Philippi Stories and Tips

Death and the Maidens: The Philippi Mummies

Hamrick's Amazing Mummifying Fluid Photo, Philippi, West Virginia

"If she was buried in the earth, reasoned Miss Beswick, her death might prove to be only an illusion, a dreamless sleep . . . . She left, therefore, a large sum of money to Dr. Charles White . . . on the condition that the doctor should pay her a visit every morning, after what appeared, to uninstructed persons, to be her death, in order that he might be assured of the reality of this."
Edith Sitwell, English Eccentrics (1933)

Barbour County, West Virginia looks ordinary enough, with its broad river valley and trim little towns, but looks are often deceiving. Scratch the surface of this unassuming place and some singular oddities emerge, not the least of which are the Philippi Mummies.

Homemade Mummies in the Bathroom

Elsewhere I’ve written about the Barbour County Historical Museum, located in a restored train station just across from the Philippi Bridge. Well worth a visit for its wealth of historical artifacts, the museum is best known for two rather unorthodox residents: the Philippi Mummies. The mummies, housed in what was once a bathroom, are the remains of two institutionalized women. Ensconced in glass cases, the mummies are nameless, though when the National Geographic Channel’s "Mummy Road Show" visited the museum, the mummy sleuths discovered that lesions on the lungs indicated the women probably died of tuberculosis.

The story behind the mummies is convoluted, but this much is certain. In 1888, Graham Hamrick, a local storeowner and part-time undertaker, obtained the two cadavers from the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. Hamrick, who had developed a process for mummification, had previously conducted experiments on small animals, vegetables, and other items using his specially developed embalming and mummifying fluid. A devout Baptist, Hamrick claimed to have gotten the recipe from the Bible. He envisioned his embalming fluid as providing an easier and cheaper method of eternal preservation for the common man. Hamrick was convinced that his simple, inexpensive method of mummification would soon revolutionize mortuary science.

Hamrick treated a number of other corpses with his process, including a baby, though accounts vary as to how many mummies he actually produced. At one point, Hamrick offered his mummies to the Smithsonian, but since he refused to divulge his secret process, the institute turned down his gift. He found another interested party, however, in P.T. Barnum, who took Hamrick’s mummies on a tour of Europe in 1891. At some point during this tour, the mummies came to the attention of the Paris Inventors’ Academy, which elected Hamrick an honorary member. The following year, Hamrick took out a patent from the U.S. Patent Office for his mummification fluid. He displayed his mummies every chance he could get, but remained cagey about the secret to his process. All he would say was that a nickel’s worth of ordinary ingredients were all that was needed.

"Would you like to see the mummies?"

I’d just come into the Barbour County Historical Museum as Evangeline Poling, the docent, was concluding her spiel to a group of three elderly visitors, who seem baffled by her offer.

"Mummies? You have mummies?"

Mrs. Poling launched into an account of the chequered history of the Philippi Mummies. She told them all about Hamrick and his patented mummification fluid. She related how the mummies were ultimately passed on to Hamrick’s grandson in 1948, and how they were displayed each year at local fairs. Then in 1970, the mummies were purchased by "Bigfoot" Byrer, a local man who had long coveted these peculiar relics. He stored them at home, under a piano, until they were swept away in the devastating flood of 1985. Later found on a riverbank, the mummies were taken to the local funeral home for restoration. They were in terrible shape, covered with green mold and stinking to high heavens. Given chemical baths to combat the mold, the mummies were returned to Byrer, a little worse for the wear (both mummies lost their hair in the cleaning process). Byrer later donated them to the Barbour County Historical Museum. His only stipulation was that anyone who wanted to see the mummies had to pay $1, the proceeds to be divided between a football scholarship (Byrer’s brother had been the coach at the local high school), and the public library.

The trio of visitors hesitated when Mrs. Poling informed them of the $1 fee. After a long pause, one, a sickly-looking man with a cane, said he wasn’t interested. His wife, however, handed over a dollar and was led to the back of the museum for her viewing. Later, after the others had left, I spent an hour in the museum chatting with Mrs. Poling. Of course, I wanted to see the mummies and duly handed over my dollar for a viewing.

The mummies lie in state on a raised platform in what was once the train station’s bathroom. The white tile walls of the room are covered with clippings of articles about them that have appeared in newspapers and magazines. In contrast to their porcelain surroundings, the mummies are dark brown, their skin resembling old shoe leather. The remains are not so much gruesome as poignant, however. A few plastic flowers lie on the mummies’ chests but do little to alleviate their sinewy grimness. Their biers are lined with satin, but the contrast between the sheen of the fabric and the wizened limbs draws even greater attention to the mummies’ most salient characteristic: their undeniable deadness.

A shelf near the mummies holds a collection of items that have been immersed in Hamrick’s fluid, and these items, rather than the desiccated women, are almost ghastly in their lifelike state of preservation, particularly a large jar containing dozens upon dozens of perfectly preserved mice. I asked Mrs. Poling if I could take some photos, and she readily agreed, but my camera, as if refusing to participate in postmortem voyeurism, malfunctioned and the photos did not turn out.

The Fluid That Is Always Dependable

Before I left the museum, I purchased copies of a few pamphlets that Mrs. Poling showed me, a reprint of an article on Hamrick and his mummies, and photocopied testimonials regarding his patented fluid. Later that evening, as an owl hooted in the stillness outside my tent, I read these documents by flashlight, contemplating the saga of Graham Hamrick and his itinerant mummies.

In graphic detail, the testimonials told of the amazing preservative properties of Hamrick’s fluid. A mother and father recounted how their daughter, who had choked to death, had been preserved "in good condition and free from odor" after treatment with Hamrick’s fluid. Physicians in Ohio and West Virginia testified to the fluid’s ability to fight "decomposing influences." Most macabre, however, was the account of a burn victim and the use of Hamrick’s fluid in combatting the "offensive odor." I could not help but reflect that despite all the visual images of death that bombard us today, that in the 19th century, death was a much more immediate and tangible thing.

Among the documents was a leaflet extolling the properties of Hamrick’s fluid, including the claim the Hamrick had rediscovered the secrets of Egyptian mummification and even improved upon them. The fluid was touted as a germicide, deodorizer, antiseptic, and disinfectant. According to the pamphlet, its virtues included simplicity (no blood need be drawn during the mummification process), harmlessness (it could be drunk with ‘no evil consequences’), cheapness, and permanence (‘absolutely prevents decomposition’). At first, I assumed these claims and testimonials had been prepared by Hamrick, but a look at the date on the document –- 1913 -– told me otherwise.

Six Feet Under

In 1899, Graham Hamrick died, and the secret of his mummification process was bequeathed to his heir. Oddly, Hamrick never seemed to make any real attempt during his lifetime to profit from the process. At one point he even turned down an offer of $10,000 for his patent –- a considerable amount of money in the late 19th century. Whether Hamrick’s heir was able to cash in successfully on the mummifying fluid remains a mystery, but the story of Graham Hamrick himself has an ironic end.

Hamrick left a supply of his fluid, along with detailed instructions on how to use it, with several of his friends, who were charged with mummifying him after he died. His friends, however, were apparently too squeamish to carry out his instructions. And thus it was that Graham Hamrick, inventor of the "simplest and most efficient substance known to the scientific world for Embalming," was given a conventional burial.

His body lies in Mary’s Chapel Cemetery, just north of Philippi.

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