Museum Mystery at Broad Street Station

In 1899, Broad Street Station was one of the busiest in London. An important hub for freight and passengers, millions of people passed through it each year.

Over at the North-Western Goods yard, workers loaded and unloaded cargo around the clock, heaving crates and containers amidst the hissing of steam, the rattling of trolleys and the piercing scream of whistles.

On the morning of Monday the 17th of April, a small team of workers were checking through a pile of boxes when they came to one addressed simply to the Hamburg Museum in Germany.

They noticed it was missing the necessary customs label, so decided to check there was no funny business going on. As they took a closer look, newspapers later reported, ‘an ancient and fish-like smell assailed the nostrils of the intelligent handlers of the goods.’

Curious about the aromatic contents of this suspicious box, the men set about opening it up. As the lid gave way, they recoiled in horror. Packed carefully inside was a naked human body.

The police were summoned immediately, and the box was removed to Kingsland Road Police Station. Here, a full examination revealed that the body was that of a woman age around 24 years old. The only mark of violence that could be discerned was a small cut on her left-hand side.

In the box alongside her were a number of carefully packed human skulls. This was a curious business indeed. Officers immediately sprang into action, in an attempt to trace the sender of this most morbid parcel.

In the meantime, journalists caught wind of the story. Headlines in the next morning’s papers screamed ‘Nude body found in box!’ and ‘Railway mystery!’.

Some reports claimed that the unfortunate woman’s head had been removed from her ‘mummified’ or ‘blackened’ body, while others claimed that not only was her head intact, but that it boasted waves of golden hair and piercing blue eyes.

The most sensational account claimed that no less than six railway clerks, two detectives and an inspector had all fainted instantly at the sight of the body.

The majority of reports seemed to agree on one detail only – that the explanation must be sinister. ‘All indications point to murder’, one journalist suggested, while another went further: ‘of course, it was murder’, they said.

By the end of the week, once the police surgeon had examined the body, all became clear… and the explanation was perhaps stranger than murder.

The woman in the box was a very long way from home indeed. She was not a murder victim, but a mummy from Peru.

A Chinchorro mummy at Padre Le Paige Archaeological Museum, Chile

The surgeon believed she had been dead for at least a decade, but she was almost certainly far older than this. Her body, which was bent double, had been well preserved by the hot sands of her home.

Still intact was her dark braided hair, and keeping her company were a number of skulls from the same region. Perhaps they had known each other in life? I’m sure they never dreamed that they would one day travel from the Andes to the bustling metropolis of Victorian London.

The historian Christopher Heaney describes Peru as ‘the Earth’s largest natural laboratory for making mummies.’ In fact, over 7,000 years ago, the Chinchorro people of this region became the world’s first practitioners of mummification – thousands of years before the Egyptians.

Though their techniques changed over time, they always removed skin and organs from the corpse before reinforcing the bones with sticks. The skin was then stuffed with vegetable matter, before the corpse was reassembled.

By the nineteenth century, historians and anthropologists had become fascinated by the burial rituals of ancient south American cultures, and their mummies were sought after by museums around the world – where many of them are still on display.

Today many people are rightly uncomfortable with the ethics of displaying human remains in museums, particularly when we consider the context of colonial exploitation in which they were forcibly removed from their places of rest.

These were not concerns shared by those who packed their mummy into a crate and loaded her onto a train.

It’s not clear where the Bond Street mummy ended up. While most reports suggested she was bound for the Hamburg Museum, others claimed she was headed to Belgium. Indeed, there are still Peruvian mummies on display in both locations.

Tintin’s mummy Rascar Capac, from The Seven Crystal Balls

Strangely, those in Belgium have recently made headlines yet again. This is because two institutions in the country have been at war, each claiming their own Peruvian mummy inspired the one that appears in Tintin comic The Seven Crystal Balls.

Who knows? Perhaps Tintin’s Mummy was the very same one that caused a stir at Broad Street Station all those years ago.

Introducing Paderewski

It’s been a long time since I updated my blog, so I thought it was about time I got back on it – especially as I’ve (finally!) started some exciting new projects. The first of these is entitled Musical Portraits in Bohemian London: 1870 – 1930. I was lucky enough to be awarded an Understanding British Portraits Fellowship to support this research, which you can read more about here.

In a nutshell, my aim is to explore the relationships that existed between (visual) artists and musicians in this period, using four portraits at the Royal College of Music (RCM) as starting point. This post is about one of these portraits – a stunning Edward Burne-Jones painting of Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

Paderewski - Edward Burne-Jones

Portrait of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Edward Burne-Jones, 1890

An international piano virtuoso turned statesman, the Polish polymath Paderewski deserves to be far better known that he is. Indeed, I had never heard of him before I started working at the RCM. Allow me to introduce him…

Born in Poland in 1860, Paderewski studied music at the Warsaw Conservatory, later becoming a piano teacher there. In 1880 he married one of his pupils, Antonina Korsak, who sadly died in childbirth the following year. Encouraged and financed by a Polish actor named Helena Modjeska, he studied in Vienna for several years before making his first public appearances as a concert pianist. Modjeska, as a famous actor, was well aware of how a person had to market themselves – she encouraged Paderewski to wear his hair wild, and dress in dark clothing so that he would cut a romantic and artistic figure. Her advice worked – he soon became a sensation and was in demand across Europe.

The pianist inspired an almost fevered devotion in his fans – particularly his female fans. They were dubbed the ‘Paderwski girls’, or sometimes the ‘Paderewski cult’. There were often small-scale riots at his concerts, as women rushed up to him with scissors hoping for a lock of his famous hair. On one occasion the pianist fainted as he was so overwhelmed by the mob of women that surrounded him! Many were quick to cash in on the popularity of the new virtuoso – he became a celebrity in a very modern sense. He was featured in adverts for a wide range of goods, and his portrait appeared on collectible prints, posters and souvenirs. [1]

But Paderewski was far more than a pianist – he also became a noted statesman. Throughout his career, he had been a staunch patriot and often used his platform to endorse the cause of Polish independence. During World War One, he was appointed as a representative of the Polish National Committee in the United States, and was instrumental in gaining President Woodrow Wilson’s support for an independent Poland. In 1919 Paderewski became Prime Minister of Poland and represented his country at the Paris Peace Conference in the same year – there he signed the treaty of Versailles, which restored some of his country’s former territories.

Although his time as Prime Minister was short, Paderewski achieved an impressive amount during his time as leader. He called a democratic election, passed a treaty to protect ethnic minorities and established a public education system. After the election Paderewski resigned, but he continued to represent Poland at the League of Nations. Here he was the only delegate who did not require a translator, as he was fluent in seven languages.

In 1922 the composer retired from politics and re-dedicated himself to music. He performed across the United States, travelling around in a private railway car. During World War Two Paderewski put his political hat on for one last time, travelling to Europe to speak out against the Nazis. In 1941, the 50th anniversary of the pianist’s first US tour was celebrated with a festival called ‘Paderewski Week’ – over 6,000 concerts were put on across the country in his honour. The composer died later that same year.

In later posts, I’ll discuss the important relationship Paderewski had with artists – most particularly Edward Burne-Jones. I’ll also be sharing some fascinating archival sources that provide new insight into the musical world of Burne-Jones and his circle. Watch this space…

[1] For more on Paderewski’s image, I highly recommend this excellent article which is freely available on JSTOR: Maja Trochimczyk, ‘An Archangel at the Piano: Paderewski’s Image and His Female Audience’, Polish American Studies, Vol. 67. No. 1 (Spring 2010) pp. 5-4



eBay: The Forgotten Archive?

