acceptable."

Joseph and others spent months getting the 76-box collection — one containing a child's coffin — ready to be studied. The archive, which officials said ultimately will go on public display, includes at least one artifact dating to the 16th century: a Spanish painting of a dead boy, his eyes closed, wearing a cloak with a ruffled collar.

The school bought the collection from McDowell's partner for an undisclosed price.

There are photographs and postcards from around the world. One, taken in 1899 in Cuba, shows a pile of skulls and bones. In another, a soldier in the Philippines poses with a man's severed head.

There also are reminders of the infamous. Photographs show the people convicted of conspiracy for Abraham Lincoln's assassination being hanged, with dozens of soldiers looking on and the U.S. Capitol looming in the background.

Some pictures are gruesome, including one of a man whose legs are on one side of the train tracks and the rest of him in the middle. But much of the collection is devoted to the deaths of regular Americans and how they were memorialized in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There are, for example, dozens of photographs that families had made into postcards of their dead children. Dressed in their finest clothes, many appear to be sleeping, absent any hint of the pain some undoubtedly experienced in their last days. Some have their eyes open, serious looks on their faces.

Weirder still, at least by today's standards, is McDowell's collection of what were called "spirit" photographs that include both the living and a ghostly image purportedly of a dead person hovering nearby.

In one photograph, Georgiana Houghton, a prominent 19th-century medium, shakes hands with an apparition of her dead sister. She explains the photograph "is the first manifestation of inner spiritual life."

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