Thursday, February 2, 2012

Doesn’t Every Museum Need a Mummy?

     The museum received a very interesting donation last week – the mummified forearm of a Civil War soldier!  I always ask for as much history as the donor can furnish for donated artifacts, and this fellow has quite a story!

This is how the arm arrived at the museum.  It was transported inside a wooden display case.  You can see that the arm fell off the supports while in transit.

     The arm was discovered on the Antietam Battlefield about three weeks after the battle, by a farmer who was plowing his field.  The farmer thought it would make a good souvenir, so he picked it up, took it home, and placed it in a container of brine solution.  Six months later he reportedly changed his mind about wanting to keep it.  I do wonder if perhaps his wife put her foot down and told him to “Get that thing out of my house!”  He gave it to the town’s doctor, who then put the arm in a formaldehyde solution.  So, after being subjected to the sun in the farm field, and then to the brine and formaldehyde soaks, the arm is pretty well preserved.
     After the doctor’s death, the arm was found in his attic, now simply wrapped in a piece of cloth.  There is a gap in the history here, but by the early 1960s the arm belonged to the owner of a small museum on the Battlefield.  It was displayed there for many years in a back room, and was billed as “The Arm of the Unknown Soldier.”  That museum eventually closed and the arm’s ownership passed to other people.  Fortunately, its previous owner decided to donate it to the NMCWM. 

Tom and Kyle were as eager to get a closer look at it as I was!

     It was also reported that the arm was once examined by a pathologist who stated that it had belonged to a 19-year-old male.  Unfortunately, that’s the only piece of identification we have for its original owner.  It is apparent though that the arm was blown off, not amputated.  I would imagine that the soldier did not survive.  It is a rather sobering thought, and one that I keep very much in mind when I am handling the arm.

Here you can clearly see that the arm was not amputated.

     When the arm was delivered, I was concerned to see that it was housed in a pine box, and that the interior of the glass cover showed signs of mildew in some spots.  The first order of business was to remove it from the case and rehouse it in something more suitable.  A polystyrene box with a lid was obtained for temporary use.  The plastic will not off-gas harmful compounds as pine wood can, and it provides protection from water damage as well.  The box was lined with polyethylene foam and acid-free tissue paper to further protect the arm.  I added some desiccant packets to the container as well, to keep the relative humidity lower which should help prevent the growth of mold or mildew. 

     Another factor to consider is that the arm itself may still contain harmful materials.  The “formaldehyde” used by the doctor was not the same compound we know today.  It probably contained arsenic or mercury, which were used in embalming at the time.  Until we can have it tested, it will not be handled without latex or nitrile gloves!   

     Eventually the arm will be put on display.  I’m sure that crafting a suitable display case for it will be the topic of a future post!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

1 comment:

  1. That wild!!! Such a big box as if someone was hoping to get the other arm at some point.

    I am glad to find this page. Thanks to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine facebook page.