I am lucky enough to be a regular user of archives at the British Library, the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery. However, some of my greatest discoveries have occurred not at these esteemed institutions, but on eBay. Yes – eBay; the popular auction site that is a tantalising graveyard of junk and stuff. My favourite eBay purchases include an eighteenth-century map of Barcelona, an antique print of a Slow Loris (don’t ask!) and a collection of ancient, dusty books that is growing rapidly out of control. There is also a small mountain of antique prints stored on top of my wardrobe, awaiting frames and a bigger house to display them all in! You really can buy anything on eBay; from a cornflake shaped like the state of Illinois to a ghost in a jar. There is another side to eBay, though. It can be a treasure-trove of sources for the historian… if you know where to look.


Just a few of my eBay purchases!

eBay supports a roaring trade in prints, postcards, old newspapers and other ephemera. Many sellers of these historical materials post high-quality images of their wares, often carefully labelled with a date and the name of the publication where these images or articles first appeared. As you may know, my own research concerns opera singers of the nineteenth-century. I work with sources including cartes de visite, cartoons, reviews and obituaries. By merely entering the name of a particular singer into the eBay search bar, I am presented with dozens of such sources. Cigarette cards, caricatures, pages from newspaper interviews, sheet music, even genuine letters and autographs. The vast majority of these listings feature high-resolution images.

Prints and pages from old newspapers are in particularly plentiful supply. These listings are carefully labelled with the events and people depicted or written about. This means that you can even search eBay for ‘events’ and bring up an array of useful results. For example, searching ‘Indian Mutiny’ brings up 1,018 results. Aside from relevant books, these results also include medals, prints, nineteenth-century toy soldiers and well over 100 contemporary prints and newspaper reports. Similarly, a search for ‘Great Exhibition 1851’ brings up results which include commemorative mugs, coins and even (intriguingly!) a souvenir razor blade, as well as over 100 antique prints and pages from contemporary newspapers. The best thing about using eBay in this way is the unexpected nature of the materials that it is possible to find; while the British Library holds hundreds of newspaper reports on the Great Exhibition, in which collection could you find a Great Exhibition commemorative razor blade?! eBay can also be a great source for genealogists, who can search for the name of a particular ancestor – you might just be lucky. A cousin of mine once found a set of nineteenth-century beer tankards on eBay, featuring the name of our ancestor who was a prolific London publican in the Victorian period!

While I absolutely believe that eBay is a brilliant and underrated tool for research, it does require some caution to use it in this way. Firstly, we need to recognise that our sources are someone else’s livelihood, and it is important to be respectful of this. I wondered how dealers would feel about historians using their listings and images for research. With these questions in mind I spoke to Robert Clay, a dealer in theatrical postcards and ephemera. Robert has been dealing since 2001 and was kind enough to share his thoughts on this matter with me. Taking Robert’s thoughts into consideration, I have come up with some health warnings and top tips for historians and researchers who might consider using eBay as an archive:

Top Tips for Historians using eBay as an Archive

  1. Do not use sources or images for profit

 Robert feels that most dealers wouldn’t have an issue with historians using their materials, so long as they do not use them for profit. This is pretty self-explanatory; don’t use any images in publications without contacting the seller to discuss this. Robert says, “I have many people who purchase from me but sometimes are outbid or miss the auction and ask if they may have a high quality scan. Theatrical people, costume designers, historians, students and relatives of the performers, I am always happy to help them.” Understandably, though, Robert says that if someone was regularly requesting images from him without making a purchase, then of course he wouldn’t be happy about this. He is, after all, running a business and not an archive! Robert also makes the point that it is possible other dealers might feel differently about researchers using their images. If in doubt, heed my next point…

  1. Communicate with the seller

If in doubt about using an image, ask the seller. Similarly, ask permission before attempting to publish or post an image online. Robert says he is happy that his customers display his images on Flickr, for example, providing that they make him aware of this.

