Ancient Egypt has long been of great fascination to the world, capturing the imaginations of everyone from the Greeks who conquered Egypt in 332 BC, all the way to people of our own time. Much of the ancient civilization’s culture is preserved in the monumental temples and pyramids, the cryptic hieroglyphics, and of course in the elaborate burials and mummifications that became the hallmark of Egypt. While the interest in Ancient Egypt continues on, it was perhaps at its most fervent in the Victorian era. Discoveries such as the Rosetta Stone by the French in 1799 made it possible for scholars to finally translate the hieroglyphics that had stumped them for centuries, and created an intense interest in this formerly mysterious culture.
It was with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone that the discipline of Egyptology was born. The publication of the essay Description de l’Égypte (1809-1829) officially made the study an academic discipline. Soon, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists alike flocked to Egypt to excavate the tombs and study what was inscribed on the walls of its temples and other landmarks. Many of these excavations yielded crypts of pharaohs richly adorned with gold, jewels, and mummies, many of which were taken back to Europe to be put on display in museums. The people of the Victorian age came in droves to see these mummies, which both delighted and terrified them. There were even mummy unwrapping parties, which guests could attend and watch as the linen wrappings were peeled back to reveal the embalmed body inside. When Poe was fourteen, there was even a mummy on public display in the Senate Chamber of the Capitol in Richmond.
An Invitation to a Mummy Unwrapping Party
Poe wrote a satirical critique of this fascination with mummies entitled “Some Words With a Mummy” (published in 1845). The story is a commentary on the treatment of the artifacts of Ancient Egypt, particularly the mummies. Once back in Europe, many mummies were damaged or destroyed in the name of science by dissections and examinations, and others were stolen from their tombs by grave robbers to be ground into a powder which was thought to have medicinal properties. Poe’s mummy, Allamistakeo, admonishes his examiners on their treatment of him, showing the author’s view on the Egypt Mania and the disrespect of the tombs that had overtaken the Victorian era.
At the same time as the publication of “Some Words With a Mummy”, the Egyptian Building was being constructed to house the Medical College of Virginia here in Richmond. Designed by architect Thomas W. Stewart, the building is in the Egyptian Revival style and brings to mind the colossal temples that dot the Nile Valley. The choice to make the building very Egyptian in appearance may coincide with the Egypt Mania of the time, or perhaps ally the medical campus with Imhotep, the Egyptian priest who is thought to have been the first physician. The building became a national landmark in 1969, and is a treasured part of the MCV campus today. It has been in continual use since 1845, and houses an auditorium and classrooms.
The MCV Egyptian Building
This photograph of the Poe Museum’s Old Stone House dates to around 1881. The bearded man standing by the front door is R. L. Potter, the Wheelbarrow Man. Long before anyone ever thought to have a Poe Museum in the Old Stone House, Potter used the building to display his own collection of 1,600 curiosities, which included rattlesnakes, two wolves, rocks and minerals collected on his travels, and—according to one source—a live bear. Admission was probably about fifteen cents, which is the price he charged when his collection was on display on Marshall Street, according to an advertisement in the November 29, 1881 Daily Dispatch.
Potter was born in Marietta, Ohio but moved to Albany, New York, where he had a wife and three children. When Grant won the Presidency, Potter refused to shave his beard until a Democrat was in office. He earned the name Wheelbarrow Man by pushing a wheelbarrow carrying 100 pounds from Albany to San Francisco in 1878. He walked the 4,100 miles in just 160 days, becoming famous in the process. During the trip, he adopted and tamed two wolf cubs, which followed him for the rest of his life. He also filled his wheelbarrow with rocks, minerals, live specimens, and other “curiosities” he found along the way. Upon Potter’s arrival in San Francisco, the poet Samuel Booth wrote “The Song of the Wheelbarrow Man,” a stanza of which reads, “He started from Albany five months ago,/ And trundled his wheelbarrow steady and slow,/ In storm and in sunshine, through dust, wind, and rain,/ Four thousand odd miles trudged the Wheelbarrow Man.”
When asked why he took the trip, Potter told reporters he wanted to make his name doing something no one else had ever done. That distinction was short-lived. In a publicity stunt to sell papers, newspaper owner George Hearst offered a prize to whoever could win a wheelbarrow race from San Francisco to New York. Potter’s competition was L. P. Federmeyer of Paris, France. Federmeyer won the race, but Potter continued to tour the country, never returning to his home in Albany because, according to a May 19, 1881 interview in the National Republican, “I have three children there. The reason I don’t go home is that if I get there with my children I can’t get away.”
In the same interview, Potter mentions that he has exhibited his collection of curiosities in a number of cities and will take it to Virginia. By July 27, 1881, he was showing his “museum of natural curiosities” in Woodstock, Virginia, according to the Shenandoah Herald of that date. By November 27, 1881, when an advertisement for his museum appeared in the Daily Dispatch, he was in Richmond.
