During the nineteenth century, Egyptian mummies attracted the curiosity of Europeans and Americans. There were popular public lectures, some based in science and some in fantasy, about Ancient Egypt and its mummies. There were even public unwrappings of the mummies.
One of the stars of popular Egyptology in the nineteenth century was the British performer George Gliddon. As a performer, he packed lecture halls throughout the United States, capturing the public imagination with his descriptions which were laced with scientific-sounding polysyllabic words. His lectures attracted not only the general public, but also leading scientists and writers.
Gliddon was the author of several books on Ancient Egypt, including Ancient Egypt (1850), Discourses on Egyptian Archaeology (1841), and Memoir on the Cotton of Egypt (1841). While he had been born in England, he had been taken to Alexandria, Egypt, at an early age by his father, a merchant who served as United States consul.
As a performer, he understood the value of visual effects. He had an immense scroll which had been painted by John Martin, the English panorama painter. The scroll depicted the famous scenes along the Nile River including the pyramids of Giza, the Colossi of Memnon, and the harbor of Alexandria. During his lectures, stagehands would unroll this scroll behind him, creating an illusion of riding in a boat down the Nile River.
On stage with him would be more than six hundred props. He would wander back and forth on the stage picking up different props and then telling wondrous stories about them. To add to the overall illusion, a pianist would play what was supposed to be Oriental or Egyptian sounding pieces.
In 1850, he had obtained a small shipment of mummies from a site known as Werda in Egypt. In order to pack the house for his performance in Boston, he announced that he would unwrap the mummy of the daughter of an Egyptian priest. He claimed that he knew her identity because he had deciphered the hieroglyphs on her sarcophagus. The local press took the bait, but somehow managed to confuse the words “priest” and “princess” giving the impression that the audience would see Egyptian royalty.
To increase the overall audience and to create repeat customers, Gliddon did the unwrapping in a series of three lectures. In the first two performances, he had removed the outer wrappings and made a display of looking for amulets. For the third and final performance, the Boston hall was packed with two thousand paying spectators, including the poet Henry Longfellow, Harvard president Jared Sparks, anatomist Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz. He cut through the linen wrappings, tossing them aside to display the body. Then there was a collective gasp from the audience, followed by laughter: the “princess” had a rather large penis.
In a series of letters to the Boston press, he explained that his error was due to the poor handwriting of the coffin maker. Nevertheless, his reputation as an Egyptologist was damaged in New England and he had to take his show to more fertile grounds. He travelled to New Orleans where he stayed with Josiah Nott, a physician who was a disciple of Samuel Morton and a supporter of polygenism.
Our story doesn’t really end here. Just as Gliddon stretched out his performances, I’m going to tell the rest of this story—a story about Egyptian mummies, science, and slavery—in another essay.