  1. Beware of fakes

Robert tells me that he has started to watermark all of his images, as he has previously had his fingers burnt. There are people out there who steal images from dealers like Robert, and print them on aged paper to pass them off as genuine antiques. Robert once found somebody selling his images on like this for as little as £1.50! This is a criminal offence, and you don’t want to end up with any fakes in your collection or your research. Less sinister dealers might also sell reproductions of antique prints, which can be misleading, so make sure you read descriptions carefully. Exercise caution and judgement; a dealer’s reviews can be a good gauge. This point leads me on to my next one…

  1. Don’t be lazy!

If you find a print that is useful to your research and the dealer has included the name of the book or newspaper where this originated, don’t take their word for it! Whenever I find a relevant print or page from a newspaper, I often follow it up and try to find the original source in a library or archive. This obviously provides me with a better context and understanding of the source, but, more importantly, it helps to verify the image I have found on eBay. Unscrupulous dealers could very easily falsely attribute a print or fake to a generic publication like ‘The Times’. Think critically!

  1. Support the trade

As I have said, it is essential to remember that your sources are someone else’s livelihood. It is important to support the trade wherever possible! Many fascinating items are very affordable; I have purchased antique books and prints for as little as 99p. These materials could also make brilliant teaching resources, offering students a chance to read and handle original sources themselves, rather than relying on digitised materials. Many prints also look beautiful in frames; I love having framed reminders of my research on display at home. Antique prints and books also make unique and thoughtful presents; my partner is a Welshman obsessed with Africa, so one Valentine’s Day I brought him a gorgeous six-volume set of Denbighshire boy Henry Morton Stanley’s In Darkest Africa. Far better than a cuddly toy!

I would like to thank Robert Clay (@RobertClay62) for his help with this post. Robert sells wonderful theatrical prints on his website: He also trades on eBay.

BBC’s Queens of Heartache: A Response

I’m not a fan of music documentaries, but BBC’s Queens of Heartache caught my attention as its subjects are five of my very favourite artists; Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Janis Joplin. What really piqued my curiosity, however, was what a random grouping of women this is. Wildly different genres, different cultures and even different eras; what do these women have in common? The contention of this documentary is that all of these women lived sad lives and sang sad songs; they were all “Queens of Heartache.” Whilst it may be true that each of these women experienced tragedy in their lives, I found this premise made for a very unintelligent and extremely reductive examination of their careers. By painting these women as tragic heroines and grouping them together in this arbitrary way, this film did these singers a disservice. It glossed over their originality, talent and sheer hard work, while ignoring some of the more compelling themes that could have tied these women together in a far more interesting way. My own work is on male opera singers, so ‘singers’, ‘gender’ and ‘celebrity’ are themes I spend much time thinking about. While I found this documentary particularly unimpressive, an analysis of just why I found it so poor made me think about these issues in a different way.

My first issue with this documentary is that its subjects have been selected solely because they are all seen as somehow tragic. All of the women featured in Queens of Heartache died prematurely; Maria Callas lived the longest, dying at the age of 53. Perhaps it is the early death of these women that gives them a tragic reputation, but many male musicians died equally prematurely; as have very many artists, actors and writers of both genders. Is there something about female singers that makes them especially tempting to view as tragic heroines? Maybe not – but can you imagine a male equivalent of this documentary? Kings of Heartache maybe? Who would the subjects be? Instead of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier? Louis Armstrong instead of Billie Holiday? Mickey Rooney in place of Judy Garland? Giuseppe Di Stefano instead of Maria Callas and Janis Joplin swapped for Jim Morrison, perhaps? I don’t think this would ever happen. While each of these males experienced tragedy in their own way, I believe they are very unlikely to be grouped together as tragic ‘heroes of heartbreak’. While I could imagine a documentary grouping men by genre, perhaps focussing on bluesmen, or male rock stars who lived fast and died young, I don’t believe that men would be grouped together across genres in the way that Queens of Heartache chose to group women. Does this mean we are less inclined to see men as tragic heroes? Do we like seeing women in this way and, if so, why? Or does this mean that women are only considered worthy of an hour long documentary when they come in groups? Do we like categorising female artists and putting them in neatly labelled categories? Does this mean that men have more artistic freedom?

