Monday, June 29, 2009

A Bit of Soap

Warning: one slightly gruesome picture, below, about halfway down)

There is a story in my head, certainly a conflation of two different stories. In one of the stories, a man who endowed some institution stipulated in his will that he should be preserved upon his death and seated in a cabinet in the foyer of the institution, so that he might oversee the comings and goings of the people who came after him. The other story involved a fat man who had been buried in just the right conditions that he had been turned entirely to soap. I pictured him, my conflated man, sitting in a chair in a cabinet somewhere with a suit on, a solid block of man-seeming soap, watching with saponified eyes the comings and goings of his modern brethren.

The man in the cabinet turns out to be Jeremy Bentham, an influential London philosopher (and the founder of Utilitarianism) who had his body preserved and set into a cabinet he called his "auto-icon" (see more here). The soap-man of my conflation, on the other hand, is actually a man who was dug up at the same time as the Soap Lady who resides at the Mütter Museum, that holiest of weird medical museums. Both bodies had been disinterred somewhere in Philadelphia, possibly as part of a street-widening project.

"Due to the unusual nature of the two bodies, Dr. Joseph Leidy, a prominent physician, scientist and professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was notified. It is unclear how Dr. Leidy acquired the cadavers, but he eventually presented them to two separate museums." (link) The woman ended up in the Mutter Museum, and the man went to the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, the man is no longer on display, but the Soap Lady can still be seen, for a fee.

My early vision of a person converted into a solid block of soap, liable to dissolve in floods, is not actually accurate either. Adipocere, otherwise known as grave wax or mortuary wax, "is a water-insoluble material consisting mostly of saturated fatty acids. It is formed by the slow hydrolysis of fats in decomposing material such as a human cadaver by action of anaerobic bacteria...Corpses of infants and overweight persons are particularly prone to adipocere transformation. Adipocere formation begins within a month of death, and in the absence of air it can persist for centuries."

This process, called saponification (also used to refer to the reaction which makes common soap) happens in cold, moist environments where the lack of oxygen keeps aerobic bacteria and other agents of dissolution from doing their work. My guess is that the anaerobic bacteria actually live off some byproduct, such as the alcohol which comes from the conversion of fats to soap, and so they actually precipitate the transformation to that end.

In regular soap, fats or oils are boiled with an alkali agent, such as lye or wood-ash, and the resulting mess which comes from this combination of heat and pH is a solid substance with a curious molecular makeup. On one end of the molecule is hydrophilic, meaning it likes water: it can be dissolved by water. The other end of the same molecule is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn't like water, and this end is actually able to dissolve grease molecules. "The hydrophobic portion (made up of a long hydrocarbon chain) dissolves dirt and oils, while the ionic end dissolves in water. Therefore, it allows water to remove normally-insoluble matter by emulsification." [wiki]

In other words, it magically bridges the gap between two universes: that of oil and water, which we all know do not normally intermingle.

Interestingly, one of the beneficial uses of hot-fat saponification is in the kitchen:

"Fires involving cooking fats and oils... burn hotter than other typical combustible liquids, rendering a standard class B extinguisher ineffective. Such fires should be extinguished with a wet chemical extinguisher. Extinguishers of this type are designed to extinguish cooking fats and oils through saponification. The extinguishing agent rapidly converts the burning substance to a non-combustible soap. This process is endothermic, meaning it absorbs thermal energy from its surroundings, decreasing the temperature and eliminating the fire." [wiki]

In the ancient world, many people did not, apparently use soap for bathing. The earliest form of soap, made by boiling fat with ashes, was probably only used for washing Babylonians' clothing; and there is some evidence that the Phoenicians were producing it, probably as a hair pomade, in about 600 BC. The Greeks and other mediterranean ancients, commonly cleaned themselves by rubbing with scented oils and then scraping themselves with a metal strigil, bringing off the dead skin and dirt with the oil (this is making a comeback now as a "modern" beauty method).

The Celts, on the other hand, seem to have had soap from a relatively early period. While the Romans had baths, and seem to have looked down on soap's crude smelliness, the Celts may have had a cruder approach to cleaning altogether. When one is crouched in a cold stream, in a cold country, one tries to get on with the job as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Castile soap came to London in the 1500s, the first true hard soap to be seen in those parts; it was made by boiling wood ash and olive oil, and then adding brine to make the soap float to the surface. By adding salt, the soap separates itself more thoroughly from the lye and the other byproducts of the soap-making - creating a hard, white soap which grows harder with time (without losing its whiteness).

Which is interesting, because people who have observed saponified corpses have often compared them with this kind of soap. Sir Thomas Browne describe it this way:

"In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castle-soap: wherof part remaineth with us."

In Lake Crescent, Washington, a murdered woman's body came to the surface of the lake three years after her death in 1937, and a witness said, "She had the consistency of... Ivory soap."

The Higgins children, from the Hopetoun Quarry murder case, Edinburgh

But how could a body, submerged in water, be acted upon by anaerobic bacteria? One would think the oxygen in the water would preclude it. A very likely answer is that there is a thermocline, a layering effect where the upper, changeable parts of a body of water separate out from the deeper, colder, temperature-stable areas; these remain undisturbed for long periods of time. This means the oxygen mixing that goes on at the upper reaches of the water doesn't make its way to the lower reaches. I suspect the cold environment and the stillness, also mean that any aerobic bacteria use up extra oxygen until there isn't enough to support more oxygen-thirsty life forms.

