Former Death Investigator Barbara Butcher: How to Approach an Autopsy

Barbara Butcher was early in her recovery from alcoholism when she found an unexpected lifeline: a job at the Medical Examiner’s Office in New York City. The second woman ever hired for the role of Death Investigator in Manhattan, she was the first to last more than three months. The work was gritty, demanding, morbid, and sometimes dangerous—and she loved it. WHAT THE DEAD KNOW: Learning About Life as a New York City Death Investigator is the page-turning memoir of Barbara Butcher’s more than twenty-year career.


Butcher (yes, that is her real name, and she has heard all the jokes) spent day in and day out investigating double homicides, gruesome suicides, and most heartbreaking underage rape victims who had also been murdered. In WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, she writes with the kind of New York attitude and bravado you might expect from decades in the field, investigating more than 5,500 death scenes, 680 of which were homicides. In the opening chapter, she describes how, just from sheer luck of having her arm in cast, she avoided a booby-trapped suicide. Later in her career, she describes working on the nation’s largest mass murder, the attack on 9/11, where she and her colleagues initially relied on family members’ descriptions to help distinguish among the 21,900 body parts of the victims.


This is the fascinating and stunning real-life story of a woman who, in dealing with death daily, learned surprising lessons about life—and how some of those lessons saved her from becoming a statistic herself. Fans of Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, and true crime won’t be able to put this one down.

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