The Fisk Mummy

I originally found this story on Atlas Obscura’s blog here. Anything in quotations is from that blog. I’ve also done some additional research of my own.

Let’s talk today about the Fisk Burial Case, or the “Fisk Mummy”, a coffin that was too creepy even for the dead-obsessed, creepy-ass Victorians.

“In 1848, Almond Fisk [yes, his name was ‘Almond’] patented a metal coffin he believed would revolutionize death. One problem: some people thought the burial case with its human contours was creepy as hell.

“The ”Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal” — also known as the “Fisk Mummy” — was designed to preserve the corpse in a cast-iron mummy-shaped case for travel or other delayed interment, and also to keep from spreading disease as outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera were being blamed on overcrowded cemeteries.

“This was especially true in the United States where Fisk was born, where formerly contained cities like New York had spilled beyond their bounds many times, including in their cemeteries where churchyards were packed to the topsoil, raising the cemetery ground several feet above the surrounding sidewalk. But with a metal sarcophagus, this grotesque collapsing of the flesh into decay could be contained, even slowed. ”

I’m sure this was also seemed a great idea in terms of imperialism–America was rapidly expanding westward, Britain and France were colonizing much of the rest of the globe, and the financial rewards from the coffins could therefore be endless. Outbreaks of ‘native’ diseases could help be controlled, those who had died in foreign climes for Queen and country could be shipped back home for burial in their family plots, and those who were buried with jewelry and other items of wealth could be significantly safer from grave robbers.

Fisk’s patent reads: “From a coffin of this description the air may be exhausted so completely as entirely to prevent the decay of the contained body on principles well understood; or, if preferred, the coffin may be filled with any gas or fluid having the property of preventing putrefaction.”

Given the Victorian obsession with death, which is extremely well documented, this provided a far more ornate way to mourn the recently departed: the caskets could be fitted up with loads of ornamentation (angels, roses, etc.) and there was also a (super eerie) window so you could look in at the face of the person you’ve just lost, who may or may not be veeeeeery slowly decomposing before your eyes.

Nope. That’s a whole big bag full of nope.

Fisk encountered a whole lot of business trouble regarding this patent. Firstly, few people wanted to buy them because, let’s be honest, that’s some plain spooky shit right there. Secondly, the coffins cost an absolute fortune, going for anywhere from $7 to over $100 (at its cheapest, that’s about four times as much as a standard wooden coffin). Finally, his factory burned down the year after he registered the patent; one source says that Fisk himself was caught up in the fire and eventually died from his injuries months later. (I don’t know if he was buried in one of his own contraptions or not).

The patents were bought up by other manufacturers, but these manufacturers encountered the same problems, and more.

One hurdle they had to overcome: it was reported that the coffins tended to explode. As bodies break down, they produce various gases that–without room for escape or expansion–would build up to a breaking point. One of the manufacturers wrote a strongly worded letter to the New York Times rebuffing any notion that these coffins could explode. I’m not sure one way or another who was correct (any science people out there able to shed some light on this?)

The coffins stopped being produced by 1888 at the latest, and when these coffins are rediscovered they become quite the big museum attraction:

“You can also find Fisk mummies on display at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee; the Herr Funeral Home Memorial Museum in Collinsville, Illinois; theCanton Historical Museum in Collinsville, Connecticut; and one in a grand windowed funeral carriage at the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And of course, they still rest quietly in crypts and catacombs — 19th century Victorians encased in their own visions of a better afterlife.”

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