So when Hallie Illingworth's body was pulled out of that cold Washington lake, she looked almost perfect. "She was full formed as in life; what had been an attractive woman; even her mass of auburn hair seemed strangely natural, almost untouched in appearance by the watery grave from which she had just been removed." She was white as marble, almost shiny in her perfection. If she were a saint, it would be safe that she would be designated incorruptible.

Grave wax (adipocere) tends to be a strange substance, smooth and, when it's had time, relatively hard and brittle (not always; it depends on the conditions). The Soap Lady is considered so fragile that they don't dare move her unless absolutely necessary. It tends to begin on the outside of the corpse - the longer the body has been interred, the deeper the saponification penetrates. This has led to some rather extraordinary mistakes. Augustus Granville, for example, in 1821, performed the first really scientific dissection of an egyptian mummy, taking six weeks to unwrap it and examine every inch of the remarkably beautifully-preserved corpse. He very accurately surmised a number of things about her: that she was in her mid-50s, that she had been quite well-fed, that she had an ovarian tumor. However, in examining the body he found she had been preserved in a way not described by Greek historian Herodotus' 5th-century eyewitness accounts - that being the record which Granville was working from.

There were, according to Herodotus, two ways of preserving a corpse: the cheap way and the expensive way. Both ways involved removing the organs from the corpse - and yet, Granville's mummy's organs were still almost entirely intact and in place.

"Granville concluded that the embalmers had used a method Herodotus had missed. One clue to the technique was the softness of the skin and muscles and the pliable joints. Another was the presence throughout of a waxy substance, which Granville believed was a mix of beeswax and bitumen. He deduced that the body "must have been plunged into a vessel containing a liquefied mixture of wax and bitumen and kept there for some hours or days, over a gentle fire." He tried the treatment on stillborn babies. It seemed to work." [from New Scientist's article on same]

Granville decided to give a scientific presentation of his findings, but was unable to resist his flamboyant urges, and made his presentation in a room lit entirely by candles made from the "wax" he scraped from the corpse. It wasn't until Egyptologist John Taylor joined the British Museum in the late 1980s that Granville's sample cases were found again, and the "wax" discovered to be the saponified flesh of the mummy herself.

Making candles of the flesh of the dead is not unheard-of, however, though it is usually done more intentionally than Granville's dubious debut. The Hand of Glory, for example, is a sort of grisly candle holder made from the cut-off hand of a hanged man. Take a candle made from the fat of a (possibly the same) hanged man and put it into the grasp of, or attach it to the fingers of, the hand. Now light the wick (preferably made from the hair of the dead man), and all the people in the house will sleep without waking while you plunder their treasure. It cannot be put out by any means except dousing with fresh milk, and there are many stories (rather startlingly like urban myths in their repetition and style) of intelligent chamber-maids putting out the candle and waking the house when the thieves were busy.

The recipe for preparing the hand, which must be cut from the corpse while it is still hanging in the gibbet, goes as such:

"Squeeze the blood out of the hand; embalm it in a shroud and steep it in a solution of saltpetre, salt and pepper for two weeks and then dry in the sun. The other essential for its use is a candle made from hanged man's fat, wax and Lapland sesame." (This according to the Whitby Museum in Whitby, England, where such a hand is housed. There is also, supposedly, one in the museum in Walsall, England).

Hangings these days are rare, and when executed are rather brief and hygenic. It is hard to imagine there would be an opportunity for cutting off the hand while the body is still in the gallows (since gibbets are no longer used, this would be your only option). Still, it is tempting to consider a discreet proviso in one's will about where you will be buried - in the hopes, someday, that your remains might be turned to soap. As a contribution to science, of course.


James G. Mundie's awesome photos and drawings of exhibits in the Mütter Museum

A Short History of Soap: fascinating stuff!

Soap Lady, a children's book by underground comics writer/artist Renee French, about a dirty boy who meets a naked woman made of soap who has washed up near his town. With its storyline about friendship and acceptance, it was apparently a departure from her usual style, which has been described as "surreal" and "grotesque."

A thirteenth century description of soapmaking by King Al- Muzaffar Yusuf ibn `Umar ibn `Ali ibn Rasul

A creepy post-mortem love/obession story

Germany's modern problem with their corpses not rotting properly

Top 10 famous corpses

An interesting article about a corpse garden created for forensics students at the University of Tennessee to learn about rates of decomposition (WARNING: Not for the squeamish)

Make your own castile soap with these soap recipes.

The Hand of Glory in the Harry Potter Wiki, which I only just discovered.


Tom Banwell said...

The best discourse on saponifation this reader has ever had the privelege of perusing. Bravo!

Natasha said...

This post was incredibly informative! I wasn't aware an article on soap could be so riveting, but you've encouraged me to greater heights of research on this topic. Thank you; well written!

Virgin In The Volcano said...

I love your blog and this is a fantastic post.

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