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A Few More of These Egyptian Carcasses: The Beginnings of Mummymania in Nineteenth-Century America

S.J. Wolfe

Senior Cataloguer and Serials Specialist, American Antiquarian Society

The first entire mummy arrived in America in 1818 in the possession of Ward Nicholas Boylston as a souvenir of his travels. In an era of four-page weekly newspapers, this was such an important event that within six weeks of the mummy's original appearance in the Columbian Centinel of 16 May 1818 the news had spread from Syracuse, New York, to Columbus, Ohio, to Charleston, South Carolina.

It would be five more years before another mummy arrived. According to the Boston Daily Advertiser of 3 May 1823, the Yankee brig Sally Ann sailed into Boston with a mummy that was presented as a gift to the city from a merchant in Smyrna. Officials quickly decided that the Massachusetts General Hospital was the logical spot for the artifact, and it was promptly used as "an appropriate ornament of the operating theater." The mummy's name was Padihershef and he had been a stonecutter at Thebes, although these facts were not known until well into the following century.



In order to raise money for the Hospital's free Dispensary, Padihershef was soon placed on exhibit in Boston, and then was sent on tour up and down the East Coast, from Albany, New York to Augusta, Georgia. Admission was 25 cents, children half-price, and the newspapers reported gleefully that thousands of people visited the exhibit. A very handsome stereotype of the mummy's coffin was made and used in newspaper advertisements.

From the Charleston,
South Carolina City
Gazette and Commercial
Daily Advertiser; 01-24-1824

While Padihershef was traipsing about, another mummy arrived in Boston. This was announced in the Boston Commercial Gazette of 8 January 1824. Captain Larkin Turner was the owner, but soon sold it to Ethan Allen Greenwood, proprietor of the New England Museum in Boston. Greenwood lost no time in sending this new mummy on tour throughout New England.

Six months later the shipping news column of the Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot for 15 June 1824 included the following information: "Brig Peregrine, Clark, fr Gibraltar, via Plymouth, with salt, wine, specie, &c. … The P. has two mummies on board." Obviously mummies were still important news.

However, not everyone seemed to agree with this idea. The 18 June 1824 issue of the Salem Gazette (quoting the Boston Courier) noted their arrival and commented "At this rate the flesh of mummy will be as cheap as that of dogs. The market is already glutted; a few more of these Egyptian carcasses, with a mermaid or two, and the stock of our museums will be as cheap as candidates for the presidency."

Greenwood, ever conscious of an opportunity to improve his museum collections, bought these two mummies and added them to his Museum. They were advertised in broadsides and remained part of the Museum's collection throughout its lifetime.

Padihershef returned to the Massachusetts General Hospital in the fall of 1824. His tour had begun successfully, but ended without making more than a few hundred dollars due to competition with other dead Egyptians.

One more mummy arrived in 1824, in New York City. In August of that year, Captain Larkin Lee brought a mummy and accompanying Egyptian artifacts to New York. They had been purchased from Alexander Grant by Capt. Lee in Livorno after Grant found them (according to the accompanying exhibition brochure) while "he was occupied with a company of thirty labourers, in ransacking the ruins of Thebes." This mummy had the distinction of being the first to be publicly unwrapped in America, on 14 December of 1824 at Castle Garden, New York before an audience of scientists and medical men.

After this, Captain Lee hired a Mr. Bishop to exhibit the mummy for him, while he went back to sea on a trip to West Africa. Lee perished on the journey from "anxiety," and for several years afterwards his executors sought in vain to procure any money from Bishop, who had absconded with both the mummy and the profits.

These early exotic imports were the beginnings of America's fascination with all things Egyptian, and the start of the phenomenon known today as "mummymania." Throughout the nineteenth century, mummies would be exhibited and exploited, first as curiosities, and then as commodities (their wrappings would be made into paper in the latter half of the 1800s). At the turn of the century, as Egyptology finally made its debut as a historical and scientific discipline in America, mummies were accorded a more proper context as cultural connections, linking the observer to their historical past, and making them a visible representation of ancient and Biblical history.

S.J. Wolfe is author (with Robert Singerman) of Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts (McFarland, 2009). Wolfe is a senior cataloger and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society. Over the past 20 years, she has been lecturing on ancient Egyptian culture and presenting mummy research at conferences such as the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing and New England Historical Association. Her articles published previously in The Readex Report include "A Few More of these Egyptian Carcasses" (2010), "'What Shall We Do Today, My Dear?'"--Popular Entertainment in Victorian America" (2007), and "Jackasses, Dogs and Dead Chickens: Vignettes of the Civil War Revealed in Ephemera" (2006).

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