Surfing the Spectacle

The Human Form Divine


For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is Man, his child and care

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

(from William Blake’s The Divine Image)

He goes out. He meets strangers. He smokes. He drinks. He listens.

He comes back with stories.

That’s what Charlie LeDuff does. He tells tales of broken lives, haunted dreams, dirty labor and tender friendships. He chronicles the human condition in all its staggering diversity, desire and heartbreak.


It’s a good hustle. He gets paid for it. And it’s usually The New York Times that writes the check.

Lately the stories have been coming through video. Teaming up with Time’s photographer turned videographer Stephen Crowley, Charlie has started to travel around the country finding people with a story to tell. In Detroit, a city that’s fallen on extremely hard times, Charlie introduces us to Mike Thomas, a working man whose business rises as the city falls. He is a body snatcher. A collector of corpses. And business has been good.


In Greek mythology, the ferryman of Hades was a gentleman called Charon. For a price, he rowed the newly dead across the river Styx into the underworld. Mike Thomas may be his modern day counterpart, winding through the delapidated crime-stricken streets of Detroit, picking up bodies and bringing them home to the morgue, each corpse fetching a $14 dollar payment from the city. Charon, however, had a notoriously grim disposition. Mr. Thomas hasn’t let the job take his heart or his mind.

He bears witness. He sings about it all. Check out the story and video here.


After the story appeared, Mike Thomas got canned. Turns out certain folks in the city would rather he kept quiet about the job he does for them. They are not pleased with the publicity. It’s causing a big stink in the papers. For now, our favorite body collector shares a fate as uncertain as his city.

We phoned Charlie and asked him a question:

Q: “You keep returning to Detroit for stories. What’s so important about Detroit?”

A: “Detroit is the story of what’s happening in the United States. Detroit is the birthplace of modern industry. It’s the birthplace of the assembly line. It’s the birthplace of the middle class. And it’s dying.

This isn’t facts and figures. It’s blood. It’s human beings.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *