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Rest in Pieces
Some of Washingon's Museums Display a Visceral Feel for History

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

"These are gallstones," say Lenore Barbian. "They're from President Eisenhower."

She's the collections manager at the National Museum of Health and Medicine and she's holding a little jar with a rubber band around it. Inside are jagged pieces of crystallized cholesterol that were removed from the gallbladder of the general who liberated Europe from Hitler, the president who guided America through the '50s.

"This is the actual specimen pathology jar with the original label," she says. She rolls up the rubber band and reads from the paper beneath. " 'Date: 12 December 1966; sex: male; age: 75.' This was donated by his wife. So we actually have her return address label."

Barbian sets the jar back into the drawer.

"But wait," says Steven Solomon, the museum's spokesman, in his best parody of a late-night TV ad huckster, " there's more!"

Barbian picks up a gnarly piece of bone. "This is the vertebrae of John Wilkes Booth," she says. "When he was shot and died, he was autopsied, and they took this as a sample of a gunshot wound to the cervical vertebrae and his story was written up in medical journals."

Booth's backbone has a little glass rod sticking through it at a jaunty angle.

"It shows the trajectory -- the path of the bullet," Barbian explains. "The spinal cord runs right through here, so it clearly bisected the spinal cord. And if you don't believe me, we have the spinal cord, too."

She picks up a yellowing chunk of plastic containing a forlorn gray string of the infamous assassin's spinal cord. On the back of the plastic is the screw that held the specimen to a wall back in the days when it was still exhibited in the museum.

"This used to be displayed next to the Lincoln skull fragments," she says, "and the decision was made that it wasn't appropriate, and Booth was put into storage."

She lays the spinal cord and the vertebrae back into the drawer, a few inches from Ike's gallstones.

"But wait," says Solomon, " there's more!"

He's right. Washington's museums have lots more body parts of the famous and the infamous -- enough parts to create a celebrity Frankenstein if the curators would permit it. Alas, they won't. They're very finicky about this stuff.

Celebrity body parts are the ultimate souvenirs. For centuries they've been collected and displayed. In the Middles Ages, Christians kept the bones of saints in ornate reliquaries that were sometimes shaped liked the arm or foot they held. More recently, American carnivals exhibited the mummies of famous felons, and Communist nations displayed the embalmed corpses of dead dictators -- Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung -- in elaborate shrines.

And just this month, actor William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on "Star Trek," sold his kidney stone to the online casino that had already purchased a cheese sandwich containing an image of the Virgin Mary.

Washington's museums have nothing quite that garish. A few of their celebrity body parts are on display, but most are not. Too macabre or too tacky for genteel modern sensibilities, they sit in drawers or in lockers, unseen.

There's the severed leg of one famous general and the dentures of another. There are tumors removed from two presidents. And the brains of a famous explorer and an infamous assassin. And the mummy of a bank robber. And the corpses of famous quintuplets.

On display at the Air and Space Museum is the stuffed body of an astronaut of sorts. In a cabinet in a back room of the Museum of Health and Medicine is the skeleton of the same pioneer -- Able, the rhesus monkey who flew into space in the nose cone of a Jupiter rocket in 1959.

And then there's the object that's stored in a jar that's locked in a box in a remote hallway at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History -- a legendary item that's been the subject of fevered rumors for decades. It is, of course, bank robber John Dillinger's . . . um, "synthetic polymer."

There's a story behind that, of course. There are stories behind all these strange specimens.

Who's Buried In Grant's Tumor?

A Confederate cannonball arched through the smoky sky over Gettysburg, Pa., on July 2, 1863, and came down -- pow! -- on the right leg of Union Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, who was riding his horse.

Sickles, a flamboyant former congressman, puffed on a cigar as he was carried away on a stretcher. At a field hospital, he threw down a shot of brandy and then a doctor amputated his leg above the knee. Sickles sent the shattered limb to the Army Medical Museum, which had been founded a year earlier, along with a note: "With the compliments of Major General D.E.S."

After the war, Sickles would visit the museum, then located at Ford's Theatre, to commune with his leg on the anniversary of its unfortunate demise.

Today, Sickles's leg bone is still on display at the museum, which is now known as the National Museum of Health and Medicine and located on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The shattered leg sits only a few feet from a glass case containing the skull fragments and hair taken from the bullet wound of Sickles's old friend, Abraham Lincoln.

Those famous body parts fit right in at Health and Medicine, which displays a wide array of delightfully macabre medical wonders -- deformed fetuses, a huge hairball taken from the stomach of a 12-year-old girl who liked to chew her hair, and an elephantiasis scrotum that looks like the world's biggest portobello mushroom. It's a great place to take visiting relatives -- particularly the visiting relatives you hope won't visit again.

