Thursday, January 8, 2009

Preserved in a barrel

Here's the lowdown on those schoolyard tales of bodies preserved on board ship in alcohol that is then siphoned off by the sailors. There's a grain of truth in there somewhere!

Legend has it that the body of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) was placed in a vessel filled with honey. But mummy expert Art Aufderheide finds no plausible evidence that Alexander was preserved in honey.
When Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) died in the Battle of Trafalgar, his body was preserved in anticipation of a state funeral, rather than being buried at sea. The surgeon on board ship had the body put in a cask filled with brandy that was lashed to the deck and placed under guard. The brandy had to be replenished a couple of times because of its absorption by the corpse, leading to the legend that the liquor had been drunk and the expression "tapping the Admiral." After they returned to England, the surgeon was roundly criticized for not using the better-known preservative - rum.

The body of John Paul Jones (1747-1792) was preserved in alcohol and placed in a lead coffin upon his death in France. He was funeralized and buried within several days. Then in 1905, he was exhumed and autopsied by French anthropologist J. Capitan, who wrote in part: The heart, small, contracted, the color of dead leaves, has its valves absolutely normal and still perfectly flexible... The body was returned to the United States. Comparison of Jones' preserved head with a bust sculpted from life is one of the first uses of photographic superimposition.

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