Friday, March 20, 2009

Martin van Butchell

Have you heard the strange (but true) tale of Martin van Butchell (1735-1814)? He had his wife embalmed when she died in 1775 and displayed his "dear departed" - as he referred to her - in the front window of his home. The corpse drew both crowds and criticism, and he maintained that their marriage contract provided for his income as long as she remained above ground. It turns out that this was a rumor he spread to drum up business for his dental practice, which he operated out of his residence. He had called on his teacher of surgery and anatomy William Hunter (1718-1783) to inject Mrs. van Butchell with a rosy-colored preservative fluid. Her body was outfitted with glass eyes, dressed in a fine lace gown, embedded in a layer of plaster of Paris, and exhibited in a glass-topped coffin. By the time Dr. van Butchell's second wife Elizabeth voiced her objections, the body had begun to deteriorate. It was donated to William Hunter's brother John Hunter (1728-1793) and became part of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where it was destroyed in 1941 in a German bombing raid.

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