Thursday, October 25, 2012

Some Museum History and Ghost Stories

     The building which houses the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is a particularly fitting one for us.  The original building predated the Civil War.  Prior to the war it was owned by James Whitehill, a furniture maker and undertaker.  During the war he provided caskets and grave markers to the military hospitals here in Frederick.  Dr. Richard Burr, a Civil War embalmer, also worked from this location in 1862, after the battles of South Mountain and Antietam.  I will be telling more of Dr. Burr’s story in next week’s post!  

     After the war, Clarence C. Carty bought the property from Mr. Whitehill’s widow, and established his own furniture and undertaking business on the site.  He also bought the adjoining property and housed his family there while renovating the building in 1892.  The pre-Civil War building at the front of the property was replaced at that time.  However, the rear section of the building (from the 1830’s) remained.  This is probably where the embalming was performed in the fall of 1862.  The Carty family continued to run their business here until 1978.

This photo of what is now known as the "Carty building" was taken around 1884 and shows Willie Keller, handyman; Henry E. Carty, who later ran the business; and Clarence C. Carty, who started the business. And yes, that is a rocking chair on display up on top of the sign post! This image, which is on display at the NMCWM, is courtesy of Frances Randall.

Here is a more recent photo of the Carty building, which has been home to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine since 1994. The building next-door, which also belonged to Mr. Carty, is now a separate property. You can still see many similarities to the building in the older photo though – especially the front doors and large display windows.

     Though there was an extensive remodeling project on the interior of the building in 2000, one part of the historic building still remains.  A freight elevator, used for the furniture which was manufactured here, is preserved in a corner of the museum’s collection room.

This freight elevator, believed to be the oldest one in Maryland, was probably installed in 1892 when Clarence Carty did his renovations.

This metal plate on the elevator shows that it was manufactured by James Bates of Baltimore, Maryland, and that this design was first patented in 1871. James Bates is credited as inventing the first automatic elevator in 1856. 


     Since it is an old, historic building, and it was once an embalming station, it is not surprising that there are also quite a few ghost stories associated with it!  I tend to be a skeptic about the subject though, and some of the stories can be debunked pretty easily.  My favorite story involves a “ghost hunter” who was going through the galleries with a device which was supposed to read the electromagnetic fields produced by the ghosts.  He was very excited to see high readings near many of the exhibit cases he scanned.  He reported that it appeared that most of our artifacts on display had spirits associated with him.  He was rather disappointed though, when it was pointed out to him that the readings were being caused by the magnetic locks on our exhibit cases!

And then there’s this photo of dozens of ghostly orbs in our Camp Life display, taken when the exhibit was being installed. Some people say the orbs are spirits, but a quick Google search of “orbs in photos” reveals that they are more probably caused by dust.

     However, I will admit that not all of the stories can be so easily explained.  There are enough consistencies in different people’s accounts of these stories to make me wonder.  The most reported occurrence is hearing footsteps on the ramps between the galleries.  This is one which I have experienced.  It is a very strange feeling to hear what seem to be footsteps following you, when you are alone!  Once I even ran back down the ramp toward the sound, because I was sure that one of my coworkers was hiding around the corner and trying to scare me, but there was no one there.

Here is our Deputy Director, Karen, standing in front of the building’s old doorbell. Although now the only way to operate this doorbell is to be standing in front of it and physically move the bell strikers, she sometimes hears it ring when she is the only one on that floor.
Also, notice the Carty building artifacts on the left side of the photo – one of the original Carty signs and a framed death certificate for Clarence Carty.

     Other stories we hear often from staff and visitors involve seeing images of people in Civil War era clothing, or feeling like someone has brushed against them when there is no one close to them.  On the third floor of the museum, more than one staff member has reported seeing a woman in a gray dress, or hearing children running and playing in the hallways.  Other people report that books sometimes “fly” off the shelves, or that paper clips jump out of their containers.

     Our Executive Director, George, talks about some of the things that have happened in the museum in the link here .