But the best -- or maybe it's the worst -- of the museum's celebrity body parts are stashed away in back rooms.

Alan Hawk, the museum's historical collections manager, pushes a handcart through a gloomy back room until he finds a well-lit spot. He picks up a small antique wooden box that contains medical slides of a tumor removed from the mouth of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1885. Next to that box is a small green plastic case containing slides of a tumor taken from the mouth of President Grover Cleveland in 1893.

"This tumor was removed during a secret surgery aboard a yacht while he was president," Hawk says, holding the green case. "Nobody was told that he had major cancer of the mouth."

Next to those grim specimens on Hawk's cart is an object that looks like something you might find in a joke shop -- a pair of dentures, upper and lower, with bright white teeth set in reddish-brown gums.

"Pershing's own," Hawk says. "Donated to us by him in 1937."

He picks them up with fingers clad in special white gloves. He doesn't want to damage the false teeth that chewed the chow that sustained the life of legendary Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, who fought Geronimo and Pancho Villa and led the U.S. Army in World War I.

These teeth weren't saved because they came from a famous general, Hawk stresses. They were saved as an example of a medical technology from a specific time and place. A buck private's teeth would be just as important.

But, he admits, "it is kind of cool to have Pershing's dentures."

Why did Black Jack donate them?

"I think he just got a new pair and gave us his old ones," Hawk says. "It may be possible that he just walked in and said, 'Here.' "

Down the hall, more celebrity body parts are resting in peace in a brightly lit room where a skeleton stands guard. The walls are lined with baby blue file cabinets that contain amazing wonders:

There's the skeleton of Able. And nearby, the skeleton of Ham, a chimpanzee astronaut who flew into space in 1961 and then retired to the National Zoo.

And the mummified bodies of five newborn babies -- the Lyons quintuplets, who were born and quickly died in Kentucky in 1896 and then spent years exhibited in carnivals before their mother sold them to the museum in 1916. (The quints aren't the only carnival attraction in the museum's collection. In a warehouse is the embalmed corpse of bank robber Andy "Dutch" Kapler, who was shot by lawmen in 1922 and became a posthumous sideshow attraction before he was donated to the museum in 2003.)

The baby blue file cabinets also contain the presidential drawer that holds Ike's gallstones and Booth's spinal cord and . . .

"This is another assassinated president -- Garfield," says Barbian as she picks more gnarled vertebrae out of the presidential drawer. Garfield's backbone has a couple of ribs protruding from it.

She points to one: "This rib is complete." She points to the other: "This one was fractured by the bullet."

Garfield was shot in 1881 by a crazed lawyer-evangelist named Charles Guiteau, who was incensed that Garfield failed to appoint him consul to Paris. At his trial, which was a media circus, Guiteau ranted and raved that God instructed him to kill Garfield. He was convicted and hanged and then dissected by a doctor from the museum, who searched Guiteau's brain, unsuccessfully, for evidence of insanity.

"Here," Barbian says as she opens another baby blue file cabinet, "we have Charles Guiteau."

Lying in the drawer are Guiteau's bones. Plus a Mason jar containing his brain, chopped into cubes about the size of dice. And two vessels containing his spleen, which fascinated doctors because it was grossly enlarged.

Mysteriously missing from the drawer is the assassin's trigger finger, which turned up at an antiquarian bookstore in Philadelphia in 2003.

"There was one finger bone in a cutesy little case with a glass top," says Barbian, "and it was labeled 'Guiteau's Trigger Finger.' "

A college history professor informed Barbian about the finger and she called the bookstore, which immediately FedExed the purloined digit back to the museum.

"It's under lock and key," she says.

Battle of the Brains

Ancient Egyptian mummies are stacked on shelves. Amazonian shrunken heads are filed in a cabinet. And on a table in the "Mummy Room" in the basement of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History is a jar containing a human brain floating in alcohol.

"This is the brain of John Wesley Powell," says David Hunt, the collections manager of the museum's Physical Anthropology Division.

Powell became a national hero in 1869, when he led the first boat trip through the Grand Canyon. He also explored and mapped much of the West.

These days, Powell's brain is as gray as oatmeal and as cracked as a dry lake bed in a bad drought. The Smithsonian possesses it because of a bet Powell made with his friend W.J. McGee, president of the National Geographic Society.

"They had a running joke about who had a bigger brain," says Hunt. "And they both signed an agreement that after their death, the bet would be posthumously decided."

This was in the 1890s, when scientists loved to study the brains of great men, hoping to discover the secrets of their brilliance. When Walt Whitman died in 1892, his brain was sent to the American Anthropometric Society for study. Alas, the study was foiled when a lab technician dropped the good gray poet's brain on the floor. Splat!

