The Broken Stem of the Lily of the Nile: The Great Gliddon Unwrappings of 1850–52

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM
Washington Room 5 (Marriott Wardman Park)
S. J. Wolfe, American Antiquarian Society
One of the ways in which people interacted with Egyptian mummies in mid-nineteenth-century America, was through public mummy unwrappings and lectures by learned Egyptologists. One of these was George R. Gliddon, who, over the course of a series of lectures given in 1850-1852, unwrapped four different mummies in front of various audiences, with varying degrees of interest and success.  

          The most complicated unwrapping was in Boston in 1850, where Gliddon’s attractions drummed up considerable interest among scientists, literati, and physicians, all of whom eagerly awaited the disrobing of what they all assumed was the body of an ancient Egyptian princess. However, the thing did not go as anyone expected, and Gliddon was forced to scramble to keep both his reputation and his lecture series from becoming a laughingstock.  In Philadelphia, the next unwrappings brought even more public interest and even some audience participation, as fragments of mummy cloth were seized as souvenirs of the occasion and carefully documented and saved. Gliddon’s reputation survived and he finished the series in New Orleans, where two of the mummies became star attractions at the Medical College, later Tulane University.

          This paper will examine the expectations and reactions of the public to the quasi-scientific spectacle of public mummy unwrappings in the United States, pointing out the variety of ways in which people’s interests were expressed.

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