Mummies of the Insane
Philippi, West Virginia
In 1888, farmer and amateur scientist Graham Hamrick bought two two female cadavers at the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane [aka Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum]. West Virginia's own backwoods Dr. Frankenstein mummified them with his patented embalming potion, just as he had done in earlier experiments with vegetables, snakes and the head of a man that he kept in a jar. His goal: to unlock the secrets of the Pharoahs, and recreate their unique methods of postmortem preservation.
Hamrick succeeded, all too well. The well-dried fruits of his labor are still in Philippi. Two mummies, in glass-topped wooden coffins, are displayed in the Barbour County Historical Museum bathroom. You can see them for a dollar a peek.
No one is certain that these are definitely those same insane mummies. Hamrick always had some new experiment underway. His mummification process attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institute; they offered to exhibit his specimens if he revealed the formula. Hamrick refused. After his own death, Hamrick was not mummified -- he left the potion and instructions, but his assistants were too squeamish. His simple headstone is in Mary's Chapel Cemetery.
However, the careers of his mummies had only just begun. They toured Europe for several years with P.T. Barnum and his other curiosities. After they became passé on the circus circuit, they returned to Philippi, got lost for a few decades, were found in a barn, then were stored under the bed of a local citizen. In 1985, the town was inundated by 35 feet of flood water; the severely water-logged mummies were laid out on the front lawn of the post office to dry.
As 82-year-old museum curator James Ramsey explained in 1994: "After the flood dropped, they were covered with green fungus and all kind of corruption. [A man] secured some kind of a mixture that would get the green mold off them and also the hairs that were growing on them." Today, air wick disks in the coffins help stave off the aromas of time.
Another flood in early 1994 destroyed part of the museum; the mummies survived with nary a new green hair. Local residents driving by are unfazed as we carry our new friends to a sunny spot in front of the museum for photos. Posing in between Philippi's number-one draw, James Ramsey basks in well-deserved glory as he spreads his arms and -- in sideshow barker style -- asks our readers: "Have You Saw The Mummies!?"