When Powell died in 1902, his brain was shipped to anthropologist Edward Spitzka, who enjoyed weighing and comparing the brains of prominent men. (Whitman's was 1,282 grams; Turgenev's a hefty 2,012.) Powell's brain weighed in at 1,488 grams. In a 1903 article in the American Anthropologist magazine, Spitzka described the cracks and crevices of Powell's brain at great length -- 57 pages -- before reaching this momentous conclusion:

"Major Powell, geologist, ethnologist, explorer, philosopher and soldier, was endowed with a superior brain, and, what is more, he used it well."

In 1912, McGee died at the Cosmos Club in Washington. His brain was extracted from his cranium and weighed -- 1,410 grams. Powell had won the bet, although he wasn't around to brag about it.

Spitzka donated Powell's brain to the Smithsonian in 1921. These days, it spends most of its time in an alcohol-filled stainless steel box in a storage facility in Suitland.

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, here's the rest of the story:

In the 1990s, Hunt got a call from Troy L. Pewe, a geology professor at Arizona State University and a Powell devotee who enjoyed taking students on boat trips through the Grand Canyon.

"Dr. Pewe asked whether it would be possible to make a donation of his brain with the stipulation that it would be kept near Powell's brain," Hunt recalls. "I said that would certainly be something we could do."

Pewe died in 1999. His brain was put on dry ice and shipped to the Smithsonian, where it was laid to rest next to Powell's brain. Occasionally, his family inquires about it.

"They call and say hello and ask if everything's okay," says Hunt. "And of course it is."

The Dillinger Legend

John Dillinger, the legendary bank robber and escape artist, took two girlfriends to the movies on July 22, 1934, watching Clark Gable play a gangster who ends up in the electric chair in "Manhattan Melodrama."

When Dillinger walked out of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, a team of FBI agents shot him dead. After his body was hauled away, souvenir-seekers dipped handkerchiefs in his blood.

The death of "Public Enemy No. 1" made headlines across the world. Since then, his story has been told in countless books and movies and his legend gave rise to a bizarre rumor -- that the G-men amputated Dillinger's allegedly enormous penis, which is now stored in a Washington museum. In 1991, the legend was cited in the TV show "The Wonder Years." In 2003, it was repeated in the movie "The Recruit." Historian Douglas Brinkley recounted the rumor in his 1993 book "The Majic Bus," suggesting it as a "potential thesis topic for some hapless graduate student."

"It's one of those urban legends that's been around for a long time," says John Fox, the FBI's official historian. "But there's no evidence that the corpse was mutilated in any way -- except for the bullets he was shot with."

At the Museum of Health and Medicine, questions about Dillinger's most famous appendage are asked so frequently that Solomon, the museum's spokesman, addressed the issue in the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the museum's Web site:

"Do you have 20th century gangster John Dillinger's penis in the collection?

"No . . . We don't have it but we get a lot of phone calls asking if we do."

The Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History has no such disclaimer on its Web site.

"We do have something pertaining to Dillinger," says Daniel Rogers, chairman of the museum's anthropology department. "It's not a body part. It's made out of rubber or latex. I guess you could describe it as a medical model."

Rogers is sitting in his office with anthropologist Laurie Burgess and museum spokesman Randall Kremer. Nobody knows where the Dillinger item came from, Rogers says, and it has never been officially entered into the collection. For years it was stored in a jar labeled "J. Dillinger." When that jar broke, it was placed in another jar.

"It's been around here longer than I have," Rogers says. "and I've been here for 17 years."

"Why don't we go take a look at it?" says Kremer.

Burgess leads the men through a maze of third-floor hallways lined from floor to ceiling with wooden boxes that hold various specimens. She stops outside Room 300, takes out a key and unlocks a pale green wooden locker. Inside are two jars. One is empty except for a layer of dust. There's a small hole just below a label with words typed on it:

"J. Dillinger

FBI Transfer

SI Mammals Div."

And below that, handwritten: "To Anthropology 1-27-53."

The other jar is larger. It's filled with water and contains a long, narrow pale white object about 16 inches long.

Burgess reports that she inspected the object a few days ago. "It's a synthetic polymer," she says.

In other words, it's a piece of plastic. Nobody knows where it came from or when it arrived. It's not listed in any records at the Smithsonian or the FBI. The folks at both institutions figure it's probably a joke inspired by the famous rumor.

Which raises the question: Why does the Smithsonian keep it?

Rogers smiles when he answers, and his reply explains a lot about why Washington's greatest museums keep stuff like Ike's gallstones and Booth's backbone and Pershing's dentures and Ham's skeleton and Grant's tumor and Powell's brain and Guiteau's spleen.

"Museums," Rogers says, "have a tendency not to throw things away."

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