SiteBitsCitiesPhiladelphiaDispatches ⇒ Mutter Museum, Philadelphia

Mutter Museum, Philadelphia

Guest post sent by Keith A. from Philadelphia | Published : 13/Apr/2007 03:30

We stayed the night in some nondescript motel between Philadelphia and the piercing gaze of a psychotic looking twenty-foot-tall Grandma and her man-headed little girl, which had been situated in the parking lot of a country restaurant near Centralia, PA. Staring out the window of the motel, I couldn’t help but feel like she was still gazing at me through slightly disapproving eyes. The next morning was sunny and blue, and after a quick breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, we loaded up and decided to head into Philadelphia for a taste of the country’s colonial history.

The particular taste upon which I was chewing at the moment was the three-foot-tall skeleton of a dwarf with the much tinier skeleton of another dwarf fused to its side. Jamie was rifling through a cabinet filled with things that had been extracted from people’s noses and throats, a collection that bore testament to America’s seemingly unquenchable hunger for safety pins and buttons. Jamie commented that the people who swallowed such things were probably just “fast-ening” for Lent, while I, as retaliation, pronounced such observations “thoroughly fasten-ating.” This prompted her to tell me to “button it,” and nothing got any better from there.

This was the Mutter Museum, nestled inside a perfectly noble-looking old academic building that houses the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The museum -- a gloriously jumbled collection of medical specimens exhibiting the dizzying number of horrible things that can go wrong with the human body -- traces its origins back to 1849, when a Dr. Isaac Parrish pronounced that the College should found some sort of an archive to store information and specimens that might otherwise be lost to science during the steady procession of time. From 1849 until Parrish’s death in 1852, the collection grew rapidly, but upon his death interest seemed to wane in amassing material. That was until 1856, When Dr. Thomas Mutter, a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College, retired from his profession due to ill health and announced that he had acquired rather a large collection of items during his many years as a physician and teacher and could think of no safer home for them than the late Parrish’s museum. Apparently his wife or whoever else may have been sharing the house with him at the time didn’t want him moving his collection into the den, and I sympathized. When I moved to New York from North Carolina, I had to sell off my collection of outdated computers from the 1970s and 1980s for lack of storage space.

A few months before the good doctor’s death at the age of 48, he and the College came to an agreement which required that the museum be moved to a fireproof area and properly cared for. In exchange, the museum received Mutter’s entire collection of bones, skulls, preserved specimens, wax models, and dried corpse bits, as well as a $30,000 endowment. In 1863, the museum opened in its new location, unaware that some 150 or so years later, it would be a popular destination for curious medical students and punk rockers in Texas Chainsaw Massacre t-shirts.

That the museum was founded during the Victorian era was undoubtedly essential to it becoming what it is today. Collecting medical oddities for public display is generally frowned upon in these more sensitive times, and surgeons who keep bits and pieces of their patients for private menageries aren’t looked at so much as building an educational display for the present and the future as they are regarded as some sort of hideous ghoul with a shed full of eyeballs. But the Victorians were a different lot, and gathering such harvests was a legitimate pursuit as medical science struggled to emerge from the Middle Ages and enter the modern age. It wasn’t exactly a smooth transition, but whatever the case, collecting and examining random bits of this and that has always been the hallmark of a science about to take a significant step forward. What was the Royal Society of Newton and Hooke, after all, but a collection of natural philosophers who, in between inventing calculus and rebuilding London, sat around in a big hall while members brought forth whatever strange piece of the world they found curious or amusing, be it a particularly interesting tree fungus or a shrunken head brought back from some rum-soaked sailor who had been on an ill-fated expedition to the New World. Science depends on inquiry, and inquiry has not always been what you’d call scientific, but it got you going down the right road most of the time.

Jamie was busy devising a scheme to get around the “no photography” rule, which wasn’t so much for the protection of the collections as it was for the sanity of the visitors. Although the Mutter Museum may have been the domain of researchers and Carcass death metal fans before, extensive coverage of the place in a variety of travel books and television documentaries meant that by the time Jamie and I arrived on the doorstep one fine morn, the place was packed, and not just with freaks. Relatively normal looking couples wandered the rooms, as did parents whose children had grown weary of stories about Founding Fathers in powdered wigs and demanded something a little weirder to hold their attention.

The museum did its best to educate them as they entered, providing a history of the medical hardships faced by the Lewis and Clark expedition and displaying the medical instruments of the time. One would think that the sight of bone saws used to hack off gangrenous or otherwise spoiled limbs without much in the way of anesthetic beyond a piece of leather on which to bite down and a bottle of whiskey would strike terror in the heart of a man, but the quarter-inch thick “urethral probe” next to the bone saw was far more menacing.

