John Sheldon and the Mummified Mistress

I found the following story in Deirdre Coleman and Hilary Fraser's edited collection of essays, Minds, Bodies, Machines (p. 2).

In 1775, British surgeon anatomist John Sheldon's mistress died. Well, some sources say she was his mistress. Some say she was just a random patient of his. Either way, she died and requested that her body be preserved and kept next to him always. So he did.

He embalmed and taxidermied the hell out of her, and put her in a display cabinet at his house. Some accounts say he kept it in his bedroom until his wife complained and forced him to put it elsewhere in the house. Because nothing makes for matrimonial harmony quite like your husband's dead girlfriend watching you sleep.

What we do know for sure is that this mummy got an awful lot of visitors and was largely considered to be a triumph of embalming, looking very lifelike and attractive years after her death. One French visitor in 1784 described seeing the corpse–who was kept totally naked–in a glass cabinet in Sheldon's bedroom. He wrote:

"She had fine brown hair and lay extended as on a bed. The glass was lifted up, and Sheldon made me admire the flexibility of the arms, a kind of elasticity of the bosom, and even in the cheeks, and the perfect preservation of the other parts of the body. Even the skin partly retained its colour, though exposed to the air . . . Wishing afterwards to imitate the natural tint of the skin of the face, a coloured injection was introduced through the carteroid artery."

Twenty years after the embalming, when Sheldon died, his widow presented the preserved corpse to teh Royal College of Surgeons, probably relieved to be alone in her own house for the first time in two decades.

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