For all the Halloween hoopla, it’s hard to top the unveiling of a mummified human arm when it comes to local events.
The National Museum of Civil War Medicine will show the arm, believed to be a Civil War soldier’s, during a members-only event at 5 p.m. tonight and again during the Behind the Screams Tour on Halloween night.
The arm came to the museum in a pine box in February 2012, but this is the first it will be displayed in Frederick.
Since 2012, it underwent several tests at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in D.C. to determine more about its history. Prior to that, the arm was at the Antietam Battlefield Museum in Sharpsburg, which closed in 2004, and was known as “The Arm of the Unknown Soldier.”
Before that, its history gets a little sketchy.
There are different stories.
A popular one, according to National Museum of Civil War Medicine curator Lori Eggleston, is that a couple weeks after the Battle of Antietam in 1862, a farmer found the arm in a field and put it in a glass pickling jar with brine, and that six months later, he gave it to a Boonsboro surgeon by the name of Dr. Gaines, who kept it in a formaldehyde solution.
His son supposedly found the arm wrapped in cloth after his father died, and it had other owners along the way.
Other stories claim the arm was found near Burnside Bridge.
“We can’t find proof,” Eggleston said.
The Smithsonian Institution determined the arm belongs to a Caucasian male who was about 16, give or take a couple years, though Eggleston had been told originally that a pathologist examined the arm and determined it to be from a 19-year-old.
“We know there were under-age boys who decided to enlist,” Eggleston said.
This finding wasn’t as surprising as another — that there was no evidence of chemical preservation. The forensic anthropologists found no mercury, arsenic or lead, not even extra salt in the arm, Eggleston said. “It dried up naturally.”
Eggleston had been told it was embalmed and/or preserved in a brine solution.
Perhaps a bit disheartening to history buffs, after all was said and done, was that not much was learned about the arm.
As far as how old it was, where it was found, if it was in fact that of a Civil War soldier’s, “the Smithsonian could not prove and couldn’t disprove either,” Eggleston said. But, she added, how often do you find an arm that was torn off a young man in a field right after the bloodiest one-day battle in America?
(It’s believed that the arm was not amputated but torn, Eggleston said, just above the elbow.)
The Behind the Screams Tours on Halloween will be conducted in the museum after hours — in the dark, with a lantern lighting the way.
Staff will tell about their own encounters with ghosts at the museum — which, for more than 100 years, was a used as a place to embalm the dead — and they’ll also recount stories about ghosts during the Civil War.
The mummified arm will be shown to those on the tour and will remain on display at the museum during regular business hours.