The exact dates of his time in the Old Stone House are unknown. An 1894 guide to the Old Stone House (which was then in service as the Washington’s Headquarters Antiquarium and Relic Museum) states that Potter rented the house for eight months beginning in 1879. Poe Museum trustee Rosemarie Mitchell, who is researching a history of the Old Stone House, theorizes Potter might have rented the house in late 1882 or early 1883. By 1883, he returned to New York to accept the challenge of pushing his wheelbarrow from New York City to New Orleans.
Potter died shortly afterwards. The April 30, 1883 issue of the New York Times reported that he was killed while crossing the railroad bridge over the Yadkin River in North Carolina. His last surviving pet wolf remained at his master’s side and was retrieved by Potter’s widow.
As the Poe Museum celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, it is easy to forget that the Old Stone House was already a Richmond landmark—and even a museum—decades before the Poe Foundation took over the property. Although the bear, wolves, and rattlesnakes are long gone, we still like to think we have an interesting, if slightly less dangerous, collection of Poeana.
A 19th century sign advertising tooth extraction
Let’s face it: no one likes a trip to the dentist. The mere thought of a root canal is enough to make us cringe and that high-pitched whir of the dentist’s drill is more than enough to send a shiver up our spines. While the modern day dentist’s office may be a far cry from a walk in the park, dentistry in the Victorian era was even more cringe-worthy. While dental practices were experiencing a renaissance from the 18th century, they were still a far cry from modern dentistry. Without electricity or numbing agents like Novocain, going to the dentist was the definition of pain. The mere thought of tooth extraction was so horrifying that Poe utilized it in his lesser-known tale “Berenice.”
A Victorian foot-powered dentist's drill
The Victorian era dentist did not have an office separate from his home –his home was his office. Dentists were also extremely expensive, meaning only the affluent families could afford to pay a visit. The dentist would reuse his instruments instead of replacing them after every visit, and at the most give them a perfunctory wipe-down between appointments (this was an era before sterilization). The most infamous dentist tool, the drill, was powered manually by a foot pedal that the dentist had to pump furiously in order to generate enough power to use it. Because of this, what we know as preventative dentistry today did not exist; the one-stop cure for all dental maladies was tooth extraction.
Towards the latter half of the 19th century, dentists began using ether and chloroform to anesthetize their patients. These gases would render the patient unconscious, but only for a brief period of time. A dentist thus had to work very quickly to extract the tooth (or teeth) before the gas would wear off and the patient would wake up.
Tooth Keys: Corkscrews for tooth extraction
Because of the high number of tooth extractions happening in dentistry, dentures became a way of remedying the lack of teeth in one’s mouth. These dentures were not custom-made and often were one-size fits all, meaning that they were extremely uncomfortable to wear. While George Washington’s dentures are by far the most famous dentures in American history, they were not made of wood. Fake teeth at the time were made from ivory taken from hippopotamus teeth or elephant tusks. Or, if you had a doctor who dealt in the black market, your teeth had a much more sinister place of origin; grave robbers could be paid off to dig up corpses and remove their teeth to be used in dentures.
Three years after the Edgar Allan Poe Museum opened its doors in 1922, tragedy befell the city of Richmond in the Church Hill area when the train tunnel beneath what is now Jefferson Park collapsed, killing four people and burying a train engine beneath the hill. Although the bodies of one worker and the conductor were recovered, the locomotive and the remains of two workers are still trapped under the earth.
Completed in 1875 to connect the C&O Railroad to the Shockoe area, the Church Hill train tunnel had a history of structural problems. Because the soil contained a high clay content, the ground which the tunnel was built through retained a large amount of groundwater after rain, making the tunnel structurally unsound. During its initial construction, ten workers were reportedly killed due to collapses. Because of this instability, the tunnel fell into disuse after the construction of the river viaduct, and would be unused for twenty years.
In 1925, efforts were made to restore the tunnel to a useable condition to increase railroad capacity in the city. It was during these repairs that the western end of the tunnel would collapse on October 2nd, trapping six people, Train Engine #231, and ten flat cars beneath the hill. Two workers managed to crawl out to the eastern end beneath the flat cars; by the time rescue teams managed to dig to the engine, they discovered the bodies of the conductor and one other worker. Due to the tunnel’s instability, however, the bodies of the two remaining workers were never recovered. The Virginia State Corporation Commission ordered the tunnel sealed to prevent others from being trapped in subsequent cave-ins. The train locomotive and the cars are still there today.
Even after the tunnel was sealed, it continued to be a problem for the Church Hill area, collapsing in various other locations and creating sinkholes. On one occasion the collapses claimed many houses, and another collapse destroyed a church between 24th and 25th streets. In 2006, the Virginia Historical Society drilled a hole through the tunnel seal and used a camera to look inside and see if there was any way to recover the lost train engine. The tunnel was discovered to be full of water and silt, and any attempts to open the tunnel would inevitably result in further sinkholes developing in Church Hill.
The sealed western end of the tunnel lies mere blocks away from the Poe Museum at 18th and Marshall Streets, and can be visited by the public.
What at first might seem a fictional subject of one of Poe’s more grisly tales, premature burial was actually a legitimate concern in the time of the author’s life. There exist numerous accounts of people being buried alive dating from as far back as the 12th century, and stories abound of exhumed caskets discovered to have scratch marks on the roof when opened. In fact, President George Washington was so terrified of being buried alive that as he lay on his deathbed he begged his servants not to put him in his grave for twelve days to ensure that he was indeed dead.
"The Premature Burial" by Antoine Wiertz (1854) (taken from Wikipedia.org)
If it was scary enough to frighten our first president, who was a fearless war general, you can bet the prospect of being buried alive is pretty terrifying. Poe was aware of the widespread fear of being buried alive (known as taphophobia) and utilized it in a few of his stories such as The Premature Burial, Berenice, and The Fall of the House of Usher. The characters buried alive in these stories suffered from catalepsy, an actual nervous condition that causes muscle rigidity, a decreased reaction to pain, and unconsciousness. All were signs that doctors associated with death.
There were tales of people erroneously declared dead awaking at the morgue reported all the way through the 1890s, and while advances in medicine at this time would have made premature burials less prevalent, there were still preventative measures in place just to make sure. Wakes, which began as an ancient Hebrew tradition to ensure death became the most popular method. During the wake, friends and family would sit near the casket and watch for the earliest signs of decomposition, just to make sure that their deceased loved one had actually died. This burial custom is still used today, though it is not necessarily to ensure that the person is dead.
There was an entire market for caskets and contraptions that would provide extra ways of preventing an individual from suffering a premature burial. Signal bells were installed next to some graves. Attached to a piece of string that would be tied around the deceased’s finger, this string could be pulled to ring the bell and signal a person nearby in the event that the departed was not quite so departed after all. Others had air pipes built into their coffin roofs to allow fresh air to get into the victim, prolonging their life. Still others created vaults that had escape hatches so that the revived person could escape.
Taberger's Safety Coffin (taken from Wikipedia.org)
Premature burial certainly gave new meaning to “rest in peace” as the outcome of being buried alive was anything but peaceful. After being buried, a casket has only a few hours’ worth of oxygen trapped inside of it. If someone was unfortunate enough to wake up, they would inevitably become panic-stricken as they tried to escape; this elevated stress level would cause the individual to consume oxygen at a much higher rate. In this state, they would lose consciousness in less than five minutes and die of asphyxiation in less than half an hour.
Welcome to the first installment of the Poe Museum blog’s new monthly feature entitled Weird Richmond. Every month you will find here a new and bizarre tale to satisfy your craving for all things weird. This is history off of the beaten path, full of strange tales of Poe, the times he lived in, and this city that he called home.
"Goethe Deathbed Portrait" Friedrich Preller (1832)
We open Weird Richmond with deathbed portraiture. A deathbed portrait is exactly what it sounds like: a post-mortem image of a deceased person. What we see today as morbid was actually practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries as a means of capturing a final image of the dead for memorial purposes. In fact, many famous individuals have had deathbed portraits made of them, including Martin Luther, Goethe, and Victor Hugo, just to name a few.
Prior to the invention of the daguerreotype method of photography in 1839, deathbed portraits were either sketched or painted by artists. When photography became readily available in the mid-1800s, the deathbed portrait experienced a resurgence of popularity due to the camera’s ability to capture the departed exactly as they would have been upon their deathbed. During this time tuberculosis was running rampant across Europe and the United States, and many deathbed portraits from this time depict victims of what they termed “consumption.”
Virginia Clemm Poe - Deathbed Portrait (1847)
Here at the Poe Museum we have a print of the deathbed portrait of Virginia Clemm Poe, wife and cousin of Edgar Allan Poe. Her portrait was completed mere hours after her death at the age of 24 from tuberculosis, and for many years this was regarded as the only indisputable image of Virginia in existence (since then, another portrait has been validated). Virginia’s portrait is rendered in watercolor, and except for the odd angle that her head rests at, she could pass for still being amongst the living. While it was more common to have the deceased to be shown on their deathbed, some families posed their loved ones in chairs to make it look as if they still lived.
There are a few more modern cases of deathbed portraiture from the past century, most notably images of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie after being assassinated by Serbian nationalists in 1914. Even more recently, British artist Daphne Todd won the BP Portrait Award in 2010 for her deathbed portrait of her mother.