Egyptomania. It wasn't just an obsession with anthropology, as one might think, but, rather, part of a 19th-century craze that found its expression in everything from heavy Cleopatra eyeliner to elaborate headdresses to Victorian mummy unwrapping parties. The Victorians, you see, were a trifle death obsessed, and seriously into mourning rituals. And, as their name suggests, mummy unwrapping parties were basically gatherings where corpses were de-bandaged amidst great cocktail consumption, afterlife enthusiasm, and merrymaking.
If all this sounds like a gimmick, it wasn't: said mummies were real and imported, and it cost a pretty penny to get a front row seat at their unveilings. Despite the high price, however, no socially conscious person would be caught dead (get it?) at home on a Friday night when they could be seen alive at an unrolling. Read on to find out why ancient Egyptian mummies in Victorian England were the veritable life of the party, despite the fact that they'd been dead for centuries; and to learn why corpse unwrapping parties in Victorian England made their way from ceremonial tombs to gilded parlor rooms in the first place.
If you were a mummy enthusiast in the 19th century, Thomas Pettigrew’s parlor (AKA, the Royal College of Surgeons) was the place to be. As Atlas Obscura explains it, Pettigrew, whose 1834 study History of Egyptian Mummies had created a sensation, was "a friend to many artists and authors, including Charles Dickens; he also knew how to spin scientific theory into fascinating spectacle."
And what a spectacle it was. The first unveiling commenced on the night of January 15, 1834. It took place in a London anthropology museum and was sold out/standing room only, and a storm was poetically raging outside. The mummy in question (a female) was "placed in a contraption that made it seem like she danced as her bandages unraveled around her." (A moving corpse is infinitely more enticing than a deathly still one).
Rumor has it that The Duke of Hamilton was so impressed with Pettigrew's unrollings that he asked him to mummify his own corpse, in the event of his death. Years later, in 1852, Pettigrew honored his wishes, and interred the Duke in an ornate sarcophagus. (According to the article, Pettigrew was also interested in lots of other things, like severed heads, which he often decked out in cockatoo feathers).
It wasn't just the corpse itself that enraptured onlookers: the idea of the various conditions it might be found in was equally compelling. The results were often surprising.
On one occasion, for example, an unwrapped mummy was found to have a head full of sand. (Centuries of moldering away in the desert will do that to you). In another instance, a corpse's under-layer of bandages "had fused with the body," which made it almost impossible for gawkers to distinguish between fabric and flesh. But one of the most sensational discoveries involved the revelation that a female mummy – long rumored to have been an Egyptian princess – was actually a man.
Mummy-unwrapping parties often featured treasures that gave the toys in standard issue birthday goodie bags a serious run for their money. Apparently,
"A rich personage would ship a mummy from Egypt, and then invite his friends to help unwrap it... secreted away in the wrappings were perfumes, religious scriptures, trinkets, and jewelry—exotic prizes for guests to take home!"
All of these jewels had been strategically placed during previous, private unrollings, of course – it's not like hosts were just going to let their vulture-like guests take home real Egyptian artifacts. But the effect was mesmerizing, nonetheless. Just call it an ancient, bandaged piñata that exploded into prizes instead of dust.