NYC medical investigator’s learned about life probing death

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Barbara Butcher came back to life by investigating death. 

In the early 1990s, Butcher’s alcoholism had left her in “disgrace,” crashing in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment and losing good jobs as a physician’s assistant and hospital administrator.

She often imagined her own suicide, going so far as to fire an empty handgun at her temple.   

Eventually, she was able to control her drinking through Alcoholics Anonymous, and a connection there suggested she try vocational rehab to find a new career.

A test that was part of New York’s Employment Program for Recovering Alcoholics suggested Barbara become either a vet tech or a coroner. 

“I’ll take coroner!” she exclaimed, as Butcher writes in “What The Dead Know: Learning About Life As A New York City Death Investigator” (Simon & Schuster).  

In 1992, she embarked on a 22-year career as a medicolegal investigator (MLI) with New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME). 


A test that was part of New York’s Employment Program for Recovering Alcoholics suggested Barbara Butcher become either a vet tech or a coroner — she opted for the latter.
Anthony Robert Grasso

“I scrutinized the scenes of fatal accidents, suicides, and homicides to determine cause and manner of death. And I loved every minute of it,” Butcher writes.  

Investigating New York City’s dead took her to every corner of the city, from Bowery flophouses to Park Avenue penthouses.

At the Whitehouse Hotel, one of the downtown’s last SROs (single-room occupancy), Butcher investigated the death of an elderly man in a tiny room who likely expired from poverty and hunger.

Meanwhile, in lavish digs in Soho, there was a moneyed woman so thin the only explanation was that she didn’t eat. 


In 1992, Butcher embarked on a 22-year career as a medicolegal investigator.
In 1992, Butcher embarked on a 22-year career as a medicolegal investigator.
Courtesy of Barbara Butcher

“She died of starvation, a wealthy woman in the richest neighborhood of the most expensive city in the world,” Butcher writes. 

Barbara was only the second female MLI in New York City, but if her colleagues tried to frighten her with gruesome stories and pictures, she never flinched.

She worked the death scenes of the Carnegie Deli Massacre and the crash of American Airlines flight 587 crash in Queens, both occurring in 2001, as well as the fatal crash of the Staten Island Ferry in 2003.

For more than a year she focused on the remains of those lost at the World Trade Center on 9/11. 


Butcher worked on many crime scenes, including the 2001 Carnegie Deli massacre.
Butcher worked on many crime scenes, including the 2001 Carnegie Deli massacre.
New York Post

She writes that her job those days was to “find them, name them, honor them.” 

Throughout Butcher’s career, there were dead of every kind.

There were lost hoarders, trapped in piles of their own things, including one who so valued his collection he booby-trapped it to prevent theft.

Unfortunately, that man tripped one of his own wires and perished under a pile of his own junk, his Rube-Goldberg death machine working exactly as planned. 


Butcher worked at the crash site of the 2001 American Airlines flight 587 crash in Queens.
Butcher worked at the crash site of the 2001 American Airlines flight 587 crash in Queens.
Getty Images

“Stuff will kill you,” Butcher writes. 

Sex becoming deadly — or “bad boy games,” Butcher liked to call it — was a regular occurrence.  

“No one was more persistent than those who were driven by sex to try exciting new things,” she writes. 

She saw men who had apparently died in the throes of auto-erotic asphyxiation, adventurers who wrapped themselves in latex but suffocated when their breathing apparatuses failed, and kinksters who desired to be electrocuted but ended up shocked to death.   

“In the land of the dead, I felt alive.”

Barbara Butcher

She was once sent to an East Village crime scene only to discover the murder victim was a friend of hers, the superintendent of a building where she did community theater. 

One young man threw himself from a Wall Street window and died when crashing into a headstone at the Trinity Church cemetery.

Another asked a real estate agent to see one-bedroom apartments with high balconies, and then he hurled himself over the side of one.


Butcher investigated the scene of the 2003 Staten Island ferry crash.
Butcher investigated the scene of the 2003 Staten Island ferry crash.
Getty Images

At the Marriott Marquis, with 48 floors of hotel rooms opening on a huge atrium, numerous people leapt to their deaths. (One reportedly yelled, “Tell them to watch out below” before jumping.) 

As for the murders, they were myriad. In 1992, New York City had 2397 of them, compared to just 434 in 2022.

“I saw two or three homicides a day, in addition to the usual suicides, accidents, and naturals.” 

Perhaps the only thing that got Butcher and her co-workers through their grim days was dark humor. 

An old man who expired in an adult movie theatre was described as having “came and went.”  


What the Dead Know: Learning About Life as a New York City Death Investigator by Barbara Butcher
Barbara Butcher wrote “What The Dead Know: Learning About Life As A New York City Death Investigator.”

When Butcher was investigating the dismembered body parts found jammed into two Coleman coolers in The Bronx in 1998, she asked a nearby cop for help. 

“Eddie, could you give me a hand? Oh, never mind, I found one,” she said to groans.   

She didn’t give up, though. When Butcher found that the coolers did not include any lower extremities, she noted there wasn’t “even a foot to hang a toe tag on.” 

While the dark humor was an attempt to process the daily deluge of death she faced, Butcher was always respectful to the lost.

And, she realized, the job had been her salvation. 

“In the land of the dead, I felt alive.” 

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