I had a friend living in Pennsylvania who offered to show me around Philadelphia so I took her up on the offer. I got up early and drove to Philly where I found her text messaging me in front of the station. Traffic forced me away from her before I could yell out the window and I spent the next three rounds circling the block to regain contact. She jumped in and I set off to find parking, which was really easy.
Katherine had planned a visit to the Mutter Museum, which is a museum of biological oddities, originally intended to educate physicians-to-be. It’s not real obvious from the side walk but Katherine had been there before. We walked in, paid our admission, put on our little visitor tags and continued on. I had wanted to visit the Mutter Museum since I was 11 or 12 and saw a segment on TV about it. Here you could see a plaster death cast of the first famous Siamese twins, Chang and Ang (I’m hoping I remembered that right.) Also was their pickled uni-liver. Other things I had already known about was a ginormous bowel from someone who literally died of constipation, the skeleton of a giant and a dwarf, and a bunch of drawers full of things surgically removed from people who had swallowed them. Who knew safety pins and campaign buttons were that tasty! It said most specimens were extracted from people under fifteen years of age. Well let’s hope so! I can’t imagine at sixteen little Johnny’s friends are egging him on to eat big sweater buttons.
The museum was full of other things that were just as fascinating. There were skeletons of Siamese twins, all babies, the rib cage of a woman who warped her bones wearing a corset, many pickled babies with birth deformities. There were spines bent and fused at odd angles from people with kyphosis. That scared the hell out of me, having the condition myself I hope I don’t end up that way!
There were castings of things that could happen to your eyes… gruesome things… like a splinter to the eye, cancerous growths, extreme conjunctivitis. Even more horrifying was a collection of antiquated gynecological tools that would send any sane woman screaming for the hills and what I can only describe as a baby scooping spoon. They also had surgical tools, embalming tools, and a brain slicer, which looked disturbingly similar to a bagel slicer. One poor man had a cast done of his face with a weird horn-like growth jutting out of it. There was a skeleton of some poor teenager whose muscles and ligaments turned to bone and fused him in this horribly awkward position. Then there was the case full of skulls. I’m not sure what the intent of the display was but each skull had its ethnicity and manner of death labeled. We were horrified to find a thirteen year old who had committed suicide “after a discovered theft.” What kind of theft would warrant that reaction?! The wording to many of these were trite and outdated and in some ways even comical. One read, “Hydrocephalic imbecile.” Another read something like, “Attempted suicide, lived for 15 more years but was never cured of melancholy.” My favorite was, “At 70 attempted suicide, died 10 years later at age 80.” I wondered why attempt suicide at 70? Hell, he’d been lucky to live that long in the first place…. Still the bone structure was different depending on age and to some degree ethnicity. There weren’t many women, there were a lot of suicides, one murder, several executed prisoners, really the people whose bodies were not cared for after death during the time.
I saw just how much the human body can put up with… bones broken and fused in awkward ways, a ninety pound ovarian tumor, bottles of tape worms, a skull and a femur suffering bullet wounds and the most shocking of all were the syphilitic skulls, one didn’t even have a face anymore, it was completely eaten away. How anyone could have lived that long with such a horrific condition I don’t know. At the end was a special exhibit, a soap mummy and a bunch of presidential stuff… including a presidential tumor! And a piece of John Wilkes Booth. Just a bit yucky…
Then there was an art exhibit… I mean how could you top the fetal dance macbres that were already in the display cases out with the actual human specimens? Well! There was a great deal for abstract art using wigs and old medical supplies and hypodermics… there was also a comic, in a brilliant pink, describing in vivid detail human menstruation. I couldn’t read it… quite frankly I don’t want to know my own cycles in quite so much detail… This was the entrance to the gift shop, which was a hoot. It was tiny but hilarious, a book case flaunting titles like, “1001 Ways You Can Die.” There were more poster, pens that looked like hypodermics, two-headed gingerbread men cookie cutters, and a bin full of germ-inspired plushies. A magnet found it’s way home with me, how could I not get a souvenir?
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