Case The soap Lady

The Soap Lady is a mummy that represents preservation by a unique process resulting in adipocere formation. This mummification process occurs when the right environmental conditions matched with the right body composition, particularly fats, form a waxy substance called adipocere (Conlogue et al. 1989). The Soap Lady, exhibited at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was exhumed with a male, known as the Soap Man, from a cemetery that was being relocated probably during road construction in 1875. The Soap Man initially was donated to the Wistar Institute of the University of Pennsylvania, but was later transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The Soap Lady was donated to the Mütter Museum. The mummies were obtained by Dr. Joseph Leidy, a renowned University of Pennsylvania anatomist of the era. Officially, for museum records, Dr. Leidy claimed that the Soap Lady died in 1792 from yellow fever. Conventional radiographs revealed artifacts including cuff buttons and straight pins within the adipocere matrix. Due to the adipocere formation and the accumulation of soot over the surface of the body, the artifacts were not noticed during visual inspections of the remains. The anterior-posterior (AP) and lateral radiographs demonstrated the exact position of each artifact and facilitated the recovery of a single button and pin (Figure 7.25). The position of the button suggested that it was on the cuff of the burial garment. However, due to corrosion, a visual inspection of the button did not provide much information. The button was brought to the Imaging Laboratory of the Radiologic Technology Program at Thomas Jefferson University, and examined using a Faxitron Microradiographic unit. The x-ray unit has a 0.5 mm focal

Figure 7.25 Radiographs of the soap Lady showing the locations of the pin and the button, which were later recovered and analyzed, assisting in the determination of the temporal context.
Figure 7.26 Faxitron micrograph of the button from the soap Lady. Note the floral patterns on the body of the button.

spot, smaller than most x-ray units, which would provide the greatest detail. Instead of using film as a recording media, the button was placed on a Kodak SO 245 glass plate. These were specialized photo-sensitive plates that were intended for astronomical imaging. The advantage of using the plate was the incredible degree of resolution that was possible; however, an extremely long exposure and mAs were required. The resulting radiograph (Figure 7.26) was examined by experts at the Smithsonian Institution, who stated that the button was made no earlier than 1830 by a two-stage process. First, the blank was punched out and the floral pattern impressed into the metal. Next, the four holes were punched, although slightly off-center, and the button was then ready to be sewn onto the garment.

The straight pin was in better condition than the button and went directly to an expert in the manufacture of pins at the Smithsonian Institute. Its construction also provided valuable information that refuted Dr. Leidy's claim that the woman died in 1792. The pin had a rounded head. Until approximately 1820, all pins were manufactured with their heads bent over instead of rounded. Given the information derived from both paleoimaging of the button and the analysis of the pin, the Soap Lady was most likely not buried until after or during the 1830s, not in 1792 as Dr. Leidy claimed.

Why had Leidy provided inaccurate information for the museum records? Although we will probably never know for sure, the topic was addressed in 1942 by the curator of the Mütter Museum. He became suspicious because of the inconsistency between the date and the cause of her death. He pointed out that there was no yellow fever in Philadelphia during 1792. In addition, there had never been a cemetery at the stated location, Fourth and Race Streets. He theorized that Leidy was avoiding an antigrave robbing act that had been passed in 1865. Under that law, it was illegal to take possession of a body unless it was by a relative. If the University of Pennsylvania anatomist created an alternate scenario regarding the acquisition of the body, he would have circumvented the law and totally concealed the act. There was also anecdotal information that supports an even more "playful" component of a cover-up. Legend has it that at the time Leidy was notified of the discovery of the two bodies, he was delivering a lecture to his students on the anatomy of the upper extremity. So as a name for the couple he chose, "Ellenbogen" for the woman and "von Ellenbogen" for the male. Ellenbogen is German for elbow and by prefacing the name with "von" it would mean "from the." MacFarlan searched the immigration and census records to locate any Ellenbogens that may have lived in Philadelphia in the late 1700s and early 1800s, but to no avail. In 1986, another search of records extending into the 1830s failed to locate any individuals of that name.

Because of Leidy's status as a scientist, he probably never would have been questioned regarding the bodies. However, it appears that he was having a little fun in the process. Due to his perfect concealment, the true identify of the Soap Lady will probably be never known, but the period in which she lived has been more clearly defined due to the imaging of the internal context artifacts.

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