In February of 2012, two duct-taped camping coolers—the kind you might take on a picnic—arrived at Delta Cargo, a freight-shipping warehouse on the northeast side of Detroit Metro airport. The airline’s ground crew tossed the coolers onto a pallet in a climate-controlled storage area. But the tape split, and a reddish liquid splattered out. Because the shipment was said to contain “five human heads with necks, two torsos, and one whole body,” it soon proved to be an expensive leak, requiring extensive biohazard remediation.
It seemed improbable that an entire body could fit inside two picnic coolers, so they pried open the lids. Inside were eight human heads, wrapped in trash bags and sitting in what appeared to be pools of blood. Eight faces, no names.
The United States is an excellent place to be in the body business. By one 2007 estimate, 20,000 human bodies are donated here annually. These donations come about directly. You can bequeath your body to anatomical gift programs operated by many universities, and you may become the “first patient” a surgeon operates on. Donations can also be arranged after death, through a network of independent firms, although in such cases your family may have only a vague notion of where your body will end up. Brokers do business with other brokers, who work with funeral homes and crematoriums that, in turn, get referrals from hospice centers—all of which means that, invariably, some donated remains end up dismembered, beheaded, and shipped around the world for profit.
You cannot legally sell a dead body—yours or anyone else’s. These brokers, instead, turn a profit off a corpse by charging for the service, not the actual goods. Their fees cover the “preparation” of cadaveric material as well as the “matching” and “placing” of remains. These re-allocation fees were once designed simply to cover the cost of transporting remains to and from medical schools.
Anytime a commercial vessel is lost, the incident is recorded with a quill pen in a leatherbound book at Lloyd’s, a London institution that blends age-old ritual with modern finance. Contrary to common belief, Lloyd’s isn’t an insurer, or even a company in the usual sense of the word. Since its origins in a 17th century coffeehouse popular with traders who funded sea voyages, Lloyd’s has evolved into something like a stock exchange for risk, where actual insurers come to buy and sell exposure. These companies form syndicates and get insurance of their own from even larger re-insurers, who are re-re-insured in turn. These layers constitute one of the world’s most essential and least understood markets, where premiums alone generate about $40 billion a year. Anything that might be lost or cause a loss, from Bruce Springsteen’s voice to a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, can be insured via Lloyd’s, but shipping remains at its core. Some 80 to 100 major vessels are lost each year, and the Brillante was one of the largest of 2011.
If you already don’t trust the ways some big banks invest your money, Wells Fargos’ treatment of customers won’t increase your confidence. At Vanity Fair, Bethany McLean reveals the widespread corruption among Wells Fargo salespeople, and the way staff high up the corporate chain tolerated it. Between 2011 and 2015, bankers created over 1.5 million deposit and 565,000 credit-card accounts without customer approval. Employees blamed the company’s intense culture, and internal complaints made little difference. In 2016, Wells paid a $185 million fine, yet it admitted no wrongdoing, and it didn’t immediately eliminate its retail product sales goals. So what changes have been made to protect its customers? And why should anyone trust them again?
Guitron says that customers began coming to her, complaining about getting mail from Wells Fargo on accounts or services that they had never authorized. “People knew me and knew I could fix the problems,” she says. A common denominator, according to Guitron, was that most of the customers were Spanish-speaking, like her, so they didn’t feel comfortable going to management in English.
“All the tellers and staff knew it, but no one else would complain,” Guitron says. “People needed the job. So did I, but I knew right from wrong.” On September 19, 2008, she sent an e-mail to her branch manager. “I have come across instances where I’ve opened accounts and shortly after they are closed and new sets of accounts are opened,” she wrote. “I find NO banker notes to explain why this is happening. I am very concerned as I know this to be GAMING!!!” She collected approximately 300 printouts of accounts that were problematic in various ways, she says, such as a minor having more than a dozen accounts. But, according to Guitron in legal documents, her manager would say only, “It’s a misunderstanding.” Or “You need to mind your own business.”
Nothing changed, so Guitron requested meetings with more senior executives. Overall, she claimed that during her tenure at Wells Fargo she raised concerns on more than 100 occasions, including about a dozen calls to the Wells Fargo EthicsLine, and on no fewer than 37 occasions she provided records that supported her complaints. Guitron alleges that her managers began to retaliate, making it harder for her to meet her sales goals. She was fired in January 2010.
In 2011, Diederik Stapel, a bright social psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, was suspended for fabricating data on a study that brought him much praise. At the Guardian, Stephen Buranyi profiles the team of researchers from the university’s psychology department, Chris Hartgerink and Marcel van Assen, who have since focused their research on scientific fraud.
Stapel had a knack for devising and executing such clever studies, cutting through messy problems to extract clean data. Since becoming a professor a decade earlier, he had published more than 100 papers, showing, among other things, that beauty product advertisements, regardless of context, prompted women to think about themselves more negatively, and that judges who had been primed to think about concepts of impartial justice were less likely to make racially motivated decisions.
His findings regularly reached the public through the media. The idea that huge, intractable social issues such as sexism and racism could be affected in such simple ways had a powerful intuitive appeal, and hinted at the possibility of equally simple, elegant solutions. If anything united Stapel’s diverse interests, it was this Gladwellian bent. His studies were often featured in the popular press, including the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and he was a regular guest on Dutch television programmes.
But as Stapel’s reputation skyrocketed, a small group of colleagues and students began to view him with suspicion. “It was too good to be true,” a professor who was working at Tilburg at the time told me. (The professor, who I will call Joseph Robin, asked to remain anonymous so that he could frankly discuss his role in exposing Stapel.) “All of his experiments worked. That just doesn’t happen.”
Journalist Mike Sager originally wrote this article in 1999 as a long project for Rolling Stone. When the magazine killed the story for lack of page space ─ not an uncommon practice in magazine publishing ─ Sager published it in his first collection Scary Monsters and Super Freaks. “In a world of subjective editors,” Sager wrote via email, “it’s a good lesson for all freelance writers, one that continues to give me strength as I enter the 40th year of my journey along this beloved but difficult career path.” Our thanks to Mike Sager and Thunder’s Mouth Press for allowing us to reprint the story here, which comes recommended by Longreads contributor Aaron Gilbreath.