There have been more than 20 movies about “The Mummy” released over the years. The latest stars Tom Cruise and hit theaters this weekend.
A real incident that took place in 1850, however, may be scarier than all of them combined!
The story unfolded at Boston, Massachusetts. A Mr. Gliddon had promoted for some time that he was willing to publicly unwrap a 4,000 year old Egyptian mummy. Sufficient funds would need to be raised to cover his expenses, of course, but if this could be done then Gliddon was prepared to provide the curious with the experience of a lifetime.
The necessary funds were collected and a date for the unwrapping was set. “Tickets were dear,” reported one local newspaper. Most of Boston’s scientific community attended the exhibition, which took place at the city’s Tremont Temple in June 1850.
The case containing the mummy was opened to reveal an oval-shaped inner coffin into which had been carved the image of a woman’s face. Gliddon expounded upon the alleged history of the artifact:
The mummy before the audience he said, was purchased by an English gentleman, Mr. A.C. Harris, at Thebes, five years ago. It was obtained by him at the mouth of the pit, and there could be no question as to its genuineness. When he received it, six months ago, the outer covering had not been removed. The hieroglyphics of this covering had been defaced by bitumen, so as not to be legible, but enough remained to show that the mummy before us once figured as the daughter of a Theban prince. – (The Congregationalist, June 7, 1850).
The inner coffin was now sawed open in a delicate procedure that took nearly 45 minutes. Gliddon occupied this time by telling his audience about mummies and the processes used by the ancient Egyptians to assure their preservation.
…The sawing being at length completed, the coffin was opened, and the body appeared, as Mr. G. had predicted, wrapped in a cloth of a yellowish color, and as clean and whole as the day it was put on. At this moment there was much sensation in the audience, and Mr. G. was heartily cheered. – (The Congregationalist, June 7, 1850).
The wrapping revealed simple hieroglyphics that Gliddon predicted would provide the name of the woman who had been mummified some 4,000 years ago. The proceedings then adjourned with a promise from the host that the mummy itself would be unwrapped two days later.
The crowd returned at the appointed time and listened as Gliddon explained that the hieroglyphics were symbols from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead.” The excitement grew as the mummy was slowly unwrapped:
…After removing the cloths, so as to show the face, it appeared that the body in the original preparation, had been immersed in boiling bitumen, a mode of embalming, Mr. Gliddon said, very different from the two he had described. The body presented a black and burnt appearance, and was anything but an agreeable sight to look upon. – (The Congregationalist, June 7, 1850).
The unmasked body was placed in a glass case and the audience allowed to pass by for a closer view.
In the whole it was a bizarre exhibition, but the story was about to grow even more bizarre. A group of medical examiners were invited to study “the princess” but their findings surprised everyone, especially Mr. Gliddon:
…The examination of the Mummy in Boston was concluded yesterday, the medical examiners having ascertained that it was the body of a male, and not a female, as Mr. Gliddon inferred from the inscriptions. – Mr. G. remarked that males were sometimes put into coffins for the other sex in the confusion of Egyptian burials, and that several instances had been detected heretofore. The inscriptions clearly declared the body to be that of a female. – (Newark Daily Advertiser, June 8, 1850).
Gliddon’s odd explanation took a bit to sink in with the people of Boston but it was not long before his unwrapping of an Egyptian princess that turned out to be male caused much laughter in the city. In less than two weeks it was even been recreated in farce at the city’s theaters.
The biggest, shock, however, was still to come.
The Savannah Morning News published a copy of a letter addressed to Gliddon from a Mr. W. Simpson. The newspaper noted that the letter was not intended for publication, but was being included because of the information it provided about Gliddon’s mummy.
The stunning missive explained the origin of the supposed 4,000 year old princess/prince who had been unwrapped in Boston:
…Your letter has astonished me very much. You say I am guilty of a imposition on you, by which you have had great mortification, and as for paying me the rest of the money agreed for, you say you must decline. Now sir, I don’t want to use no hard words with nobody, but I must say your conduct to me in this bisness is not what a gentleman’s ought to be. When you writ to me to find you a subject for your Lecture on Mummys, I told you that I would send you one dried and done up in the way you wanted, for $100, because the trouble would be very great. – (W. Simpson to Mr. Gliddon, June 18, 1850, published by the Savannah Morning News, June 30, 1850).
The writer of the letter went on to describe how he had found a suitable subject for the mummification and had prepared it to meet Gliddon’s specifications:
…Well, you agreed to the price, and sent the box and the rag bandages to Mr. Wilson, and a letter saying how it must be done, and that you would pay the money when you received the subject. Mr. Wilson is a witness to that, and will make a affidavit of the truth when called on. N—-r Oba died in February, and as he had the consumption, and had very little meat on him to dry, Wilson thought he would be the best subject we could git. – (Ibid.)
I have edited out the crude term used in the above. The letter makes clear that Simpson and Wilson had in fact used the body of a recently deceased African-American slave named Oba to create Gliddon’s alleged 4,000 year old mummy!
…So after drying him and smokin him accordin to directions, we put on the winding cloths as you said, only by a little accident some hot water got spilled on some of the pieces that had the writing on, and spilt some of the letters so they couldn’t be read. Mr. Wilson helped me to fix it in the box, and attended to the shipping himself, as he was going to Savannah on bisness about that time. – (Ibid.)
Simpson concluded by informing Gliddon that his order had not specified whether he wanted a male or female mummy. He also made clear that he would expect payment of the rest of the purchase price.
The letter was dated at Pindertown, Georgia. This community was in today’s Worth County just east of the City of Albany. It had once been a Creek Indian town but had been occupied by white farmers and planters after the Creeks were forced to leave the area. A check of the 1850 census for the area reveals that a William Simpson was a resident of the area. This offers strong confirmation that the “W. Simpson” who signed the letter was a real person and that the letter was authentic.
What became of Oba, the unfortunate man who had died from tuberculosis only to be mummified and sold to a Northern fraudster, is not known. He may have been buried somewhere around Boston, but it is also possible that his mummy rests in the collection of some museum.
Perhaps future research will unravel that mystery and the body of the exploited African-American slave will be given a decent burial.
Some horror stories, it seems, are a bit too real.