A new type of mummy was found in the late 19th century… in Philadelphia. The unexpected find was unearthed by accident during a construction project in 1875. There are different accounts as to why the remains were being removed, NBC news reported it was for the foundation of a train depot, and CBS news reported to was to widen the streets. However, what is interesting is not the finding of the coffins, but what they contained: two individuals whose body fat had been converted into a waxy soap-like substance.
Saponification is defined as the conversion of fatty acids into soap through hydrolysis with alcohol creating glycerol. For this to occur, it requires a high amount of moisture and bacterial activity to be present. This process is not as rare in human remains as may be thought.
Both individuals had reportedly died of Yellow Fever in 1792 and were 60 year olds from the family Ellenbogen. However further research into the individuals in 1987 revealed that Yellow Fever was not present during that time period, nor were any death records found for individuals named Ellenbogen. Radiographic analysis of the female body revealed shroud pins embedded within the soap that date to 1824. The soap lady, based on these radiographs was determined to be less than 40 years old. Radiographs were finally taken of the soap man in 1994, revealing he was approximately 40 to 50 years old, and also buried no earlier than 1824 due to the presence of shroud pins created in that year. The dating is further supported by the presence of his knee high socks- amazingly preserved. Radiographic comparison between the two individuals showed that the saponification didn’t occur the same in both: the soap man retained his internal organs while the soap lady was hydrolyzed all the way through.
The soap lady resides at the Mutter Museum, and the soap man is in the Smithsonian, however the latter is no longer on display due to his fragile conditions which require climatically controlled storage. There are two important lessons of studying human remains taken from this examination. The first is that it is important to do as much non-invasive research as we can and to take advantage of the modern technology that will allow us to glean as much information as possible. The second lesson is that we always need to check the facts and not take historical information by face value. Analysis of the remains revealed more accurate aging, date of death, and in time may reveal the true cause of death. Always check historical facts!
Below is a video of the Mutter Museum which shows images of the soap lady, as well as giving a quick description. Not for the faint of heart, prior to revealing the soap lady they show a 40 pound colon. Sounds like a good road trip to me!
Conlogue, Forcier, Airo, Gambardella, Mansfield, Kilosky and Greenwood. 1997. Radiographic evaluation of the Soap Man mummy. Radiologic Technology. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3387/is_n5_v68/
Discovery News. 2011. Soapman: The Mummy Made of Soap: Big Pichttp://news.discovery.com/archaeology/soapman-mummy-110104.htmlai_n28686659/