About half way through the display, the curator gives in to what people demand, and one gets to marvel at a whimsical procession of wax models of human body parts suffering from hideous diseases and lesions.

Past the Lewis and Clark exhibit, we came into the main hall of the museum, a square two-story room done in the rich wood tones and warm lighting one expects in your finer Victorian academic salons. Cabinets lined the walls, floor to ceiling, displaying an overwhelming number of wax casts, actual skulls, and preserved “wet specimens” floating in jars of mysterious fluid. Well, probably not that mysterious, but I was too lazy to ask. We gawked at a wax sculpture of a woman who had a rhino-sized brown horn growing out of her forehead, and then at photographs of a man who had the legs and lower torso of a conjoined twin growing out of his abdomen -- and keeping developmental pace, oddly enough, so that by the time he was a full-grown adult, he was lugging around a full-grown adult twin’s legs and belly. It was hard not to get lost in somewhat seedy and inappropriate consideration at the site of such abnormalities. It would have been a pretty rotten load to bear, I thought, but it might not have been so bad if he actually had motor control of the extra legs. The photo didn’t explain, but Jamie doubted the man was able to flip up onto the legs of his half-formed twin and take off in a sprint. I still thought it would have been worth a try, anyway. Below the impressive collection of wax heads and arms suffering from myriad lesions, boils, cancerous growths, fissures, and poxes were a few wet specimens of standard lunchroom fare like hands and feet suffering from “moist gangrene” -- as if gangrene needed to be made any less appealing, Jamie said -- and the malformed fetuses that seem to have been the bread and butter of the wet specimen world at the time, though I personally would not want to use them as either bread or butter.

The other side of the mezzanine, which formed a square above the main floor of the museum, was filled with skulls. Most had been bought in 1879 from Professor Joseph Hyrtl of Vienna and reflected some malady or another, “malady” sometimes being a round ball of lead embedded in the skull. That same year, the museum and college hosted the autopsy of famed “Siamese Twins” Eng and Chang, formerly of North Carolina, where their bodies were returned, thus exempting them from display at the museum -- though there was a nice plaster cast of the two and a lengthy postcard and photograph display that described the life of the twins, who by all accounts got on quite well and, despite having since become a symbol of man’s cruel lack of consideration for the handicapped, made considerable advances as spokesmen for the cause of treating the “deformed” as regular people.

Another of the walls was devoted to recording the health problems and surgeries of American Presidents and other political bigwigs. This was largely a photographic display, with placards informing on everything from Warren Harding’s mysterious death to Ronald Reagan’s colon, with actual bladder stones from Chief Justice John Marshall and pieces of John Wilkes Boothe’s thorax, which had been removed during the autopsy conducted by Philadelphia surgeon Joseph Janvier Woodward. Considerable time was devoted to the details of Grover Cleveland’s secret surgery in 1893 to remove a cancerous growth from his jaw, which was performed on a yacht sailing up Long Island Sound with the American public being told the President was on a jaunty, gay outing. The secrecy of the procedure was in sharp contrast to the procedures discussed on the Reagan display. I remembered quite vividly watching the surgery on national TV. I was surprised that the Mutter Museum hadn’t managed to get a piece of Cleveland’s growth, or the jaw, or something. At least, that’s what I was thinking right before I noticed that the tumor was sitting there on the shelf, along with a larynx mirror and something called a “cheek retractor.”

Another display case contained skull drills and other devices used to extract stillborn babies from their mothers, but the less said about that, the better.

The final wall of the area was occupied by one of the museum’s prize possessions: the Soap Lady. She was like having a mummy in a natural history museum, a real feather in the cap, so to speak, though at this point I was sure “feather in the cap” was probably some hideous 19th century deformity that caused huge, dripping pustules to form on a person’s head. Or something to that effect. I commented to Jamie that if I could invent my own wretched afflictions, they would be “feather in the cap” and something known only as “mummy face.”

The Soap Lady was donated to the museum in 1874 by Dr. Joseph Leidy, an anatomist at the University of Pennsylvania who had come across the body when it was stumbled across by workers removing corpses from an old cemetery. Leidy determined that the woman had died sometime during the previous century, and for several decades the display was accompanied by a placard that explained, “The woman, named Ellenbogen, died in Philadelphia of yellow fever in 1792 and was buried near Fourth and Race Streets.”

