Charlotte’s Mummy

Charlotte Capers, long-time director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was—unlike present-day bureaucrats—a woman of considerable intelligence, charm, and wit, characteristics which she brings to the fore in a speech on the history of MDAH given before the Mississippi Historical Society in March, 1972. In this excerpt, she talks about a once locally famous curio that is still displayed on occasion at the Old Capitol Museum.

The Department remained in the basement of the New Capitol until 1940, when more commodious quarters, but not much more, were provided in the War Memorial Building. Since Dr. Rowland’s day, the Department has acted as a clearing-house historical agency, and the Museum function was included in this. However, when the Department moved into the War Memorial Building, the collection housed in the New Capitol was, of necessity, abandoned. Certainly, there was no space in the north wing of the new building for a full-fledged museum. Thus, we left in the basement of the New Capitol, a mysterious and miscellaneous collection including an Egyptian mummy, the hip-bone of a North Dakota dinosaur, a pair of size 20 shoes worn by an Alabama Negro in World War I, and a toy snake from the Philippines.

The star of this collection was the mummy, who had enchanted visitors to Jackson ever since she had been acquired as lagniappe in a collection of Indian artifacts many years ago. A real mummy mystique had developed, and grandfathers brought their toddling grandchildren in to see the mummy that they had seen as boys. When the board of trustees quite properly adopted in the Old Capitol Restoration, the collection was limited to items associated with Mississippi history. The mummy, an Egyptian, was plainly out of place. It fell my lot to separate the little Egyptian, known variously to her public as ‘The Little Gypsy Lady,” or occasionally as ”The Dummy,” from her admirers. I knew that such a move was to court disaster, for my generation, too, had visited the mummy on our way to Central High School, and we considered her as much a part of our American heritage as George Washington, Robert E. Lee, or Theodore G. Bilbo.

But, in what may have been my finest hour, I saw my duty and I did it. And I firmly withdrew ”The Little Gypsy Lady” whose connection with Mississippi history was tenuous at best, from the Museum exhibits. She was relegated to a collection file room in the old Capitol to be seen only on demand by her most avid admirers. Her admirers all turned out to be avid, and they continued to demand her until the day when a staff member, annoyed by constant calls for our most popular tenant, stated in a speech that he would like to bury the mummy.

That blew it. The wire services picked up the story and the shot went round the world. The public from all over arose to defend “The Little Gypsy Lady.” We got insulting mail and insulting telephone calls; and one concerned gentle man wrote from Germany about “das mumi,” calling us bigots for some reason. Offers of adoption for the mummy flowed in. An undertaker from Ohio wanted “‘The Little Gypsy Lady” as an example of his art. An archaeologist said that when he examined her he found her to be a young female offered her a home provided that her esophagus came with her (translate: sarcophagus).

The strife went on, I held my ground, the story of Mississippi, as you will see, is told in thirty-three permanent exhibits in this Old Capitol Museum, and the small foreigner slept on in a collection file room. Way back in Dr. Rowland’s day he had a seal designed for the Department with the motto ‘Veritas,” or “Truth.” Seldom in our lifetime, however, are we justified for taking an unpopular stand on the side of the truth. The mummy proved to be a heartening exception. In the 1960s a young medical student at the University of Mississippi asked for permission to x-ray the mummy. In the interest of truth, permission was granted. The startling results of this scientific investigation were reported in The Mississippi History Newsletter as follows:

“Our mummy, who has been the star of our museum for as long as we can remember, was exposed as a fake when Gentry Yeatman, an enterprising Ole Miss medical student x-rayed the little Egyptian princess and found her heart was full of nails. Further, she had a German language newspaper in her left foot, and her right arm yielded a copy of The Milwaukee Journal, 1898. Again we note that things are not always what they seem, and the mummy is a dummy after all.”

Photo by Patti Carr Black

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