“I’ve gone places and seen things that most people don’t,” Barbara Butcher says. That’s a mighty understatement, given that she spent 22 years working as a death investigator for New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. As she gazes at the panoramic view from the windows of her high-rise apartment in Brooklyn, she muses, “I can look at any given building and say, ‘Oh, that was the guy that had the drug overdose’ or, ‘There’s the guy who got stabbed.’” But despite such horrors, she loved the job. “If you’re going to investigate death, New York City is the place to do it,” she says.
Butcher began as a medicolegal death investigator, eventually becoming director of the Forensic Science Training Program, logging countless hours at death scenes all over the city while “getting some justice for people and getting some answers for families,” she says. Butcher chronicles all of this heartbreak, drama, intrigue—and occasional humor—in her spellbinding memoir, What the Dead Know: Learning About Life as a New York City Death Investigator.
Butcher’s job, she explains, was not to solve murders but to investigate all of the circumstances surrounding deaths. While forensic pathologists determined the cause and manner of each death, Butcher scoured bodies and their surroundings for clues, such as signs of violence or disease. Having worked on “perhaps 5,500 cases,” she decided it was finally time to write about them during COVID-19 lockdown. “I remember all of them,” she says, including “naturals,” murders, accidents and suicides—which she says she always found disturbing. A particularly wrenching story involved an older Jewish woman who jumped off of her apartment’s roof, leaving no note or clues about her last act. “This woman had survived a concentration camp, the loss of home and country,” Butcher writes. “What could make her want to kill herself after all these years?” Throughout the book, Butcher’s descriptions are vivid yet respectful, reflecting the dizzying array of human experience.
What Butcher most loved about the job was getting to witness exactly how people lived. “Once someone’s dead, they can no longer hide anything from you,” she says. “So, being a nosy person, I get to go in there, investigate how they died and look at how they lived—go through their possessions for identification, medications, things like that.” She found herself in every kind of setting, from multimillion-dollar penthouses with priceless artwork to apartment bedrooms crammed with multiple bunk beds and hammocks strung between them. She has climbed into railroad tunnels to access caves where people had set up housekeeping. She has ventured to the Whitehouse Hotel, which was a “flophouse” with hundreds of cubicles that she recalls as “pieces of plywood with chicken wire on top, and that’s where people lived and died—literally a warehouse for humans.” Both during our call and in her book, she repeatedly bristles at the long-standing discrepancy in investigative resources. There will be few resources dedicated to, say, “a young Black woman who is a sex worker found murdered in the back alley of the Javits Center,” she says, while a “white girl from a wealthy family and murdered on Park Avenue will be on every headline and police blotter until it’s solved.” She adds, “I don’t think anyone should be lost to history, and perhaps that’s why I picked the cases that I did.”
“Every day is a disaster waiting to happen. Every little footstep outside my door is a potential serial killer.”
Once Butcher began working on her book, she found that writing about cases was decidedly easier than writing about herself. To deal with the many troubling situations that she encountered, she developed a steely detachment, which worked well for her career but caused repeated problems in her personal life. “I don’t do vulnerable,” she says. “That’s not my thing.” At her editor’s insistence, however, she added more intimate details into her manuscript, revealing, for instance, that she experienced depression and suicidal thoughts as teenager. Butcher also describes how her childhood love of science led her to become a physician assistant and then a hospital administrator, but she lost that position after she began to drink heavily. Her life was decidedly off the rails when she turned to Alcoholics Anonymous, whose career counseling service suggested that she should become either a poultry veterinarian, of all things, or a coroner. She scheduled an informational interview with Dr. Charles Hirsch, the legendary NYC Chief Medical Examiner, who hired her on the spot. “Alcoholism had landed me my dream job!” she writes.
“I’ve noticed these things in my life,” Butcher says, “where something bad happens, but out of it, ultimately, I’m steered in a better direction.” In fact, she even came to believe that her experiences with alcoholism helped hone her investigative skills. “We’re always hiding everything,” she says, referring to people with substance abuse disorders, “and so we know what’s hidden.”
Dr. Hirsch soon became a beloved mentor. “He was like a father, a brother, a friend. Just so much about him was so good,” Butcher says. His guidance was essential, especially since Butcher was only the second woman to take on her role in Manhattan, the first having left after only a month. She worked hard, as she writes, to fit in as “one of the girls who is one of the boys.” Over the years, Butcher was ribbed for showing up at death scenes in Talbots suits, but she prided herself on looking professional and found that it helped move investigations along. There were jokes, too, about her name, but she calls her surname “a great gift from my dad,” who was a policeman. She loved arriving at scenes and saying, “Butcher from the Medical Examiner. What d’you got?” and still chuckles about the time when an intern named Slaughter tagged along.
“When you’re surrounded by death and evil and murder and horror and tragedy, you accept it as the norm.”
This sense of humor also comes through in Butcher’s writing. What the Dead Know contains numerous one-liners such as, “You learn to think outside the box when the box contains a dead person.” Explaining the need for such dark humor, she says, “You have to deflect the pain and the sadness.”
Butcher was suddenly forced out of her job in 2015 when Bill de Blasio became mayor of New York and made his own appointments. “I miss it every single day,” she says. “I crave it. I long for it. It got to the point where I was thinking, ‘Well, if things go really, really bad, they’ll have to take me back—like during a nuclear attack or something.” She laughs at her desperation but adds, “Yeah, I miss that job. It was absolutely fantastic. Having said that, I will also say that it ruined me emotionally.”
Over the years, Butcher began to see calamity lurking at every turn. “The PTSD is god-awful,” she admits. “Years of therapy have mitigated it somewhat, but the thoughts are still there. Every day is a disaster waiting to happen. Every little footstep outside my door is a potential serial killer. When you’re surrounded by death and evil and murder and horror and tragedy, you accept it as the norm.” As for her own death, she speculates, “I’m fairly certain that I’ll be hit in the head by a stray bullet while trying to save a child from a river crossing. . . . It will be something dramatic, I’m quite certain.”
“If you have an amazingly cool job that you really love and enjoy, and you get to do a little good in the world—well, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
Butcher sank into a deep depression after leaving the Medical Examiner’s Office, eventually requiring hospitalization and electroshock therapy, which she recounts in her book. “Ultimately, creativity is what saved me,” she says. “I took some piano lessons. I took dance lessons. I did things that were creative and fun and the opposite of death. I think that is part of why I wrote this book now. It’s a way to create something that may take me out of this feeling of being so totally bereft.”
Meanwhile, Butcher has two more books in the works. The first is a novel based on a story from her investigative life. “I have a theory of what really happened, so I have to fictionalize it,” she says. The other is a nonfiction exploration of the sorry state of death investigation in the United States. Butcher says she abhors the fact that about 60% of the country is served by elected coroners (as opposed to medical examiners), some of whom have no higher qualification than a high school degree. “That is why it is often easy to get away with murder,” she says, “if you are clever enough to make it look natural.”
“I think almost everyone is interested in death on some level,” Butcher says, “because it’s going to happen to everyone. Some might imagine that I have some insight into it, but I don’t, of course.” Regardless, she’s extremely proud of the work she’s done throughout her career. “If you have an amazingly cool job that you really love and enjoy, and you get to do a little good in the world—well, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
Headshot of Barbara Butcher by Anthony Robert Grasso.