Dear Cecil: Is it true that Egyptians use mummies for fuel to heat their food? Barking Spider, via the Straight Dope Message Board
No. What you heard was a mangled version of a classic joke told by one of the masters of the art. But don’t feel bad — people have been falling for this one for more than 130 years.
The story isn’t that Egyptians use mummies to heat their food now, it’s that they used them in the 19th century to fuel their locomotives. We owe this wonderful conceit to Mark Twain, who in The Innocents Abroad (1869) writes, “The fuel [Egyptian railroaders] use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and … sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D–n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent — pass out a King!'” Lest anyone fail to realize it’s a joke, Twain then adds, “Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe anything.”
Didn’t help. To this day you can find reputable organizations such as the BBC solemnly reporting this “fact” as fact.
Twain’s joke may have been inspired by a related yarn making the rounds in the mid-19th century, namely that American paper manufacturers were so hard up for raw materials that they imported mummy wrappings at a few cents per pound to use in their mills. But (the story continues) they failed to sterilize the wrappings first, leading to an outbreak of cholera among mill workers. Only slightly more believable than the railroad joke, this story is stated as gospel in several respected histories of papermaking. To be fair, it contains a few threads of truth: Prior to the introduction of wood-pulp papermaking in the late 19th century, paper manufacturers did indeed face a shortage of feedstock and commonly relied on rags. Many of these rags were imported, some of them from Egypt. However (you jamokes!), it doesn’t follow that the Egyptian rags had originally been wrapped around mummies.
To clear things up we turn to Professor Joseph Dane of the University of Southern California. In a 1995 article in Printing History, Dane points out that most of the supposed evidence for mummies-as-paper-ingredient is either dubious or consists of (horrors!) more jokes. For example, a 12th-century doctor in Baghdad claimed the bedouin made paper out of mummy wrappings. While it’s true local tribesmen have been pretty cavalier in their treatment of antiquities (supposedly the peasants who found the Dead Sea Scrolls realized that scholars would pay just as much for a fragment, so they cut up intact scrolls), Baghdad is pretty far from Egypt — most likely the doctor was just relating a traveler’s tale. In 1856 a newspaper in Syracuse, New York, published a story claiming “an Onandaga county man” was making paper out of mummy wrappings. This was later transmuted into the belief that the publication itself had been printed on such paper. The newspaper made no such claim, and in fact its story had been reprinted from another paper. Credibility: low.
The idea that U.S. paper mill owners imported mummy wrappings and caused a cholera outbreak probably stems from a story along those lines told by the son of Maine mill owner Augustus Stanwood after his father’s death. However, the son went on to claim that his father’s only competition in buying wrappings came from the Egyptian railroad, which wanted them for fuel — and we all know how much truth there is in that. The son told this yarn many decades after the event, and it seems plain he had conflated tall tales with reality.
Dane concludes with a discussion of an 1855 manuscript by a New York scientist named Isaiah Deck, who proposed that Egyptian mummy wrappings could be used to make paper. Many historians think Deck’s proposal was meant seriously, but Dane thinks it contains such obvious exaggerations that it was surely a satire in the manner of Jonathan Swift.
All that having been said, a couple points need to be made. First, Egyptian mummies really were — and are — available by the truckload. Originally reserved for the upper classes, mummification eventually became popular with the proles; by modern times, mummies numbered in the millions. A single burial ground discovered not long ago is thought to contain 10,000. Second, mummies really were used for bizarre purposes. During medieval times they were ground into powder and used as medicine. Later this powder was used as a paint pigment called “mummy brown,” a practice that persisted into the early 20th century. (Thanks to Carter Lupton of the Milwaukee Public Museum for this information.) So maybe Twain’s comment about a profane engineer should be attributed to a profane painter: “D–n these plebeians — pass out a King. I want to finish this job with one coat.”
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.