The woman who turned to soap

adipocereIn February 1846 a group of gravediggers in New York had a truly spooky experience when they were asked to disinter a body from a burial ground on the corner of Broadway and Twelfth Street (a site now occupied by a branch of Pret a Manger – make of that what you will).

Their story was reported in the New York Express, and then reproduced in The Western Medical Reformer.  The body they had been told to dig up was that of a Mrs Friend:

Mrs. Friend, it seems, died in February, 1830, very suddenly, having retired to rest almost in her usual health, and was lifeless before 3 o’clock the next morning. She was a hale, hearty old lady, 68 years of age, almost unacquainted with disease. It becoming necessary to remove the bodies of those buried in the ground described, the coffin of Mrs. F. was taken up with the rest, and was found to exhibit no indication whatever of decay; being as solid as when first placed in the earth.

As the gravediggers lifted the coffin out of its not-so-final resting place, the lid was accidentally knocked off it.  ‘An astonishing spectacle presented itself’, the report continues:

The face and neck of Mrs. Friend exhibited all the fullness which it possessed in life, and indeed, the cheeks were somewhat larger, and, with the exception of the absence of the eyes, there was not the slightest appearance of decay. The surface, however, was covered with a thick, filmy white mould, and upon removing it, the skin presented the fairest, purest surface ever seen on alabaster! The flesh was as solid and hard as the purest sperm, and as perfectly free from disagreeable odor!

 ‘Sperm’ in this context means a hard white waxy substance found in the heads of sperm whales (and much used at this date in cosmetics and candles). 

On further examination the whole person was found to be in the same wonderful state of preservation; body and limbs presented the same hard, undecayed appearance. Of 200 dead bodies interred in this burial ground this is the only one that has not returned to dust. The cap on her head, and the ribbons, had preserved their form and color.

This phenomenon, known as adipocere, is now pretty well understood: sometimes anaerobic bacteria digest the tissues of a corpse, turning the flesh into a waxy substance through a chemical process known as saponification (used in industry to produce soap). Another celebrated example is the Soap Lady disinterred in Philadelphia in 1875 and still on display in at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. There’s an interesting article about her (with picture) on their website.

A few days after this dramatic event, the family of the late Mrs Friend – presumably rather shocked to see her again, 16 years after her death – made preparations to rebury her at Harlem, on the other side of Central Park:

But, fearing that there might be danger of its removal for scientific or other purposes, they had it taken up and conveyed back to the house, and with the original coffin enclosed in a mahogany case, with a lid entirely of glass, there it now lies, the subject of great interest to numbers who visit it daily. 

How tasteful. A real conversation piece. Alas, there is no word on the subsequent fate of Mrs Friend’s mortal remains; maybe she’s still propped up in a corner of somebody’s sitting room.

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