Millie Brown’s Tattoo: Sydney’s Link to a Quebec Controversy

Were it not for the long-dead woman at its center, this story, about a researcher being denied access to items by Quebec’s Musée de la civilisation, might not have been an obvious Spectator story.

But the items Jamie Jelinski, “an interdisciplinary scholar whose work focuses on the history of Canadian visual culture, most recently in the context of tattooing,” wants to see include a piece of human skin tattooed with an American flag over the initials “M.B.”

The initials stand for Mildred (Millie) Brown, a woman from Sydney, Nova Scotia who was murdered in Montreal in 1929.

Tattoos attached to wooden board

A screenshot from the “Portes Ouvertes” video showing the five tattoos, including Milly Brown’s American flag (top right corner)

How her tattoo ended up on display at the Musée de la civilisation, why the Public Security Ministry (which owns the collection to which the tattoo belongs) has denied Jelinski’s request to examine it, and what all this says about the ethics of displaying human remains and the rights of researchers to access museum holdings is really quite fascinating.


Mildred Brown’s death attracted a certain notoriety at the time because, as Jelinski told me when we spoke on Monday, it was a relatively rare instance of “woman on woman” crime — her killer was a 23-year-old waitress named Nancy Morrison, who also went by “Doris Campbell,” and was identified in at least one newspaper account of the case as “Dorothy Campbell (Nancy) Morrison,” none of which has made tracing her history easier.

Newspaper accounts of the case, besides showing the reporters’ fixation on Morrison’s appearance — she is described variously as “slender” “blonde,” blue-eyed” and “delicate” — state that she was originally from Stirling, Scotland; had married her husband, Alexander Morrison of Saint John, New Brunswick, at the age of 14; and had two children who, by the time of her trial in 1929, were nine and eight.

Morrison’s husband told the Saint John’s papers that she’d left him five years earlier, and that he hadn’t heard from her in “many, many months” when word came that she’d been arrested for murder in Montreal.

Newspaper headline

Headline from the Saint John’s Telegraph-Journal, 6 July 1929

With respect to Mildred Brown, the newspapers say only that she was 28, that she was from Sydney and that she lived at 205 Wellington in Street in Point Saint Charles, an Irish working-class quarter of Montreal. In an essay about the case to be published in an upcoming collection, Museums and the Working Class, Jelinski writes that it’s unclear why Brown moved to Montreal, but:

…by the late 1920s, the region’s shipbuilding, coal, and steel industries were declining and Cape Bretoners dispersed across Canada for employment. Women’s work outside the home was an established feature of Montreal life by the time she arrived.

On 3 July 1929, a Wednesday, Brown and Morrison were in a residence on Clark Street that doubled as a speakeasy (or a “Blind Pig” as the headlines would have it). According to newspaper accounts, the two spent most of the day drinking with a woman named Margaret Laird and two men: a ship steward named Thomas Stevens, who was Brown’s boyfriend, and a Maltese sailor named Emmanuel Borga.

At some point in the festivities, Brown accused Morrison of trying to steal Stevens and, after “comings and goings and continued drinking,” Morrison returned to the house, picked up a four-foot beam and hit Brown, who was by that time lying in bed “in a drunken stupor,” several times about the head and body. Morrison then extended a gruesome invitation to the others to:

Go and take a look at Millie now.

Brown, her skull fractured, was taken to hospital and died within hours. Police arrested Morrison, and a coroner’s court found her responsible for the death and sent her to trial for murder.

Newspaper accounts say Morrison’s husband and children were present at her 26 September 1929 court appearance, having arrived in Montreal by train the night before. Morrison pled guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter, telling Mr. Justice C.A. Wilson in the court of King’s Bench:

Millie Brown was my best friend but we were drunk. I am awfully sorry for what happened.

“Outside in a hall,” the Saint John Telegraph-Journal reported, “Mrs Brown, mother of the dead girl, was weeping hysterically.”

In sentencing Morrison, Justice Wilson stated that while facts revealed in the coroner’s and preliminary inquiry might have justified the original charge of murder:

It is true that there are circumstances which mitigate your terrible crime. Firstly, you were in a high state of frensy caused by an excessive absorption of liquor; and secondly, you did not intend to kill your friend. Your intention, apparently, was to give her a sever lesson on account of the accusation she had made against you. You lost your conscience and your nerves and you committed this dreadful act, presumably not realizing the serious consequences of it.