     Whether or not you are a believer, they certainly make interesting stories to tell, and they make you wonder about the previous occupants of the building.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Look at Lee's Lost Order

     Do you find that you tend to visit museums that are outside your local area, but you put off visiting the local ones?  I know that I’m sometimes guilty of thinking that I will get around to visiting the local ones someday.  However, when I heard that the Monocacy National Battlefield was exhibiting Special Orders 191 (also known as the Lost Order), I decided it was time for a visit!
The Monocacy National Battlefield is less than five miles from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, so I didn’t have to travel very far! The Visitor’s Center is the starting point for a self-guided auto tour of the battlefield and it also houses displays of artifacts associated with the Battle of Monocacy. This is where the Lost Order will be on display until October 31 of this year.

It was raining the day I visited, so I didn’t linger outside. I did manage to take a moment to photograph the cannon on my way though.


     The Monocacy Battlefield is the site of the Civil War battle fought on July 9, 1864.  Though not as well-known as the Battles of Antietam or Gettysburg, it is credited as being the battle that saved Washington D.C.
The burning of the covered bridge depicted in this painting prevented the Southern troops from easily crossing the Monocacy River on their march to Washington. Delaying them allowed General Grant time to send more troops to defend Washington.

As always, I am on the lookout for display ideas. Here, children can try on various uniform parts.

There is an observation deck at one end of the building with a wonderful view of the battlefield (especially now when the leaves are changing color), and panels which identify the points of interest.

     The Lost Order is in the final display, and though I was eager to finally see it, I was disappointed that photographing it was not allowed, even without a flash.  It was a little ironic since I’m usually the one telling people they can’t photograph light-sensitive artifacts!

     Special Orders No. 191, later known as the Lost Order, was issued by General Robert E. Lee on September 9, 1862 during the Maryland Campaign while his army was camped on a part of what would later be the Monocacy Battlefield. The orders outlined plans for dividing his army into four parts.  Copies of the orders were written for each of Lee's commanders.  However, the copy written for Major General Daniel Hill was somehow lost. 

     On September 13th, soldiers from the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry discovered the orders on the ground, wrapped around some cigars.  Though at first they were more interested in the cigars, once they read the paper’s title, "Hdqrs. Army of Northern Virginia", they quickly passed it up the chain of command.  When the order reached General McClellan, he reportedly exclaimed, "Now I know what to do! Here is a paper that if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home!"  Lee’s invasion plan failed, and the stage was set for the Battle of Antietam.

Corporal Barton W. Mitchell is credited with finding the orders. Copies of some of his letters are on display along with the Lost Order, courtesy of the Mitchell family. Photography of these documents is allowed!

Luckily, there are images of the Lost Order available online. This one is courtesy of the Library of Congress. It’s hard to believe this small piece of paper had so much influence on the Civil War!

     You can read more about the Lost Order

     So, I hope the lesson learned here (beyond keeping track of any orders you are transporting!) is to visit your local museums; you never know what kinds of treasures you will find there!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Update on the Mummified Arm

     Sometimes working with museum artifacts involves being a bit of a detective.  I don’t always get the full history of the artifacts when we acquire them, so then some research is in order.

     You may recall there was a mummified arm found on the Antietam Battlefield, which was donated to my museum back in January.  [The first post about it is 
here.]  Everyone was eager to learn more about it!

If you visited the Antietam Battlefield Museum before it closed in 2004 you could have seen the arm displayed in a pine box with a tag which read, “Human Arm Found on the Antietam Battlefield.”


     Part of the research on the arm involved taking the arm to the National Museum of Natural History to be tested.  [See that post 
here.]  Though we’d hoped that the testing would be completed in time to display the arm this fall, there are still some tests to perform on it.  We have gotten some information about it though, so I thought I’d post an update for everyone who has been inquiring about it!

     The arm has had X-ray and CT scans to determine if there was any hidden damage or broken bones.  A carbon isotope test will also be performed to possibly determine the diet of the individual and thus the area he came from.  There has also been some discussion of attempting a DNA test, but that decision has been put off until some other tests are completed.  In addition, an X-ray diffraction test was performed to determine the presence of metals and chemicals used to preserve the arm.  This was especially critical information for me as the caretaker of the arm since, depending on the method used to preserve it, there was the potential for the arm to contain some hazardous substances.  Not only do I have to protect myself and any other people who may need to handle the arm, but I also need to use this information to protect the other artifacts it could be exhibited with or stored near.

This damage to the palm showing exposed portions of bones and tendons was not hidden from view! This area probably was a wound.

