Mummies of Phillippi, West Virginia

I first heard about the “West Virginia Mummies of the Insane” on a podcast, and I immediately knew I needed to know more. The podcast described the mummies as home-made experimental mummies, made from the remains of two patients bought from the nearby Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, also known as the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane . Today, the mummies are on display in a bathroom of a train station which serves as the Barbour County Historical Museum in Phillippi, West Virginia. I had so many questions when I heard this: Who were these women? What is THEIR story? Who created these, and why? Why are they in a bathroom, and how did they end up there?

Unsurprisingly but still disheartening, I have been able to find very little about the people who were sold and bought to become these infamous West Virginia mummies. Mental health hospitals of the nineteenth century were often notoriously corrupt places of disposal for people who were different, unwanted, disabled, or misunderstood. I could not even find the names of both individuals. Most reports claim that both are female, though some say one is male and the other is female. Their bodies were unclaimed by family members upon their deaths, and Graham Hamrick arranged to buy the two corpses from West Virginia Hospital for the Insane in 1884 for $140[1] (approximately $3,500 USD today). Another report claims that the hospital also sold an infant and hand to Hamrick.

The museum does have a transcription of a letter, thought to be written by one of the women, Mrs. L. Warner. The letter speaks of the woman’s husband, who she had not heard from since her arrival at the institution. The letter includes a post-script from an attending physician who reported that Mrs. Warner was in good general health and that her mental state was improving; she seems to have been age 17 when she died from unrecorded causes.

Graham Hamrick was a farmer, amateur scientist, and shopkeeper. He experimented on fruits and vegetables, meats, and small animals before acquiring the human bodies to try his hand at mummification. Hamrick seems to have been affected by the Egyptomania craze of the late nineteenth century and became obsessed with recreating the ancient techniques of mummification. Most reports say he used salt peter and sulfur, so his interest did not, apparently, extend to primary source material about ancient techniques of embalming; or perhaps (to give him the benefit of the doubt) those texts were not yet widely translated or circulated to his corner of West Virginia.

In June, 1890, a Michigan newspaper reported that Hamrick claimed to have created a process to preserve human remains without ice or arsenic. It said, “his house is full of mummies, both of brutes and human beings. The bodies of two adults are shown, natural almost to life.”[2] The History of Barbour County, West Virginia includes an entry on Hamrick that explains that he took the mummies to Washington, DC where he showed the bodies to representatives from the Smithsonian Institute, and performed another embalming on an another cadaver. He received a patent, but did not seem to profit much from the endeavor.[3]

One of the most expansive stories on Hamrick and the mummies is The Topeka State Journal story from October 21, 1898:

Old man Hamrick is about 70 years old. … I am not easily startled, but when he led me into his preparing room, or den, and i saw faces that once had the light of life in them staring fixedly into mine, I shrank back. The old man smiled at my alarm and then began telling me of his work… ‘notice the two bodies in that plain box over there’, he said. I looked and saw two women, life-like in appearance with flesh-tinted skin and wide open eyes. There was nothing suggestive of death. They looked as though just awakening from a slumber. ‘I bought them for $140 from an insane asylum in this state about fourteen years ago,’ he said, ‘and they are my choicest specimens.”[4]

Descriptions of other human remains at Hamrick’s home follow, though information about the fate of these remains are unknown. “He next showed me the head of a colored man, with a full beard, which he had obtained from a Cincinnati hospital only a shor