Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Review: Mummies in Nineteenth Century America

Thanks to Cassandra Vivian for forwarding this to me.

Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts
S. J. Wolfe with Robert Singerman
M cFarland Publishing. 2009
63 photos
ISBN 978-0-7864-3941-6 Orders only Tel: 800-253-2187
Reviewed by Cassandra Vivian

All I can say is, WOW!! The amount of research, minute research, exacting research that went into the creation of this book is astounding. Even more impressive is the number of collaborations the author made with scholars and organizations from all over the world to find and help decipher information. Only through that type of unselfish sharing could the author have covered such a scope of material. This work was slowly compiled with the aid of colleagues, friends, and research fellows from the American Antiquarian Society, fellow researchers in “mummyology, librarians, museum curators, and directors of historical societies around the country and the world who held mummies in their collections.

It begins at the beginning, with the first known mummy to come to the American shores. The first was bits and pieces the artist Benjamin West presented to the Company of Philadelphia in 1767. Others followed, but the bulk of the chapter belongs to Padihershef, brought to Boston in 1823 aboard the Yankee brig Sally Anne to “await his re birth in the Western Lands.” We travel with Padihershef as he makes his way through America to his final resting place.

Through seven chapters and four appendices Wolfe systematically records the who, what, when, where, and why of mummies in America. Relying heavily on 19th century newspaper accounts from all over the country (made easily available via the Internet—oh, the wonders of modern research), Wolfe chases and finds and uncovers her Egyptians. Through George Gliddon, Henry Abbott, P. T. Barnum and a host of other entrepreneurs, museums, and historical societies we follow one imported Egyptian after another finding how they made the journey, how they fared in America, and sometimes learning where they finally found a resting place in ‘the West’. The last chapter ends at the end of the century with a plethora of mummies that were not so well treated and what happened to them when mummymania was on the wane. Throughout it all we receive quote after quote from both metropolitan and provincial newspapers telling the tales of unwrappings, misjudgements, and discoveries. It is a compelling collection of information.

Appendix 1 is a catalogue of pre-1901 references to mummies in America not mentioned in the text. In other words the exhausting list of encounters in the text did not extinguish the list of mummies that made their way to America. Appendix 2 offers suggestions for further reading. More intriguing is Appendix 3, notes on the coffins of the first mummies brought to America. Appendix 4 spreads the news about 19th century newspapers where much of the information was found.

I knew I was going to like the book the minute I read the dedication: To the untold numbers of mummies of ancient Egyptians, in the hope that by ‘speaking their names’ in this book they will live again in the Western Lands.

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