Perhaps the worst conceit of this documentary is the way that each of the five subjects are given a tacky ‘nickname’, with which their segment was introduced; Edith Piaf “Urchin Queen”, Billie Holiday “Jazz Queen”, Judy Garland “Showbiz Queen”, Maria Callas “Drama Queen” and Janis Joplin “Wild Queen”. These ridiculous epithets are incredibly reductive, and reminiscent of the Spice Girls’ nicknames (which, at least, were vaguely descriptive!) Again, these names are completely arbitrary; while Piaf’s “Urchin Queen” refers to her appearance, Billie Holiday’s “Jazz Queen” refers to her genre. The other three names are equally nonsensical, but again suggest the instinct to categorise and, therefore, confine women. This has to be ‘dumbing down’ at its worst.

Although this documentary grouped these women together because they are all seen as ‘sad’ in some way, there were many far more compelling similarities between them that were left completely unexplored. Billie Holiday and Maria Callas longed for children. Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Janis Joplin had significant body image issues. Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday had dysfunctional childhoods, exposed to prostitution. Judy Garland and Maria Callas were estranged from their mothers. All of these women had complicated relationships with men and, in the cases of Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, with women too. At least four of the five abused drugs at some point in their lives, and each of them struggled profoundly with fame. While the documentary acknowledged the majority of these facts, there was absolutely no attempt to discuss the recurring themes and question whether there is anything about the nature of female musical celebrity that makes these similarities and issues more likely to occur. The documentary is arranged chronologically, dealing with each of the women in turn and making no attempt to connect them. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why obvious recurrent themes passed unexplored? My PhD is arranged thematically, and this documentary confirmed for me the advantages of exploring singers in this way.

Queens of Heartache suffered, like so many music documentaries do (especially on the BBC?) with singularly uninteresting ‘talking heads’, Lauren Laverne and Katherine Jenkins being prime examples. The real insight came, unsurprisingly, from those who knew and worked with the subjects. John Levy, a bassist who worked with Billie Holiday, made perhaps the most insightful comment. He explained that it was only after Holiday’s death that she became truly popular, noting that “after you’re dead and gone then you’re the greatest thing that ever happened, but at the time you’re doing it you get a lot of criticism – it’s the system.” Again, this idea went unexplored – how does the image and representation of a musical celebrity change after their death? This would have made for a compelling discussion. Was it only after these women’s premature deaths that they were painted as tragic heroines? Is it easier for the public to embrace a troubled woman after she is dead? How would these women be remembered if they had lived long and happy lives?

The real failure of this documentary, however, was the disservice it did to its subjects. Each of the women it featured are unique and interesting in their own right, and entirely worthy of their own hour-long documentary. By painting them as victims this film did not tell their true stories. Edith Piaf rose from absolute poverty through sheer grit and determination, becoming the voice of the French Resistance. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit was released 20 years before the Civil Rights Movement was established, and helped its mobilisation by shining a harsh light on racial inequality in America. Maria Callas achieved her success through relentless training and became an icon because she was expertly media-savvy. Janis Joplin had the courage to sing African-American music in small-town Texas at a time when this was an outrageous prospect for a young white girl, and went on to become a pioneer in a music scene utterly dominated by men. Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, stated decisively that her mother was not a victim. She said, “What [Garland] hated was [when] people thought she was this tragic figure. She had tragedies in her life, but she wasn’t tragic. She was funny and gifted.”

While tragedy may have touched these women, it did not and should not define them. They were talented, original, hard-working and courageous women who we should not be tempted to label and talk about in a reductive way. We should recognise their achievements and individuality, instead of merely grouping them together simply because they are all women. I would love to see documentaries about each of these women that give them the attention and recognition they deserve – because they do deserve it.