November 12, 2009 — Since I started O.T.I.S. back in 2007, the two most recommended oddities that I’ve received from readers are the Winchester House in San Jose, CA, and the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, PA. A few months ago, I was able to cross the Winchester House off my list and will write about it soon, but the Mutter Museum I visited a while back. In fact, it was one of the first oddities I visited after starting this site.
Now, don’t get me wrong, seeing the Mutter Museum definitely made me want to sit on its front steps with a laptop and write up an entry on it then and there. However, I put it off due to their “no pictures” policy. After all, this is a grisly subject, and grisly demands pictures. However, I feel like every day there are like 12,000 articles published about the Mutter Museum, and I need to add mine to the cacophony before all the best observations, similes, and punch lines are used up. As a result, expect a lot of links to pictures from people with better press credentials or sneakier camera tactics.
I’ve been to my share of medical oddity museums since the Mutter Museum, but back then it was a first for me and completely the opposite of what I expected. Due to the macabre nature of its exhibits and, honestly, the curiously inelegant impression of its name, I figured the Mutter Museum would be a dark, cramped, slightly profane, and somewhat tawdry experience.
Instead, I was simultaneously delighted and disappointed to discover that it was a genteelly displayed collection surrounded by warm wood paneling, spotless glass cases, and the general aura of an auspicious library. I felt like I needed a velvet robe, a glass of sherry, and a monocle to walk around in it. Here's a link to a virtual tour of the museum. Feel free to skip the rest of this article.
The Mutter Museum is located at and run by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia at 19 South 22nd St., right in Center City. The museum originated as the private collection of Thomas Dent Mutter, a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College, also in Philadelphia. He donated his collection of medical specimens and anomalies to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1858, and since then, they’ve continued to add to the collection. According to their website, the Mutter Museum now has more than 20,000 items. Most of them gross.
The entire museum takes up only a few rooms of the building on two connecting floors. The first thing you see upon entering is a wall that looks like Attila the Hun’s trophy case. On prominent display in neat rows are a series of 139 human skulls. Apparently, this is another private-collection-turned-public, this time from a man named Joseph Hyrtl. I didn’t even know it was legal to collect skulls, and now I look at my collection of Happy Meal prizes with disgust.
Speaking of disgust, another major attraction in the Mutter Museum is a giant, distended colon. The thing is about nine feet long, 27 inches in diameter at its biggest point, and, when it was part of a living person, had more than 40 pounds of waste in it (sick, I know, but I can’t...stop...writing...about it). Of course, carrying around something like that inside his body eventually killed the man early in his life, but not before he was able to parade himself around at sideshows with inaccurately descriptive nicknames like the Balloon Man and the Windbag Man. Truth is more revolting than fiction.
These days, the preserved colon is stuffed with straw, but is no less repulsive. Just kidding. That makes it a lot less repulsive. Everybody describes it as looking like a giant worm, and in this case, the most obvious simile is the best. Postcards are sold in the lobby.
Also on display is the actual conjoined liver and a plaster death cast of the torsos and heads of Chang and Eng, the famous and original Siamese Twins, who were notable for a million reasons, but in this context because their autopsy was actually performed on site there at The College of Physicians. It’s kind of a full-service institution, that College of Physicians, and for that they get one of the most famous livers this side of Bill Wilson to boast about.
Impressively the Mutter Museum claims to have the tallest human skeleton (about seven and a half feet tall) on display in North America lurking within its exhibits. The “in North America” caveat definitely piqued my interest, but I haven’t been able to discover who in the world currently gets the gold in that Olympic sport. The human scaffolding at the museum shares a case with the three-foot-tall skeleton of a midget in an arrangement that screams sit-com buddies to me.
They also have the famous Soap Woman, the blackened body of a Philadelphia woman whose fat went through a environmentally instigated chemical transformation that literally turned her into corpse-shaped soap. I tried to do more research into that strange process, but kept coming across words like adipocere and saponification, which really didn’t clear up the matter for me of how a body can turn to soap, although I did learn that soap is made from animal fat in the first place and not ivory and Irish springs like I’ve been led to believe.
The important thing, though, is that she’s on display there in all her unabashed sudsy glory in a glass-topped coffin in the museum. On her face, instead of the grim, peace-of-death look that you get with a mummy or the mischievous grin of a naked skull, is the terrified expression of a rotted pumpkin. Man, describing things without relying on pictures is hard. I would trade way more than a thousand words for one of me standing with this exhibit.
Other highlights of the Mutter Museum include a cancerous growth that was removed from President Grover Cleveland, a piece of the thorax of John Wilkes Booth, the brain of a murderer named John Wilson, and tons of other similar items that would get anybody else who collected them the label of “ghoul.” It looks good on you, though, Mutter.
In fact, just about every item in the collection is worth individual article attention, and there are just too many diseases, deformations, dead babies, and other of God’s mistakes and curses on display to do the museum any kind of justice with a single article. Especially a picture-less one.
So now you no longer need to suggest the Mutter Museum to me, although it’s okay if you still want to or if you just want to send me your own clandestine pictures of the place to rub in my face. Finally getting to this topic does feel like cleaning out an old closet, though. That’s right, I had a seven-and-a-half-foot skeleton in my closet.