Fingers in a jar.
Mary Bach's 1881 jarred fingers as they appeared before their rehydration.

Human Fingers in a Jar

Field review by the editors.

Bowling Green, Ohio

The Human Fingers in a Jar were an attraction long before they arrived at the Wood County Museum. For nearly a century they were on display at the Wood County Courthouse, which is where Carl Bach, an abusive and 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.

Murder and justice memorabilia.
Murderabilia.

The fingers were once a part of Carl's wife, Mary. She had filed for divorce, but allowed Carl to keep living in the family barn. One day in 1881 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 slasher-film-reminiscent 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.

Lunatic house cell.
Lunatic house cell.

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 are still in their jar, although the embalming whiskey eventually evaporated and was replaced with a modern preservative fluid. 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 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. 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").

19th century women's underwear.
Victorian's secret.

Carl Bach was dead three years before the Lunatic House opened -- bad timing, since he would have made a memorable resident Lunatic. His presence could also have better linked the museum to the Fingers in a Jar, which for years remained honored but isolated, a part of Wood County history that was there, but avoidable. "You kind of gauge by the visitors," said Kelli, "if you think they'll be into that kind of thing."

In 2020 the museum debuted a new, in-your-face version of the exhibit, "The Mary and Carl Bach Story," which gives a more detailed presentation of the crime and does a thorough job of relating Mary's fingers to the sadly familiar problems of domestic violence and substance abuse. The fingers in a jar remain the museum's most infamous exhibit, but visitors are now shown that the detached digits are important as well as grossly engrossing.

Human Fingers in a Jar

Wood County Museum

Address:
13660 County Home Rd, Bowling Green, OH
Directions:
Wood County Museum. Southeast of town. Just east of I-75 exit 179. Drive east on US Hwy 6. Make first right east of the freeway onto County Home Rd, and drive to the museum, which will be on the left.
Hours:
M-F 10-4, Sa-Su 1-4 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
419-352-0967
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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