Wilson also noted that Morrison was young and was “strongly and with great sympathy recommended by persons who will see to you and your future after the expiration of your sentence.”

In the end, he sentenced her to five years in prison and in December, she was transferred to Quebec’s Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary to serve her sentence.


As for Mildred Brown, her body had been transported from the hospital to the Laboratoire Provincial de Recherches Médico-légales at the Montreal morgue.

The forensics lab — the first of its kind in North America — had been established in 1914 by Montreal physician Wilfred Derome. Derome, who held a variety of posts within the city’s medical establishment over the course of his career (you can read the full list in his Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry), studied forensic science at the Sorbonne in Paris in the early 1900s and returned to Montreal determined to establish a forensic investigation system in Quebec like the one he’d observed in France. In 1914, the province gave him the green light to do so and the result was the medico-legal lab.

Wildred Derome

Wildred Derome (Source: Université de Montréal, History of the Faculty of Medicine)

The reputation of the lab — and of Derome, who became widely sought after as a ballistics expert and renowned as a pioneer of crime-scene photography — grew nationally and internationally. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover visited Derome’s lab twice, prior to opening the FBI’s own forensic lab in 1932. And in Quebec, said Jelinski:

[W]hen you go back in the newspaper records, he was pretty much testifying in the coroner’s court on a daily basis. So, he held a lot of authority and there was pretty much no one overseeing his work.

In addition to a variety of instruments, Derome’s lab was home to “a library and a museum that displayed anatomical models and objects related to certain criminal cases.” At least, that’s the description from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, but it’s misleading to the point of inaccuracy because Derome didn’t collect “anatomical models,” he collected actual human body parts — including Mildred Brown’s tattoos, of which there were five, in total. Brown’s tattoos were added to a collection that included human skulls, bones, male and female reproductive systems and fetuses at various stages of development along with guns, knives, ropes used by suicides and instruments associated with illegal abortions. Jelinski noted, when we spoke on Monday, that what Derome was doing “was not totally abnormal for the period. Lots of doctors maintained anatomical collections.”

But in 1997, he said, when the lab loaned the entire collection to the Musée de la civilisation for 25 years:

I think…they were excited to have it but they didn’t really consider the implications of it.


Jelinski’s first encounter with Derome’s collection was in 2016. While writing his PhD dissertation (since completed) on commercial tattooing in Canada, he saw what he thought were drawings of tattoos from a collection owned by the Musée de la civilisation on a federal museum website.

He contacted the museum to ask about the exhibit and a curator told him the objects were not drawings, but actual pieces of tattooed human skin. When he requested permission to examine them in person, he was told the tattoos were part of an exhibition called Sortir de sa réserve: 400 objets d’émotion, featuring exhibits from a number of the museum’s collections, including Derome’s. Jelinski visited the exhibit in 2018.

Exhibit from Sortir de sa réserve: 400 objets d'émotion

View of the Sortir de sa réserve: 400 objets d’émotion exhibit showing the tattoos, taken by Jamie Jelinski on 6 March 2018.

He discovered (from an archivist at the museum) that a color autopsy photograph of Brown, her American flag tattoo visible on her arm, could be found in another item from Derome’s collection: his two-volume Album des causes célèbres (roughly, Album of Famous Cases). The archivist also mentioned that Jacques Côté, Derome’s official biographer (Jelinski said his book was funded by the Ministry of Public Security) had been given access to much of the material in the collection — including the Album.

“So, I’m like, okay, it’s been accessed in the past, [it] shouldn’t be a problem” said Jelinski, who wrote the museum for permission to see both items — the tattoos and Derome’s album — in person and this is where things got, if not stranger (I don’t think this story could get any stranger) certainly more complicated.

It took about a month to get an answer but the museum finally replied, telling Jelinski he could not access the objects in the collection. So he filed an access to information request to the Ministry of Public Security, the owner of the collection with final say over how it is — or is not — displayed and accessed, asking to see the Album des causes célèbres. 

