Mummies at West Virginia’s quirky museum have a story to tell

PHILIPPI, W.Va. — West Virginia’s country roads often reveal hidden delights to curious travelers who are fascinated by quirky and sometimes touching bits of local history and lore.

My family and I found such a delight last month while detouring to a rest stop in Barbour County, about 40 miles south of Morgantown.

The stop revealed stories of the Civil War’s first land battle, a harrowing and macabre example of 19th century psychiatric treatment and medical experimentation, and last but not least a local connection to the Addams Family – yes, that the Addams family.

Although we often drove through north-central West Virginia, this was our first stop in Philippi, a town of about 3,000 people located at the intersection of U.S. Routes 119 and 250.

The small town of Philippi, the county seat of Barbour, is full of stories, some mysterious and spooky.

The sight of a beautiful and unusual covered bridge spanning the Tygart Valley River first drew us away from the gas station where we had stopped near downtown.

During our explorations, we learned that the 312-foot-long, two-lane “double-barrel” bridge was built in 1852 and was once used as barracks by Union soldiers during the Civil War.

But our real dive into local history would begin at the old train station next to the bridge, where there was a historical marker titled ‘Philippi Mummies’ and a banner hung proclaiming the dates of an upcoming ‘Lurch Fest’.

This B&O Railroad depot, built in 1911, is now the Barbour County Historical Museum.

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Fortunately, the answers to all the obvious questions awaited us inside the former B&O Railroad Depot, built in 1911 and now the Barbour County Historical Museum (www.barbourcountyhistoricalmuseum.org).

When we walked in, the first thing we saw was a mannequin representing the huge character “Lurch” from “The Addams Family” TV series.

We were immediately greeted by museum guide Marisa Terwilliger.

“Admission is free, but it’s $1 to see the mummies,” she informed us.

Sold.

Who can't go visit the museum after reading the historical marker outside?

Terwilliger, who works at the museum through AmeriCorps, was a terrific guide who told great stories.

Philippi, we learn, was the site of the first staged land battle – actually more of a skirmish – of the Civil War, on June 3, 1861.

Apparently no one was killed at the Battle of Philippi, where Union troops attacked and scattered a Confederate force. But the battle resulted in the first amputations of the war, including a leg from 18-year-old Confederate soldier James Hanger. Hanger would later design an articulated artificial leg for himself using barrel sticks, and later found a company producing artificial limbs. The Hanger Orthopedic Group continues to be a leading supplier of prosthetics.

Yes, that's Lurch from the Addams Family (OK, a Lurch figure), standing inside the museum.

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The Battle of Philippi was also the first in history in which both sides arrived on the battlefield by train, according to some accounts.

As for our admission to the mummy room, it was money well spent.

On display are two human bodies preserved in 1888 by local farmer and (mad?) amateur scientist Graham Hamrick, who hoped to sell his secret formula for mummification, and who in fact received a patent on the process.

The bodies he used were two deceased inmates of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in nearby Weston, whose remains have not been claimed by their families.

Visitors will even find a connection to Christopher Columbus at the Philippi Museum.

Hamrick never made any money from his formula, but the mummies toured Europe with PT Barnum before eventually finding their way back to Philippi.

However, the real story in the mummy room is not the weird science and weirder marketing of the 19th century, but the sad fate that often befell those whom society deemed abnormal.

Terwilliger recounted the grim plight of these unfortunates who found themselves confined to the state lunatic asylum.

The pretexts for commitment were numerous, especially for atypical or troublesome women. The mummies are believed to be two such inmates, one who died of tuberculosis, the other who died in childbirth.

The story of the mummies of Philippi is both strange and tragic.

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Among the interpretive exhibits is a copy of a letter one of the women had sent to her family, asking to be allowed to return home to Philippi.

The letter was returned unopened.

On a lighter, if not less ooky note, Lurch’s creepy and goofy, mysterious and spooky presence was, ultimately, easily explained. The 6ft 9in actor who played the character in the 1960s TV series Ted Cassidy grew up in Philippi and is still, deservedly, a local hero. Cassidy, who died in 1979, will be celebrated on August 6 outside the museum during the city’s annual Lurch Fest (search “Lurch Fest” on Facebook).

The small museum of Philippi holds a great amount of history.

The festival will also feature live music, craft beer, arts and crafts vendors, and a parade and costume contest. (Yes, I would probably go as Uncle Fester.)

For more information about Philippi, visit www.philippi.org.

Steve Stephens is a freelance travel writer and photographer. Email him at [email protected]

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