April 26, 1865: John Wilkes Booth dies
… or did he? As questioned by this LIFE Magazine article:
The cadaver shown on the opposite page is the mummy of a house painter named John St. Helen who committed suicide in Enid, Okla., Jan. 13, 1903. His mortal remains, embalmed with arsenic, are now a main attraction of Jay Gould’s Million Dollar Spectacle, a carnival traveling the Midwest. The carnival bills the corpse as that of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who shot Lincoln.
Officially, Booth was shot as he tried to flee a burning barn near Bowling Green, Va., on April 26, 1865, twelve days after the assassination. But the story persists that the man shot was not Booth, that Booth escaped and live for years in the Southwest. Usually he calls himself St Helens, though sometimes he said he was the son of Marshal Ney who, according to legend, fled France and settled in North Carolina. St. Helen confessed that he was Booth to Finis Bates, later Attorney General of Tennessee, who obtained his corpse after his death and rented it to carnivals. Bate’s widow sold it for $1,000. It has changed hands many times since, bringing bad luck to its owners. One went broke and was killed in a hold-up. The present owner, Joseph B. Harkin, a former Tattooed Man, lost a comfortable fortune since he bought the mummy for $5,000 in 1932. Since he joined Gould’s show last year, however, his fortunes have changed. The mummy is a big attraction.
In 1931 a group of doctors examined the corpse and found that it had certain marks which Booth had: short left leg, distorted right thumb, scar on neck. But these findings did not convince historians, who generally pooh-pooh the story, agree that this mummy is not and never was the body of John Wilkes Booth.
Dun. Dun. Dun.
This story is no longer news, but still fascinating.
Check out this slideshow on Discovery News about the pyramid-shaped pile of bodies—nearly 300 total, about 100 of them naturally mummified—found in a church crypt in the mountain town of Roccapelago, Italy.
The History Blog also has an article about it:
The unusual preservation was due to a confluence of the consistently cold temperature and two slots in the church wall that kept the air constantly circulating. The vaulted crypt — used as an armory when the church was a fortress in the Middle Ages — was first used for traditional inhumation under ground, but the practice later changed to corpses being dropped from a trap door in the church.
Image: Photograph by Paolo Terzi/SBAER, via the History Blog.
These mummy pictures make me kind of sad for him. At least his hair is awesome.
Did you know there are mummies in Korea? I didn’t, until I found this article from 2007 on National Geographic. (Apparently, archaeologists didn’t, either, until the bodies started showing up, as old cemeteries were moved to make way for new houses in the recent construction boom.)
This person lived about 500 years ago and was found in South Korea. According to National Geographic, the mummification is perhaps the result of a burial practice that evolved in 14th-century Korea:
“The people believed the body should dissolve in a natural manner, without external factors such as worms,” said Mark Spigelman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is known for his pioneering studies of ancient diseases found on mummified bodies around the world.
“This is why they developed a special burial custom.”
The method involves laying a body on ice for 3 to 30 days during mourning, placing the corpse inside an inner and an outer pine coffin surrounded by the deceased’s clothes, and covering the coffin in a lime soil mixture.
“In some cases, this inadvertently resulted in extremely good natural mummification,” Spigelman added. “They didn’t expect mummification and, in fact, that’s the one thing they wouldn’t want.”
This method—unlike the artificial (and brittle-making) mummification processes used in ancient Egypt—resulted in mummies that are relatively pliable, with better preserved DNA. Researchers were even able to take samples from one mummy of the virus that causes hepatitis B, which could pave the way for research that might help modern-day sufferers of the disease.
A more recent discovery—featured in the Daily Mail—is this lady, who is also believed to be about 500 years old:
She was found in Osan, in South Korea’s Gyeonggi Province, with her purse.
This is remarkable: a Chinese “wet” mummy dating from the Ming dynasty. The story’s a year old, so it’s not really news.
