Mummies on display in Philippi
PHILIPPI – The Mummies of Barbour County may be the attraction that brings people to the Barbour County Historical Museum in Philippi, but the museum and the area have important ties to the Civil War as well as some interesting aspects which distinguish it.
The museum, located at 200 N Main St. in Philippi, is the home of the famous mummies. The building is an old restored rail depot located at the end of the Philippi Covered Bridge over the Tygart Valley River.
“Everyone comes to see the mummies,” said Ed Larry, volunteer with the museum.
In 1888, farmer and amateur scientist Graham Hamrick bought two female cadavers of a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old at the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, also known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum with the federal government’s approval. Hamrick 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, apparently, was to unlock the secrets of the Pharaohs, and recreate their unique methods of postmortem preservation.
Larry said Hamrick drilled holes in each stomach and put the two in airtight boxes and drained them of fluids. He repeated the process two other times and added his potion.
“When the bodies came out, they were as hard as cement blocks,” Larry said adding unlike the ancient Egyptians, Hamrick left in all the internal organs.
The mummies have travelled all over the world and been displayed in various places, touring Europe for several years with P.T. Barnum and his other curiosities.
Hamrick’s mummification process attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institute who offered to exhibit his specimens if he revealed the formula, but he refused.
After they were on the circus circuit for a number of years, 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. The mummies had to be treated for fungus growth.
“Both mummies lost their hair,” Larry said of what happened after the flood.
The museum continues to display the mummies.
“We still have them,” Larry said. “People come from all over just to see them.”
Admission to the museum itself is free, but to see the mummies cost $1 a person.
Of that money, 50 cents of every dollar is put into local scholarship programs and another 25 cents from each dollar goes to the local library to help buy books.
The tiny room that houses the mummies is actually a tiny old bathroom. The room is bright white and the walls are covered with newspaper articles of varying ages written on the mummies.
The mummies themselves are less than an arms length away and lay under a glass cover. Their skin appears leathery and whithered to the point that they are hardly recognizeable as humans as they appear more resemble wooden carvings. It is impossible to determine that these are women, other than to read the available literature.
Philippi was the scene of the first land battle of the American Civil War, on June 3, 1861. The battle is reenacted every June during the town’s ‘Blue and Gray Reunion.’
The museum has the sword used by Col. Benjamin Franklin Kelley, one of the Union commanders, at the battle. The museum also has two original guns from the Civil War as well as clothing money, portraits and other items. The museum also has clothing from World War I and II as well as items from local schools and colleges.
Another result of that first battle was an 18-year-old James Edward Hanger who was injured by a cannonball resulting in the amputation of one of his legs. Hanger would go on to found a company specializing in prosthetics which is still in operation today. The museum has a small display highlighting that.
After West Virginia became its own state, mining and farming became two big industries for the state, Larry said adding they have items from that time period as well.
The museum also featured items relating to Dr. J.W. Myers who in the early 20th Century set a high standard for medical practice in Barbour County and the region. He established the first local telephone system in the Philippi area, followed by a successful medical remedy company, eventually serving more than a million people in at least 13 states. He also founded the Myers Clinic in Phillipi.
Larry said the museum has an old phone from Myers’ system, his medical bag and some of the original medicines he patented.
The nearby Philippi Covered Bridge is also of interest to people visiting the area.
“The bridge is the only duel barrelled covered bridge still in use in the United States on a federal highway.
“We get thousands of people who come and see the bridge and the museum,” Larry said.
The bridge caught on fire in 1989. When teams began the job of restoring the bridge, they found bullets that dated back to the 1860s. Those bullets are now on display at the museum, Larry said.
“There is a lot of history here,” he said. “It is interesting to tour.
“The museum is very small, but very unique.”
The museum is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as volunteers are available, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.