This is a story of one West Virginia mans curious mind. How he managed to develop a formula for making mummies and how he refused to give his secret formula away for years.How his experiments resulted in two mummified females from the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (also known as the TALA in Weston, Lewis County, WV) and how they have survived for over 120 years.
Image being alive during the Victorian Period (1837 to 1901) in the United States. Interest in all the sciences was growing and new discoveries were happening in every field. The interest in Egyptian culture and mummies is fueled by the discovery of the Pharaoh Ramses II in 1881. People are collecting relics of everything human, bones, teeth, hair and death masks were all common.Ordinary people are struck with deep curiosity about our world and how it worked.P.T. Barnum was touring the country with a spectacular collection of wild animals, strange entertainment acts, and items collected from around the world. Sideshows traveled small towns with strange examples of natural oddities that everyone could see for a few cents.So for one farmer/undertaker is was a wonderful time to explore his own curiosity about Egypt and their mummies.
Graham Hamrick of Philippi, WV was not only a farmer but also a local undertaker. In his life he was educated in common burial processes and use of embalming fluids. He found the process of mummification interesting and wanted to learn more. It is stated that he found his formula with in the pages of the Bible somewhere among the pages of The Book of Genesis. With a secret formula in hand, Hamrick gathered materials and began to experiment with the process. Hamrick is said to have mummified fruit, vegetables, small animals and snakes before the trying to mummify a human.
To mummify a human Hamrick would need human remains to prove his secret formula worked. Living with in a day ride to Weston, and the TALA, Hamrick arranged for the purchase of two sets of unclaimed female remains at the insane asylum. This fact makes me sad for the two woman, who were forgotten by families, sold to a farmer and mummified instead of having proper burials. After transporting the remains to his farm Hamrick began the process of turning the remains into mummies.
At the time the process is thought to have taken several weeks but no one was really sure how long. When Hamricks process finished and the results were visible, he had created what resembled Egyptian mummies.He began to share his successes with others in the local area and beyond.
Eventually, he was contacted by the Smithsonian Institute, who wanted to add the mummies to the museum’s collection and display them to the public with the formula he invented. The farmer refused to share the formula even though he had sent in the process into the U.S. Patent office.The mummies remained in Barbour county until they were recruited by P.T. Barnum’s for his circus shows. The Mummies spent several years touring the United States during the end of the 1800’s.
Finally, they were returned to Barbour County and the Hamrick family. They stored the bodies in several different places over the years, in the barn on the farm, under the bed of a local history buff. Then in 1985 the two female mummies even survived the worst flood in North Central West Virginia.
James Ramsey, an 82-year-old museum curator, 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.”
The mummies would finally come to rest in the Philippi Historical Societies hands and be displayed at the Train Depot Museum,where they still remain to this day. They have the mummies displayed with the “Secret Formula” posted on the wall of the display room.
The Historical Society also was able to get a copy of a letter written by one of the ladies before her death at the Tran Allegheny Insane Asylum. The transcription of the letter is sad. It is hard for me to believe this young woman (age around 17) would be left and forgotten by a husband and family. Yet,it gives us great insight into the world of the mentally ill in the 19th century.
I found the whole experience to the Depot Museum wonderful. The other objects in the collection are educational also. Most dating back to the civil war era and the stories of the battles that filled the hills of this town are worth their own trip to the museum. Philippi being the location of the first land battle of the Civil War makes the entire town a treasure trove of stories for further visits.
If you are lucky enough to be traveling in the north central portion of West Virginia. Take Rt #250 through the historic covered bridge into Philippi to see the Mummies. The museum is on the right just across the river next to the train tracks. Pay the small donation fee and take a look at one the little Mummies that Philippi made.