This radiograph shows that there were no fractures or broken bones. The scientists from the NMNH determined that growth and development stages are consistent with a male aged about 16 years. Though we’d already been told it probably was a young individual, he is younger than we initially thought. It’s rather sobering to consider just how young he was, but then we do know that many boys lied about their age in order to enlist.

     Another surprising find was that the X-ray diffraction results showed no evidence of intentional preservation using any sort of chemicals (no salts, mercury, arsenic, or lead). The mummification appears natural, which is not consistent with the story we got claiming it had been preserved in a brine solution and also some sort of embalming solution.  Clearly I need to do some research on the arm’s story as well! 

This view shows some dirt present on the bone’s surface. Considering it was reported to have been discovered in a plowed field, this is not surprising.

        Though I am still working on verifying (or sometimes debunking) various parts of the story, I have found out more about the Boonsboro doctor identified simply as “Dr. Gaines” whom the donor named as having possessed the arm at one point.  Even without the addition of a mummified arm, it’s an interesting story!

     Dr. John Mutius Gaines was born in Culpeper County, Virginia in 1837 and had a medical practice in Alexandria, Virginia before the Civil War.  When the war started he joined the Confederate Medical Corps as an assistant surgeon with the 8th Virginia Infantry.  He was at the Battle of Antietam but was left behind (as a prisoner of war) to care for the wounded soldiers.  During this time, he worked with a local physician, Dr. Otho Josiah Smith.  He apparently also made the acquaintance of Dr. Smith’s daughter Helen while he was there.  However, after six weeks Dr. Gaines was exchanged and returned to the Confederate army.

     When the war ended though, instead of returning to his home in Virginia, Dr. Gaines went back to Boonsboro, Maryland and married Helen Smith.  He evidently remembered their six weeks together well!  They lived in Boonsboro with her father, and Dr. Gaines and Dr. Smith worked together until Dr. Smith’s death.  Dr. Gaines remained in practice in Boonsboro until his retirement.  After his death his son found the arm, just wrapped in a piece of cloth, in the attic of the doctor’s old house.  From there it was passed on to other people, but I will have to save those stories for a future post. 

     So, though there is more research to be done, we have learned more about the arm.  Some of what we’ve learned raises more questions, but I look forward to discovering more of the arm’s real history!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Thursday, October 4, 2012

After the Sesquicentennial – The Dead at Antietam

     It’s been another busy week getting ready for a new exhibit!  The Pry House Field Hospital Museum is now hosting an exhibit called Bringing the Story of War to Our Doorsteps;  Rediscovering Alexander Gardner’s Antietam Photographs.  The photos in the display are reprints of those taken by Alexander Gardner starting just two days after the Battle of Antietam, showing dead bodies on the field.  It is a recreation of a display set up by Matthew Brady in October 1862.  A copy of the New York Times article covering the original exhibit can be seen here.
The entrance to the photo display is very simple and was designed to look similar to the original display.

The reproduced photos are the same size as those displayed in 1862, and a magnifying glass is provided at each stand for the viewers as it was then too.


     Many of Gardner’s Antietam photos were taken with stereoscopic cameras so that the images could be turned into stereographs.  Some of these images have been incorporated into a short video so the images can be viewed in 3D.   

Though the picture looks blurry here, if you view it through the 3D glasses it becomes quite an amazing image!


     My role for this exhibit was to add two displays that related to the photographs.

This display contains some original stereographs of Alexander Gardner images, along with a period stereoscope. I set it up so that visitors could take a peek through it at one of the images!

This small display contains some artifacts associated with mourning.

     The black edge on the handkerchief in the display identifies it as a mourning handkerchief.  People used to observe several stages of mourning after the death of a family member.  The width of the black trim indicated the stage of mourning.  They started with wide bands of black trim.  This handkerchief would have been for a later stage of mourning.

     The rings in the photo are both mourning rings.  The one in front is made of braided human hair, held with a small gold band.  The name of the person being mourned could be engraved on the band.  The ring in the back is a gold and pearl ring in a red leather case.  In the center of the ring is a small square of clear glass which covers a small fragment of hair.  Hair jewelry was often worn as a remembrance of a loved one.

     I hope we were able to convey a sense of the staggering number of lives lost at the Battle of Antietam.


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine