Learning secrets of the 'soap lady'

Posted: May 17, 2008

She has held the same tortured pose for more than 130 years, her face contorted, her mouth open wide in a scream. Bony hands press against her sides, and strands of strawberry-blond hair fall behind her.

Who is this mysterious woman at the Mütter Museum in Center City? How and when did she die? And what can modern science tell us about her?

One night last week, after the museum closed, radiographers, forensics experts and technicians attempted to pry the secrets from the so-called "soap lady" using high-tech portable X-ray equipment.

They carefully removed her coffinlike Plexiglas case and positioned the equipment a few inches from the woman, who got her name after being exhumed in Old City in 1875 in a kind of mummified state. Her flesh had been transformed through a rare chemical reaction into a soapy substance called adipocere (prounounced AD-i-poe-SERE).

"She's getting a physical," Mütter curator Anna Dhody said, standing near a wall of skulls and medical oddities. "It may be too late for her, but it's not too late for us to learn more about her."

The experts took Polaroid X-rays of the soap lady and laid out the images - 60 seconds later - on the floor to create a life-size mosaic of her skeleton.

Then they took industrial digital X-rays to be developed later. Dhody removed three strands of hair for toxicology tests that could reveal whether the woman had arsenic or lead in her system.

This summer, coring devices will take plugs of tissue from her liver and a kidney.

"We're using archaeo-forensics - applying modern forensic techniques to a historical mystery," Dhody said.

So far, researchers know the soap lady was a short, stout woman with a healthy skeleton. She probably suffered from a painful kidney stone or gallstone.

But more X-rays and tests are required "before a theory can be formed about the cause of death," Dhody said. "This was an evidence-gathering day."

Younger than she looked

Modern technology has already disproved some long-held beliefs about the soap lady.

Records at the Mütter, part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, originally described her as a "fat woman" named Ellenbogen who died of yellow fever in 1792.

"We have some fiber-optic lighting in her case, and the running joke is: The good news is you can see her a lot better, and the bad news you can see her a lot better," Dhody said. "She's not a Bo Derek '10.' "

Believed to have been buried near Fourth and Race Streets, she was toothless, "old, probably ugly, with a nutcracker profile," records said.

But her story changed about 20 years ago after X-rays showed she was younger - no older than 40 - and had died of unknown causes in the first half of the 19th century.

The X-rays were taken by Gerald J. Conlogue, then a radiographer and assistant professor in the diagnostic imaging department of the Jefferson College of Allied Health Sciences, and students Michael Schlenk and Frank Cerrone. The three returned May 8 for the new round of research.

Using a 35-year-old piece of equipment during three X-ray sessions, they previously found seven straight pins and two four-hole, copper-alloy buttons on the body.

"The pins and buttons really nailed it down. They showed she died in the 1830s, not in the 1700s," said Conlogue, now a professor in the diagnostic imaging program at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

Two pins were found on the head and probably affixed a chin strap to keep the mouth closed for burial. The five others were on the body and likely fastened a shroud. Buttons, found at each wrist, had been part of her clothing.

The pins were machine-headed, the type made in England beginning in 1824 and in the United States beginning in 1838. The buttons were the kind used in the 19th century, and their location was consistent with long-sleeved clothing, which was popular in the 1820s and 1830s.

"With the state-of-the-art imaging and cores from the liver and kidneys, we'll have a better idea of what's going on inside," Conlogue said. "She may have died from malaria or yellow fever."

"We also hope to see with greater detail where the calcification is - whether she had a gallstone or kidney stone," said Cerrone, now MRI supervisor at Bryn Mawr Hospital. "That would have caused some discomfort."

Working on the soap lady "was one of my favorite things to do in college 20 years ago," added Schlenk, who is MRI supervisor at Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, S.C. "We spent a lot of time on it then. I was 24, and now I'm 44. It's exciting to be back again.

Buried, forgotten, found

Joseph Leidy was excited that day in 1875 when the soap lady was found. A city improvement, possibly a street-widening, had required exhumations at a cemetery.

Leidy, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and member of the College of Physicians, learned that some of the remains had changed to adipocere, a transformation that can affect the fatty portions of a cadaver in a cool, moist environment.

He "came to my house in quite an enthusiastic mood," said William Hunt, one of Leidy's colleagues, describing the doctor's visit in an 1896 article in the Public Ledger.

"They have been buried for nearly a hundred years, nobody claims them, and they would be rare and instructive additions to our collections" at the Mütter, Leidy said, according to Hunt's account.

Hunt said he and Leidy had spoken to the cemetery superintendent, who "put on airs, talked of violating graves . . ."

But before the pair left, Hunt said, the man "touched [Leidy] significantly on the elbow and said, 'I tell you what I do. I give the bodies up to the order of relatives.'

"The doctor took the hint, went home, hired a furniture wagon, and armed the driver with an order reading, 'Please deliver to the bearer the bodies of my grandfather and grandmother.' This brought the coveted prizes, and the virtuous caretaker was not forgotten."

The Mütter Museum says the bodies of a man and a woman were procured by Leidy for $7.50 each. The last name attributed to them was Ellenbogen - German for elbow - according to a 1942 report by Joseph McFarland, a pathologist and former curator of the museum.

The man's body later went into the collection of the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

In the Mütter Museum's collection of medical oddities, the soap lady remained perhaps the oddest and most intriguing of all. "And she is still a mystery," said Dhody.


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

 


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