Human Fingers in a Jar (In Transition)
Bowling Green, Ohio
Sometimes, all a museum needs to get noticed is one little exhibit -- an exhibit of human body parts hacked off by a homicidal farmer maniac.
The Human Fingers in a Jar were an attraction long before they arrived at the Wood County Historical Museum. For nearly a century they were on display at the Wood County Courthouse, which is where Carl Bach, the berserk farmer, was hanged in a public spectacle. The museum's Fingers exhibit includes a printed invitation to Carl's hanging, which was staged on the courthouse steps on the last day of the Wood County Fair in 1883.
The fingers were once a part of Carl's wife, Mary. She had filed for divorce, but unwisely allowed Carl to keep living in the family barn. One day he got mad. He walked into Mary's bedroom and butchered her with a big, handmade knife (which is also part of the exhibit). A contemporary account in The Bowling-Wood County Sentinel, hung on the museum wall, describes the aftermath:
In the middle of the room, in a pool of blood, lay the body of a woman... The floor, walls, and ceiling were smeared and bespattered with blood. Giblets of flesh, tufts of hair, brains, and fingers were scattered over the floor... The back part of the woman's head was all hacked to a jelly. The left shoulder had been nearly severed by one terrific blow. The side of the head was cut open nearly from the mouth back. An arm was nearly cut off, and several fingers were severed on one of the hands... She was doubtless dead before the infuriated murderer ceased hacking her body.
The sheriff scooped up three of Mary's fingers and dropped them into a jar of whiskey, thinking he might need them later as evidence. This was smart, as Carl wasn't convicted until two years later, even though he'd confessed the day after his bloody rampage. Delayed justice probably contributed to the execution becoming a spectacle, and to Wood County taking such care to preserve and display the relics of the crime and its punishment.
Today the fingers still lay at the bottom of their jar, although the embalming whiskey evaporated years ago. Shriveled and desiccated, brown with age (and whiskey), they look like fried potato skins if you overlook the fingernails. Above the jar hangs the knife, and above the knife hangs the noose that killed Carl Bach, draped with his execution hood. "Ninety percent of the people that come here are familiar with the fingers," said Kelli Kling, the museum's marketing director. And what of the other ten percent? "We don't always point them out," Kelli said.
We can guess why. The fingers are so mesmerizing that they grab attention from other keynote items in the museum, such as a pheasant shot by Clark Gable in 1935 and an exhibit of 19th century women's underwear ("Victorian's Secret"). The museum, formerly the county Poor Farm, also has a pauper's cemetery, and an encircling wall built of countless rocks by the Farm's impoverished residents. It even has its own Lunatic House, complete with barred cells and a Reasons for Admittance book listing examples that range from the understandable ("tears up her clothes and jumps out windows") to the unexpected ("religion," "constipation").
Carl Bach was dead three years before the Lunatic House opened -- which is a shame, since he would have made an excellent resident Lunatic. His presence could also have tied the Fingers in a Jar to other aspects of the museum. As it is, the amputated digits remain honored but isolated, a part of Wood County history that doesn't necessarily get called to attention. "You kind of gauge by the visitors," said Kelli, "if you think they'll be into that kind of thing."
We understand. "Hey, the Cub Scouts are looking bored; show them the fingers!"