At the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, we are the keepers not only of facts and objects, but also of stories – and it’s part of our mission to share those stories with you. The purpose of this blog is to share the stories of our history, artifacts, volunteers, staff and more. Be sure to check this space for updates, and follow us on social media to learn even more about who we are and what we do across the state of Indiana.
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The permanent collection of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites contains more than 500,000 objects, from tiny archaeological finds to massive mastodon skeletons. The collection spans across topics, including paper artifacts, pop culture, furniture, clothing and just about whatever else you can imagine.
Together, these objects tell the story of Indiana and the Hoosiers who have shaped the state.
But, the history of Indiana isn’t always cheerful. Sometimes, it’s downright spooky.
Ahead of Halloween, the museum’s curators dug through the collection to find some of the creepiest things we have – and to share those items from behind-the-scenes with you, as many aren’t on display.
From caskets to embalming tools, here’s some of the eeriest items we have.
Gravestone and Table
The table above originally served as a real tombstone in the 1830s or 40s for Margaret and William Maclure, two siblings who lived in New Harmony, Indiana. William Maclure was a well-respected geologist in his day, and he was also a business partner with Robert Owen – a man who attempted to create a utopian community in New Harmony in the 1820s. Sometime between 1879 and 1890, the gravestone was removed and sold to a print shop to be used as an imposing slab. The table was used in the print shop in Community House 2, and today, visitors will find another person’s tombstone there: Thomas Say, the father of North American entomology and discoverer of Say’s Firefly, which became Indiana’s state insect in March 2018.
We aren’t sure why the tombstones were converted – most likely, it was simply an economical reuse of good materials, since the stones provided a nice flat surface for printing. The Maclures and Say are still buried in New Harmony, with new tombstones.
During the 1800s, it was common for people to create jewelry or wreaths from the actual human hair of their loved ones. Sometimes this was done upon a loved one’s death in order to commemorate them, and sometimes it involved living relatives. The hair wreath above, for example, was made by Esther Hall Hyde with hair from each of her 12 children woven together. We have 12 hair wreaths in our collection –but you can see a real hair wreath for yourself in our Level 2 galleries.
That’s right – the above is a painted plaster “death mask,” depicting an unknown older woman. Death masks were plaster casts taken of a dead person’s face, then painted to look like them and hung on a wall or otherwise displayed. If you look closely, you can see the rope loop strung through the back of the mask in order to hang it. Masks were used as memorials of the dead from the Middle Ages through the 19th century. Along with memorials, they’ve also been used as models for painters and sculptors to use after someone’s death and, prior to photography, they were used by police to help identify victims.
Indiana is the leader in casket-making, thanks to Batesville Casket Company. The company began in 1884 as the Batesville Coffin Company and is still in operation today. In our collection, we have a modern casket from 2015-2016 – a Golden Rose commemorative casket – shown above on the right.
The casket on the left is quite different. Made between 1876 and 1880, this child’s coffin features viewing glass, which was for exactly what it sounds like: To view the deceased. That casket was found in the attic of Patterson’s Furniture Store in Wolcottville, Indiana. You can see this coffin for yourself in our Level 2 galleries.
Indiana Funeral Directors Association Collection
We have an entire collection from the Indiana Funeral Directors Association – including the above cooling board. Undertakers used these cooling boards from the 1880s to 1940s, when funerals took place in homes. A block of ice was placed under the board to cool the body, and the holes drilled in the table enabled better air circulation to prevent unfortunate smells.
The electric embalming pump (above) is from 1920-30. The way it works is that the motor turns the metal wheel, and rubber connecting tubes feed the embalming fluid into and out of the body. Embalming fluid preserves a body for many years, even after burial. In our collection, we also have embalming fluid, tools and other artifacts commonly used for funeral services dating back to the mid-1800s.
From the 1700s through today, electrotherapy has been used on people suffering a variety of ailments, including tuberculosis, epilepsy, seizures and more. This electrotherapy machine from 1850 was used to deliver electric shocks to people who either held the electrodes or had them placed on their bodies. The machines were often purchased for personal use. A voltage of 1.5 volts could be produced by the machine’s battery – enough volts to power a flashlight or remote control today. In current times, electrotherapy is used by some for pain management.
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