This turned out not to be the case, and in 1942 the story was corrected. The woman, whose name was unknown, had died during the 1800s. The museum curator at the time, Joseph McFarland, uncovered the fact that there were no reported Yellow Fever deaths (examples of which were plentiful elsewhere in the museum) in 1792. There was an outbreak in 1793, but no woman by the name of Ellenbogen was reported among the dead. Putting the final nail in the coffin of the original story was a simple bit of research that turned up the revelation that there had never been a cemetery anywhere near Fourth and Race Streets, not even one where just the headstones were removed and Craig T. Nelson ended up living in a nice suburban home on top of it. Several state-of-the-art x-rays and inquiries later, not to mention an appearance on the documentary television series, Mummy Road Show, less is known about the Soap Lady’s past than previously, but then, since most of the previous information was made up, maybe everything is just about even.

What was known, however, was why she is called the Soap Lady, and that’s because at some point after she died, she turned into soap.

Not necessarily the sort of soap with which you’d want to scrub your face, but various grooming guides insist that using soap on your face is bad for you anyway, regardless of whether it’s store-bought Irish Spring or something chipped off the mummy of a dead fat lady. Fat, it so happens, has traditionally been a key component in the manufacture of soap. It previously came from whales and rarely if ever, I assumed, from humans. The process of “saponification” requires a precise combination of factors including humidity, temperature, the presence of clothing, and bacterial activity, to turn fat into “adipocere,” sometimes referred to as “grave wax.” The Soap Lady, whoever she might have been in life, was apparently toting around a good deal of fat. Upon her death, the cause of which has yet to be accurately determined, the conditions in her casket just happen to be the right mix to cause her fatty tissue to transform into soap.

In 1908, the museum began construction on its current home on 22nd between Walnut and Market Streets, and in 1986 it got the renovation and face lift that turned it into the Mutter Museum in which Jamie and I now wandered. The bulk of the museum’s items are in two rooms on the lower level, so having sated ourselves on goiters and cracked skulls, we descended the grand staircase and immediately came face-to-face with the infamous 40-pound-colon of the “Balloon Man,” and Jamie stated emphatically that coming face-to-face with a colon, be it giant or Ronald Reagan’s, was something to which she can’t say she ever looked forward. This particular colon, measuring roughly 27 feet long and, by my estimation, a foot wide at the largest bulge, was extracted from a man who suffered chronic constipation throughout his life and died with forty pounds of compacted material lingering in his lower intestine. I once heard the same thing about Elvis and John Wayne, but I was pretty sure that was an exaggeration.

“You know,” I said to Jamie as she marveled at two nightmarish little dried toddler corpses that were strung up like marionettes with outstretched arms and upturned heads in a redwood display case near the giant colon, “I want you to remind me that I need to get regular check-ups. The sheer number of things that can go wrong with the human ass is staggering.”

“I think you’ve just written the slogan for the next prostate exam ad campaign. I can see it on buses all across town.”

Touring the lower level, I was aghast to see a human fetus that was so deformed so as to look like a fetal pig or a tiny elephant with a snout growing out of its forehead. After reading the informational card next to the specimen, I realized the reason it looked so much like a fetal pig with a snout growing out of its forehead was because it was, in fact, a fetal pig with a snout growing out of its forehead. How it had gotten in there among all the human fetuses I don’t know, but the museum was somewhat random in its order, which I’ve always appreciated in a museum. It’s my opinion that they should function like someone’s attic. Better cataloged, but still somewhat jumbled and haphazard in their presentation. It gives me a greater sense of exploration and discovery that way, as opposed to clinically arranged, logically ordered displays.

I lost Jamie momentarily to the cabinet full of things people had swallowed or shoved up their nose. Although safety pins and buttons seemed to compose the bulk of the collection, there are plenty of other things that someone, somewhere thought looked appealing enough to shove into an orifice. Tiny trinkets shaped like horses and steamboats (“Did someone swallow a Monopoly set?” Jamie remarked), coins of various sizes and values, bits of meat, rocks and nuggets, hatpins, and so forth.

“When I was in elementary school,” I told Jamie, “there was this kid named Randy.”

“Oh God. Only you could have a story that somehow relates to something at the Mutter Museum.”

“I guarantee you, my dear lady, this story contains no encephalitis-inflicted skulls,” I said, applying the standard “old time Southern lawyer” accent I frequently used to begin a story, often accompanied with me hooking my hands around the lapels of whatever jacket I might be wearing at the time. “We used to get a cup of peanuts with lunch on certain days, back before they thought that might upset kids with allergies. Maybe you know the one.”

“I am from Georgia, you know.”

