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Philadelphia’s freaky medical Mutter museum

Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum should come with a warning: do not visit if you are freaked out by dead people and their pickled parts.

But if distended bowels, shrunken heads and the world’s largest bowel is your thing, then a visit to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum (pronounced Mooter) is a must.

Officially called the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, it was founded in 1787 and is the oldest medical facility in the country. It’s still used today for medical research and the museum houses creepy body parts, diseases and dead people who have confounded the doctors and who now lie here for the scientists to pore over.

Rows and cabinets of macabre exhibits
Rows and cabinets of macabre exhibits

What to look out for at the Mutter:

The preserved soap lady has confounded the medical world and I’m sorry, but she is really revolting. One could have nightmares for weeks after looking at her mummified face.

She basically died in her bed and the heat was such that her body fat coagulated. She’s there, lying in all her glory, preserved with her toothless mouth open. The original cause of death, her age and even the year she died is still being examined today.

I was morbidly fascinated by an intriguing display of South American shrunken heads. I’d never heard of this before, but apparently when marauding tribes would kill their enemies, they would decapitate them and take the heads home to create shrunken trophies.

Shrunken heads
These are the heads of once real, living people! (Note, these are not ones from the Mutter but another museum)

I Googled the procedure and again, one must have a cast-iron mind not to be effected. Suffice to say, the skin is peeled back and the skulls removed, then over the next week the head is boiled and sculpted and eventually hardened to create a mini-head necklace to be worn by the victor.

President Abraham Lincoln’s murder at the Ford Theatre in Washington DC is described in minute detail and John Wilkes Booth (the gunman who snuck into the president’s box and shot him at point blank range in the head) has a piece of neck tissue in a jar sitting here.

An enormous preserved bowel is sitting in a glass cabinet. The poor man who owned it was so constipated – only going once a month – that his bowel became bigger than an elephant trunk wrapped around inside his tummy.

Mutter Museum
This mega colon was removed from a 29-year old man. It held 40 pounds of poo!

The autopsy revealed 18 kilos of fecal matter packed inside. An encouragement for eating prunes, if ever I saw one. You may be pleased to know that only the stretched lining is preserved and it is here stuffed with straw.

A plaster cast of the world’s first Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, is here. They were born in 1811 in Siam (now Thailand) of Chinese parents and later moved to the States.

Siamese Twins
Credit: George Widman

Their autopsy was carried out at the Mutter and it turned out they were joined by their livers but could have easily been separated as they were independently complete. Instead they walked with their arms slung over each other’s shoulders, and were toured around as freaks as children.

When they moved to North Carolina they became farmers, bought slaves, married sisters and had 10 and 11 kids respectively. The mind boggles.

But 21 kids and four adults, unsurprisingly, didn’t get along too well under the same roof, so they had separate houses, ran separate farms and spent week about staying at each place.

Chang contracted pneumonia and died suddenly in his sleep in 1874 aged 63. Eng woke to find his brother dead and a doctor was called to perform an emergency separation, but Eng refused and died three hours later. Their fused liver is on display here as is a plaster cast of their bodies.

Walk slowly past the famous Hyrtl skull collection, many with axe cuts and musket holes. Then turn around and look at the cabinet of human skin tanned into leather – and keep your eye out for the human wallet.

Then when you’re done head out into the Philadelphia sunshine and grab yourself a bite to eat. If you can.

And if you just have one day in Philly, I commissioned this great post which is for history lovers, with a sprinkle of European thrown in, plus some recommendations for where to eat.

Visiting the Mutter Museum wasn’t as spooky as visiting Eastern State Penitentiary during their annual Halloween Nights fundraiser events. You can read all about how terrifying I found that here!

I also began to think a little more deeply about the whole concept of Dark Tourism. I’m not even sure I would the Mutter Museum in that category, as it’s science and the study of different cultures – ok as well as some macabre exhibits. But I new before I even entered the Museum of Death in LA that I shouldn’t have gone in…

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!