Cultures have displayed human remains as part of their mortuary practices and as gruesome trophies since ancient times. Today human remains can be seen in museums, in churches and ossuaries, in universities, and even in art galleries. Though certainly ethically dubious, there are a few odd places across the country where human remains can be seen and have become part of local folklore. Below are some of the strangest places human remains are displayed today – I’m sure there are tons more out there.
Mummies in a Public Bathroom
In the 1880s, Graham Hamrick, a farmer and part-time undertaker in Philippi, West Virginia, experimented with embalming fluid on fruits and vegetables and animals in order to find the best method for preserving human remains. When he felt like he had perfected his formula, Hamrick used it on two cadavers he obtained from the local insane asylum. Hamrick’s preservation of the corpses was successful and the mummies traveled the U.S. and Europe with P.T. Barnum’s circus. The mummies attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institution, which offered to exhibit the mummies if he disclosed his embalming formula. Hamrick refused so his technique died with him. Local legend claims that the mummies were stored in a barn for several decades until “Bigfoot” Beyer, a Philippi local, acquired them and stored them under his bed. When a nearby river flooded and soaked the mummies, they were left to dry out on a clothesline on the lawn at the local post office, and a local funeral director used a concoction from an embalming company to restore them. Beyer died a few years later without ever claiming the mummies so they ended up with the Barbour County Historical Society in Philippi. The historical society displayed them in glass-topped wooden coffins in the small bathroom of the local museum and they became known as the “Mummies of Philippi.” According to rumor, Air Wick discs are supposedly kept inside of their coffins to hold off the smell of the bodies.
Mortimer the Skeleton, a Restaurant Mascot
Mortimer has been a fixture at The Restaurant on Grumbles Alley in Selma, Alabama for decades. When Dianne Smitherman bought the restaurant in 2005, she inherited Mortimer from the previous owner who had been displaying him at his different businesses in the area since 1976. There are a few stories about Mortimer’s origins. One version claims that this skeleton belonged to a Native American and another states that he was a Confederate officer who deserted his post rather than fight the Union Army. Some of the legends claim that a farmer unearthed Mortimer on his land and used the bones to pay a medical bill. In 2011 JoEllen Roberson, a nurse midwife, examined the skeleton and found that Mortimer was indeed a anatomical specimen in a physician’s office. She believes this skeleton is a composite of different bodies because some of the remains, like the skull and feet, are not in proportion to the others. Roberson also found that the skeleton itself stands 5’10”, far less than what was expected. Despite Roberson’s findings, John Sumners, a Montgomery pediatrician, believes that skeleton belongs to his great-great-great-grandfather, John Ellis Sumners, who was rumored to be 6’6″. In 1856, the elder Sumners, who worked as a minister, judge, and state legislator, was traveling through the Selma when he became ill and died. According to family rumor he was buried in Selma but his corpse was exhumed and studied by a physician because of his unusual height. Roberson removed a piece of his hallux (big toe) for DNA analysis, but right now the toe remains in limbo. Roberson said she was not able to send it for research as planned, and she cannot mail it back to the restaurant because of laws regarding the transportation of human remains.
Mummies in a Curiosity Shop
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in Seattle, Washington has a male and female mummy on display that they’ve nicknamed “Sylvester” and “Sylvia.” In 2001 and 2005 researchers from the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University, in New Haven Connecticut conducted CT and MRI scans of the mummies.
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop acquired Sylvia in 1970. Joe James, owner of the shop, says that “Sylvia” is a white European female who was approximately 30 years old, and her body was found in a Central American cave. When the team scanned Sylvia’s 20lb body they found that it was typical of an un-embalmed mummy and that her organs were “blob-like.” The CT scan also showed that Sylvia died of tuberculosis. James says that “Sylvester” was a white male, who died when he was around 45 years old and was found half-buried in the Gila Bend Desert in 1895. According to a picture card that was part of the Norman Prather Collection, Sylvester’s body likely traveled the country as a circus attraction. The shop purchased the 120lb mummy in 1955 and was exhibited at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
CT scans of the mustachioed mummy revealed small, but well-preserved brain and internal organs, and that someone at least partially embalmed this body with an arsenic-based fluid shortly after death. Sylvester has pellets in his right cheek and neck, and one in his lung. The size of the pellets is consistent with shotgun pellets. The team believes that this shooting likely happened years before his death due to the lack of visible injuries to his skin. They also found a metal fragment under his collarbone that may be a piece of a bullet from another shooting. According to a 2005 Seattle Times article, they don’t know what caused his death.
References: Answers pieced together in mystery of Selma restaurant’s skeleton. (2011). Retrieved on August 6th, 2014: http://blog.al.com/wire/2011/07/new_answers_in_mystery_of_selm.html Mummies of Philippi. Retrieved on August 6th, 2014: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/mummies-of-philippi Anthony T. (1993). Mystery mummies Retrieved on August 6th, 2014 from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=266&dat=19930622&id=FNsrAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Z2QFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4754,4695266 Ervin, K. (2005). CT tells mummy’s secret: Preservation no accident. Retrieved on August 6th, 2014: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2002634994_mummy20m.html Watrous, J. (2001). Med Center unravels mummy mystery. Retrieved on August 6th, 2014: http://dailyuw.com/archive/2001/04/30/imported/med-center-unravels-mummy-mystery#.U-J84VZP3qs