And the Ministry of Public Security denied him access citing “all sorts of stuff,” according to Jelinksi, including that the material “had to do with law enforcement” although some of the cases in Derome’s album (about which, more in a moment) were over 100 years old.

Rather than discouraging him, the rejection hardened Jelinski’s resolve:

I’m telling you, all I cared about was this tattoo object. I didn’t care about all the skulls, I didn’t care about all the bones, I didn’t care about the men and women’s reproductive systems…I didn’t know about all that and all I cared about was the tattoos. And I wanted to know, simply, where did this come from? Who salvaged it? How did it end up here? I wasn’t really getting any answers and…I can’t let something go once I’ve latched onto it and so then I kept looking…


What Jelinksi found was that, over the years, members of the public — including journalists — have been given access to the collection and that, since taking it over in 1997, the Museum has displayed artifacts from it, including human remains, on multiple occasions, including an exhibit called “Autopsy of a Murder,” that traveled to two other Canadian museums.

Exhibit from Sortir de sa réserve: 400 objets d'émotion

View of the Sortir de sa réserve: 400 objets d’émotion exhibit after the tattoos were removed, taken by Jamie Jelinski on 5 June 2019.

Some of the journalistic coverage of the collection has been — as you might imagine — quite sensationalist, but I find that hard to criticize because Derome’s collection truly is full of what Jelinski termed “disturbing stuff.” In his essay, Jelinksi writes:

Crime museums of this sort sprang up across the world by the twentieth century. Police, criminologists, and doctors established them for reasons that ranged from research to signifiers of professional accomplishment. Generally, institutional crime museums were not open to the public, shielding them [from] outside scrutiny of their holdings. The collections these museums developed reflect the access those who managed them had to certain objects and the authority they had to retain and display them. Police kept evidence but did not typically have the ability to accumulate body parts in the same way that doctors like Derome did. The remains the physician collected came predominantly from that he had regular access to as a medicolegal physician: corpses of working class crime victims like Mildred Brown.

And while the lab museum “may have had an educational impetus,” writes Jelinski:

…peculiarities of the objects collected and display methods reveals that Derome and his successors considered aesthetic factors. Alike objects were grouped together and often affixed alongside one another on wooden supports, forming sculpture-like assemblages. Brown’s skin was nailed to a piece of vinyl that was then fastened to a wooden display plaque. Brown, or at least part of her, literally became objectified.

The line between science and art is really blurred in the volumes that constitute Derome’s Album des causes célèbres, which, said Jelinski, are “more like a scrapbooks of mementos. This wasn’t a log of photographs, he was drawing, they were really ornate.” You can get a peek at the pages of the book in this still shot taken from a 27-minute video about the collection that, until this week, was available for all to see on YouTube:

Page from Wilfred Derome's Album des cause celebres

Page from Derome’s Album des causes célèbres featuring the 1922 murder of Raoul Delorme.

Jelinski said that since he began prodding the Musée de la civilisation about the collection, it has taken a number of extraordinary steps, not just to block his access to the objects but seemingly to erase any record of past access.

Soon after he asked to see the tattoos in the Sortir de sa réserve: 400 objets d’émotion exhibition in person, for instance, the museum removed them from display. Emails between museum staffers accessed by Jelinski under a freedom of information request revealed concerns about artifacts that could be traced to actual people, like Brown’s tattoo. But as Jelinski pointed out, other readily identifiable remains — like the skull of Raoul Delorme, a famous Quebec murder victim from the 1920s — were left on display.

When he filed access to information requests to the Montreal Science Centre and Ottawa’s Ingenium, the museums which featured the “Autopsy of a Murder” exhibition mentioned earlier, asking for the installation photographs, the photographs of the remains that formed part of the exhibit (including poor old Delorme’s skull) were redacted.

The YouTube video cited above, part of the Musée de la civilisation’s “Porte Ouvertes” series exploring its various collections, was available for viewing as recently as Monday (I watched it) but has since been pulled.

I asked the museum to comment on Jelinski’s contention that it is denying him access it has given others (I also asked why the YouTube video had been pulled) but spokesperson Agnès Dufour told me in an email:

Unfortunately, we have to decline your request for an interview since representatives of the Museum are called as witnesses during the hearings before the Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec regarding this collection. Consequently, no interview will be granted until the decision is rendered by the said commission.

Jelinski’s cases — he’s made several access requests — will be heard by the commission during hearings scheduled for May and June.


Jelinski told me he thinks the Musée de la civilisation is particularly loath to give him access to Derome’s collection because, coming from Regina, he’s an outsider and the museum, as the provincially mandated museum of Quebec history, “has a vested interest in portraying Wilfred Derome in a positive light.”

And while he says he has no desire to “villainize” Derome, he thinks discussion of what the collection contains and how it came to exist is warranted — and valuable. Restricting access to researchers “who want to provide some sort of historical understanding” of the collection’s provenance, he said, just makes the museum look bad, especially when done on a case-by-case basis.

Quebec's Musée de la civilisation

Quebec’s Musée de la civilisation, 2016 (Photo by Jeangagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The ethics of holding and displaying human remains seems (to me) like the kind of subject an institution like the Musée de la civilisation would be well-placed to explore. As Jelinski notes in his essay, attitudes towards Derome’s collection began to shift decades ago, which Jelinski attributes to:

…shifting norms regarding the collection and display of bodily remains and the importance—or lack thereof—that Derome’s successors ascribed to them.

Museums the world over have had to deal with the issue — often, as in New Zealand, in connection to the remains of Indigenous people; most famously in connection to Egyptian Mummies, display of which, apparently, does not bother modern-day Egyptians.

Just last month, a fury erupted in Philadelphia over a set of remains thought to be those of two children killed in the 1985 police bombing of the headquarters of the radical Black separatist MOVE organization. As Billy Penn reported:

No one seems to be sure what happened to a set of remains thought to be two children killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing.

For decades, the bones were kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A Penn Museum spokesperson said the remains have since been transferred to the care of researchers at Princeton — but an administrator at the New Jersey university was uncertain of their whereabouts. After this story published, a spokesperson said Princeton does not have them.

Kate Taylor, writing about Jelinski’s case in the Globe and Mail, explores some of these angles at greater length.

Jelinski told me he is not opposed to artifacts, like Mildred Brown’s tattoo, being displayed, but they must be handled with care:

I think, first of all, is to have some sort of consultation with family members…make efforts to try and contact surviving family members and see how they feel about these one) not only being in a museum collection but also two) being exhibited, and if they have an issue with it, then you give it back or rebury it.

But if they’re fine with it being in a collection, then you have to provide the appropriate and accurate context as to how these things were obtained. But if you’re not saying, you know, “these objects were kept by Wilfred Derome from X, Y and Z murders,” you’re not giving the full picture of what was actually going on…[I]f you’re displaying [human remains] you have to appropriately contextualize them and give viewers the right information…

Which brings us back to Mildred Brown.

Jelinski said he hasn’t been able to get to Cape Breton to do the necessary genealogical research and the census rolls he’s consulted turned up “quite a few Mildred Browns.”

The little additional information he’s been able to gather, to date, has come largely from records kept by the Hawthorn-Dale Cemetery in Montreal, where Brown lies buried in an unmarked grave. Hawthorn-Dale is a private cemetery that was “essentially a place for poor people to be buried,” said Jelinski. Even today, the cemetery is a journey from Montreal proper but back in 1929 would have been “extremely far out to get to — it’s almost at the tip of Montreal Island.”

That Brown is buried there, without a headstone, suggests to Jelinski that her family didn’t have a lot of money. He wasn’t able to view the original cemetery records, but was provided a transcription that showed Brown’s plot was purchased by “a relative of some sort named Charles James Brown.” Her father is listed as “the late James Brown.”

Jelinski said that if anyone in Cape Breton knew more about Mildred Brown, he would be very interested in hearing from them (let the Spectator know and we’ll put you in touch) because where he started out “purely interested in the tattoos,” he now wants to write a standalone book about the entire Derome collection, including the photography, the scrapbooks and the autopsy reports (Derome kept his own). Of the museum’s response to his requests he said:

In some ways, they’ve done me a favor because they’ve led me to a good research topic unintentionally