See the whole slideshow and learn interesting things, including this:
During the Ming dynasty, preservation after death was thought to “reflect your purity” in life, [historian Timothy] Brook explained.
Had this woman’s family known her body would be preserved for more than 600 years, they would have been extremely proud, he added.
There are a few additional pictures in this article in the Daily Mail.
Photo by Gu Xiangzhong, Xinhua/Corbis.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science offers some background on this Tarim Basin mummy:
Beautiful “Baby Blue,” an 8 month old boy, was lovingly placed in a red-purple blanket and wrapped securely with red and blue twisted cord. The baby’s eyes were covered with rectangular blue stones. His blue felt cashmere cap with a red felt lining encircled a tiny face that was covered with paint. A few strands of brown hair with red highlights escaped from under his bonnet. “Baby Blue” lived during the 8th century BCE.
Quigley’s Cabinet also notes that his nose was plugged with red wool and that he was buried with a baby bottle made of sheep’s udder.
Infant mummy, ca 8th century BCE. Excavated from Zaghunluq, Charchan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China. © Wang Da-Gang.
This is the Siberian Ice Maiden. She lived (probably nomadically and definitely tatted-up) on the steppes of Siberia sometime around the 5th century B.C. She was likely in her twenties when she died, and she was buried in the spring.
She was found in 1993 along with six horses and much finery. Fortunately for her discoverers, her grave flooded, causing a 2400-year-strong block of ice to fill out her hollow burial chamber. Unfortunately for you, I do not have a better picture to share.
She may have had the elevated status of a priestess in her community based upon the items found in her chamber. The Ice Maiden’s preserved skin has the mark of an animal-style deer tattoo on one of her shoulders, and another on her wrist and thumb. She was buried in a yellow silk tussah blouse, a crimson-and-white striped wool skirt with a tassel belt, thigh-high white felt leggings, with a marten fur, a small mirror made from polished metal and wood with carved deer figures, and a headdress that stood nearly three feet tall. The size of the headdress necessitated a coffin that was eight feet long. The headdress had a wooden substructure with a molded felt covering and eight carved feline figures covered in gold. There were remains of coriander seeds in a stone dish that may have been provided for the Maiden’s medicinal use.
Others have speculated that the coriander seeds were meant to disguise the corpse smell.
Unfortunately #2, the handling and transport of her body after its discovery did not proceed without serious hiccups. From NOVA’s article “Unquiet Mummies”:
Soon after the Siberian Maiden was found, for example, her protective shroud of ancient ice melted away and she began to decay. Preserved intact for two millennia, she was now assaulted by airborne fungus and bacteria, dehydrated by low humidity, and struck by the first sunlight she’d seen in thousands of years. […] Within days it became apparent to the Russian archeologists who had discovered her that the mummy was degrading rapidly.
They helicoptered her to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, but the unrefrigerated delay, including almost a week of transport, took its toll. Even in the freezer labs of Novosibirsk the mummy slept uncomfortably. Hardy fungus attacked air-exposed skin and began to damage it. Desperate to stop the decay of their prize, Russian scientists chose to inter her in the same kind of pickling vat that preserved the bodies of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.
The Ice Maiden is one of several Iron Age burials found in the Pazyryk Valley, in Siberia’s Ukok Plateau. You can read more about the Pazyryk burials here.
Image source: Wikipedia.
“The Beauty of Xiaohe,” female mummy, ca 1800-1500 BCE. Excavated from Xiaohe (Little River) Cemetery 5, Charqilik (Ruoqiang) County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China. © Wang Da-Gang.
This mummy has been preserved extremely well, with the entire body covered in an even layer of thick, milky white substance. The “beauty” has thick, flaxen hair that has grown long down to the chest. Except for the head, calves, and feet, the entire body was wrapped in a wide, white wool cloak. She was buried with three small pouches that contain broken pieces of ephedra, a kind of evergreen shrub with medicinal properties, and a wooden phallus was placed on her chest.
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