Mummies of Philippi

August 13, 2007 — I have witnessed with my own eyes the mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and rested a hand and an ass (both mine) on the pyramids that housed them.  I have seen firsthand the impressive collection of mummies displayed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  I have seen just about every movie starring Christopher Lee or Boris Karloff that is relevant to this topic.  I have even ridden the fabled Revenge of the Mummy ride at Universal Studios, Orlando.  My name is Gomez Addams, and I have seen mummies.  I am telling you all this for the sole reason of proving to you that I have the ultimate standard of comparison against which to make the following statement: The coolest mummies I have ever witnessed were in a tiny, white-tiled bathroom in a map stain of a town located in the upper part of the weirdness somebody at some time decided to call West Virginia.

The Biblically named town of Philippi is known for exactly three things (besides the usual historical battles that every town on the entire East Coast touts mercilessly with their tiny-printed and rarely read street-side metal signs).  The first is that it’s home to a covered bridge that is apparently notable because of its age, history, and design.  Second, it was the boyhood home of Ted Cassidy, who played Lurch on the original Addams Family television series (and which fact, unfortunately, makes my Addams Family Values joke from the first paragraph a bit less random than I would usually like).  And third, it has a pair of 120-year-old glass-encased mummies shoved inside the bathroom of an old train depot (unless you’re reading this in the year 2028, in which case the mummies are 140 years old).

And, sure, these West VA mummies are partly amazing because of the fact that they are located in the most non-intuitive place imaginable.  But, even more important, these mummies aren’t mere venerated-royalty-turned-archaeological-treasure or even random, naturally mummified corpses like they dredge out of bogs and other icky places.  These mummies are the remains of two insane women purposefully mummified by a farmer using only grocery-store ingredients...for no real good reason. 

 Man, I told you they was cool.  Why don’t you ever believe me?

Here’s why the Mummies of Philippi exist.  In 1888, Graham Hamrick, a local farmer and guy-with-weird-urges, got this idea in his head to invent a cheap, safe embalming fluid.  Because the world needed it, I guess.  He commandeered two recently corpsed female asylum inmates from the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane back in the days when they knew how to name an institution and used a secret concoction he claims was created using only a nickel’s worth of ordinary, easily obtainable ingredients.  It worked.  He went on to die.  The cadavers went on to live.

The Internet tells the tale that after Hamrick’s own corpsing (non-embalmed, I might add—actually, I am adding), the mummies ended up being stashed in random, unsubstantiated places like in old barns and underneath beds and on the staffs of various bureaucratic officials before arriving at their current residence in the bathroom of a museum in Philippi.  However, at one point in their trek they did end up with odd-meister P.T. Barnum, who toured them around Europe for a while in his “Look at the Silly Things Americans Like to Do” exhibit, although the Internet is undecided on whether this was before or after Hamrick’s death.

My trip to Philippi was actually a side trip on my mission to Point Pleasant to see the Mothman Statue.  Philippi’s located at the junction of U.S. Rt. 250 and U.S. Rt. 119.  To enter the town from that direction, you cross the aforementioned Philippi Covered Bridge that spans the Tygart Valley River. Directly on everybody’s right after the bridge is a small train depot that has been turned into the Barbour County Historical Museum.  That’s where the mummies are. 

You don’t even have to really enter the town itself to visit them.  Unless you need gas.  Or Slim Jims.  We needed neither, so we parked at the museum and went inside.  It’s free to enter, and we didn’t see anybody inside right away, so we stumbled to the back and found a door with a sign announcing the existence of the mummies inside and asking for donations of a dollar a person to see them.  Not knowing who to give the donation to, we just went in.

The room used to be a bathroom when the building was a train depot; now it just contains a sink and a raised platform bearing the mummies in glass cases with flowers placed reverently on their chests.  Old newspaper articles on the mummies were tacked to the wall, and there were jars with contents relevant to the story of Graham Hamrick and his miraculous, drinkable embalming fluid. 

The bathroom was small, so it was a private enough experience to be somewhat uncomfortable after a bit, considering what I was sharing the space with. The mummies were shriveled and brown and exactly like every Internet picture of them.  After a while, I started realizing that I’m still, even at this point in my life, not sure what the answer is to the question, “How long can a person stare at a dead body until it becomes inappropriate?” I’ve never really felt it more keenly than at that moment, so after we got our eye full of desiccated ex-people, we left the room and allowed the mummies to go back to whatever they do when they’re not being gawped at by curiosity-seekers.

We had almost exited the museum when we ran into a woman in a, well, ornate hat. It was a complete drunken bird’s nest of flowers and pins and ribbons and such. You’ve seen the type of woman who can wear a hat like that caricatured before, I’m sure.

She was a tidal wave of information. She took us by total surprise, terrified us, inundated us, and then left us clinging to a tree three miles inland wet and gasping in exhaustion.  She told us the story of the man who won the design contest for the covered bridge by suspending his proffered model between two chairs and standing on it, illustrating how trustworthy the actual bridge would be. She gave us a mini-history lesson on Philippi’s place in the Civil War.  She offered the mummies for our viewing pleasure and directed us to the jar where donations were meant to be deposited.  And she informed me about Lurch and showed me a few family-album-type pictures of him.  He had a moustache in one.  For that bit of revelation, I will be forever grateful that we weathered her storm.  By this time, though, fresh blood had entered the museum and she went for it, giving us the out to throw money in the jar and continue to Point Pleasant.

So if you’re ever near Philippi, question the series of events in your life that got you there.  But after that, go see the mummies in their native habitat.  I don’t want those mummies to ever leave that bathroom, but something tells me that it won’t be able to contain their coolness for much longer.