Randy decided to see how many peanuts he could stuff up his nose. He had a pretty big nose, sort of wide and flat, like a boxer who taken one too many poundings in the face. I never cared for peanuts, so I was more than willing to donate my legumes to the cause. I don’t remember how many peanuts Randy got up there, but given his nose and determination, I imagine it was quite a few. Well, whatever the number, it was one too many, because he couldn’t get them back out, and they had to call an ambulance. Rumor had it that the EMT blew pepper in Randy’s face, causing him to sneeze and shoot the peanuts out like machine gun bullets. I’m sticking with that version for now.

This being 1979 or 1980 or some year like that, things were different. Nowadays, if a kid did something idiotic like that, they’d probably give him a special certificate or award to make him feel good about himself. Back then, though, they knew a thing or two about discipline. They called our entire class into the cafeteria, then made Randy roll a peanut around the entire place with his nose.

“That’s ridiculous! Even for Kentucky,” she said.

“You could say it was cruel and degrading, but the kid never shoved peanuts into his nostrils again, and we all had a good laugh about it.”

“Hey, how about this one, then?” Jamie said as she opened one of the drawer and was greeted by a couple peanuts.

“Amazing!” I exclaimed. “So Randy was really just carrying on a fine Victorian tradition, and we never knew! I could also tell you about the Smartie eating contest. We used to have contests to see how many packs of Smarties you could cram into your mouth at one time. But you couldn’t get away with just cramming -- you also had to be able to eat them all without having the gooey pastel mess spill out into a drooly mess down the front of your Chewbacca t-shirt.”

“I’d really rather not hear this right now.”

“You’d be amazed how many packs of Smarties a kid can eat at one time. One kid claimed he ate so many Smarties that he went to the bathroom and crapped Smartie candies. That’s probably in this museum somewhere, too.”

A woman standing near us was staring open-jawed at a tiny half-formed fetus and muttering, “Oh my God. Oh my God,” to herself. I thought looked on the verge of fainting. “Jenny, you have to see this. It’s so...sad!” she half-called, half-whispered to a friend who had been busy herself with examining a deformed head floating in a jar. Jenny walked over, looked at the tiny bundle of white tissue floating in yellowish fluid, squinted as she drew closer in an attempt to make out what she was looking at, and then, upon realizing that it was a diminutive deformed fetus fused to a uterine wall, burst out into uncontrolled laughter, which I suspect was not the reaction her more sensitive friend expected.

Past the dried child corpses in rapturous repose toward the heavens, and beyond the cabinet full of a man whose head had been sliced into cross-sections for better examination, and away from the incongruous and completely inexplicable presence of a realistic model of a rattlesnake that had nothing to do with anything else in the museum and must have been placed here by mistake or because some patron insisted that the museum could display his giant skeleton only if they also displayed the statuette of a rattlesnake his grandfather had bought for him at a gift shop out west, we came to settle on a cabinet surrounded by a group of teenagers giggling uncontrollably at the contents: a dried human penis. Of considerable size, I might add. No man would want to lose such a thing.

“Well,” Jamie said with a hint of curious amusement in her voice, “is this your way of coming on to me?”

“Yes,” I answered. “The dried penis next to the half-dozen fetal skeletons has worked for me so many times before. I just can’t give it up.”

“Mm-hmm. And how does yours measure up?”

“Not nearly as big, but not nearly as mummified.”

“There’s another ad slogan in there,” she said, “for Cialis maybe.”

“For all we know, given this museum, that thing was growing out of the middle of some guy’s chest, or where his nose was supposed to be.”

“Or it sprouted up on his hand instead of a thumb. Well, once again, you sure know where to take a gal for fun.”

I shrugged. “I think it’s about time for lunch.”

Although Philly Cheesesteak seemed a requisite choice, we opted instead for an Irish pub where our discussion of the merits of a human head sliced up like a cold cut was not entirely appreciated. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich drenched with Swiss cheese, bacon, and Guinness brand BBQ sauce. Jamie showcased her opinion of the traditional woman’s tendency to just have a salad, by ordering an oversized chicken pot pie. We sat and watched a rugby match involving Samoa, and I made a note about never wanting to find myself in a situation where I look up and see a Samoan rugby player running toward me at full-speed, or at any speed, really.

I wanted to see Independence Hall and find that Ben Franklin impersonator I’d seen on any and every show about traveling to Philadelphia, but he was nowhere to be seen and Independence Hall was sealed off behind a block’s worth of steel barricades, chainlink fences, metal detectors, armed guards, and security search checkpoints. I couldn’t help thinking that if Ben Franklin wasn’t already dead, this foul display would surely have driven him to the grave, or at least back over to France and into the welcoming arms of some big-bosomed French woman in a towering powdered wig.

“I bet he would have enjoyed that museum, though,” Jamie said by way of attempting to soothe my displeasure.

19 S 22nd St
Philadelphia, PA 19103