Victorian Mummy Unwrapping

The Rip Through Time series will regularly deal with the quirkier side of Victorian culture. As Mallory readily (and regularly admits):

“Even as an adult, I still have a macabre turn of mind.”

Disturbing the Dead (book 3) starts with, well, a mummy unwrapping party. Westerners had been fascinated by mummies since well before the Victorian era, but it’s in this time when they started to host unwrapping parties. Some of these were public—and sold out quickly—while others were private, usually led by someone with a connection to Egypt.

Annis flaps a hand. “They call it a scientific demonstration, but it is a party. An evening get-together at the home of Sir Alastair Christie, newly returned from Egypt with two mummies, one of which he intends to unwrap, in what may well be the event of the season—or the week, at least. The unwrapping will be done by Sir Alastair, who is also a surgeon with the Royal Infirmary. Sir Alastair is quite the bore and will insist on lecturing, too, but it is a small price to pay to see a mummy unwrapped.”

The unwrapping craze peaked before the novel’s 1869 setting, and in this period it would have been in decline. Some historians believe it waned as people increasingly recognized the moral implications of disturbing the dead. Others say the reason was a little less admirable—Victorians bored of it, and it fell out of fashion. The last public unwrapping was in 1908.

In the novel, the character of Sir Alastair Christie is both a surgeon and an antiquarian, like the leading “mummy unwrapper” of the nineteenth century, Thomas (Mummy) Pettigrew (1791-1865) Allegedly, one of Pettigrew’s interests in mummies was taking measurements of their skulls trying to prove they were Caucasian. It’s that old racist theory that Ancient Egypt was so advanced that someone other than Egyptians must have been responsible for it—white folks, aliens, supernatural forces… Yeah, I wasn’t getting into that, so in the book, Christie’s interest is purely historical.

As for the unwrapping part, would everyone, even early in the Victorian period, have been okay with it? No. It was a topic of debate for both historical and spiritual reasons. With this series, I’m often fighting the misconception that all Victorians held certain “old-fashioned” views (on woman’s rights, race, sexual orientation, poverty) That would be like expecting everyone in our era to hold similar views on, well, anything. In the Victorian era, people held a wide spectrum of views on everything, including unwrapping mummies for entertainment.

Does the idea of unwrapping a mummy offend me? Yep. Would it offend everyone in my own time? Nope. Would everyone in this time be okay with it? Nope. I suspect that’s one reason this unwrapping is being swathed in the respectable cloak of science.

Mallory squirms at the idea, while fully recognizing that, as a child, she’d have jumped at the chance to see a mummy unwrapped. That macabre turn of mind, again. While Duncan shares her reticence, they ultimately do attend, and from there, things take a bit of a turn, launching into my mystery plot.

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