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National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery | NCMHR

“Mummies of the Insane” Galvanizes National Coalition of
People with Psychiatric Histories

WASHINGTON, D.C. (7/17/08) – A national coalition of people who have psychiatric histories is demanding an end to the “sideshow” exhibition of two mummified female cadavers, whose bodies were sold in 1888 by the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane to an amateur scientist. The women’s corpses are on display in glass-topped coffins in the bathroom of the Barbour County Historical Museum in Philippi, W. Va., at a dollar a look.

“We are shocked and appalled at this barbaric exhibition and demand that the bodies of these women be given a proper burial,” said Lauren Spiro, director of public policy for the National Coalition of Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Organizations. “In 1989, the Smithsonian Institution agreed to return the skeletons of thousands of Native Americans to their tribes for burial. We demand that these women be allowed the same dignity.”

In 1888, the bodies of the two women were sold by the state hospital to Graham Hamrick for a macabre experiment: he wanted to recreate the mummification techniques employed by ancient Egyptians. According to a report on the Roadside America Web site www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2930, the Smithsonian Institution offered to exhibit the mummified cadavers if Hamrick would share his formula with them, but he refused. After Hamrick’s death, P.T. Barnum took the cadavers on tour to Europe for several years. After decades during which they experienced additional indignities, they ended up at the museum, where they are still on display.

“Children are also being exposed to this,” said Spiro; “the Washington Post uses the exhibit as an example in an online curriculum for kids, calling it ‘just another of America’s roadside attractions.’ http://www.washpost.com/nielessonplans.nsf/0/5F45C0443478A04C85256ACC005C257E/$File/colortest3.pdf  This heartless exhibit is another example of the callous treatment of people who are labeled with mental illnesses.”

The National Coalition of Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Organizations works to ensure that people diagnosed with mental illnesses have a major voice in the development and implementation of health care, mental health, and social policies at the state and national levels, empowering people to recover and lead a full life in the community. The coalition currently consists of statewide organizations run by people with psychiatric histories in 32 states, including the District of Columbia, as well as the three federally funded consumer-run national technical assistance centers.