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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

The Mummies of Mammoth Cave

For thousands of years, the caves in the Mammoth Cave region served as a source of valuable mineral deposits for Native Americans. Evidence of their presence within the caves has been found in the form of paths marked with woven moccasins, extinguished cane reed torches, and, in certain instances, their own remains. The caves in this area have yielded some of the most noteworthy archaeological findings in American history, including a considerable number of human mummies. The following individuals have played pivotal roles throughout history in shaping the narrative, tourism, and development of Mammoth Cave, one of the world's great treasures.

Fawn Hoof Mummy

Certainly one of the most renowned mummies ever showcased in Mammoth Cave, and a key factor in Mammoth Cave's global recognition, is Fawn Hoof. The saga of Fawn Hoof unfolded in late 1811, weeks before the New Madrid earthquakes would rock the region, during saltpetre mining in Short Cave, a few miles south of Mammoth Cave. A miner's routine strike to the ground with a wooden shovel transformed from a soft, dull thud to a louder, hollow ring. This marked the beginning of the intriguing tale. Upon discovering a flat rock beneath the cave's floor, the miner, driven by curiosity, carefully excavated around it. As the clay was removed from the top and sides, an unusual sight unfolded - a four-foot by four-foot crypt was revealed beneath the rock, leaving the miner in shock.

Fawn Hoof mummy

Resting within the crypt was the preserved body of an ancient Native American woman, seated upright with remarkable preservation. Her folded arms and hands, wrapped with a small cord, suggested intentional positioning at the time of her entombment. Two deerskins, embellished with imprints of vines and leaves of a pure white substance, draped her body, enclosed by a large square sheet woven from inner tree bark fibers. Her dark red hair was cut to within an eighth of an inch and her teeth were white and in perfect symmetry.

Evidence of two wounds emerged upon inspection: one between ribs near the backbone and an injured eye. Her skin was dark and hardened to her bones. Further examination revealed her weight at 14 pounds, and her height to be 5' 10", an uncommon height for a woman of her time. Beside her lay moccasins, a knapsack, and another bag made from inner tree bark fibers.

Within the knapsack and second bag resided a treasure trove of ancient artifacts. These included a woven head cap, seven ornate headdresses crafted from large bird feathers, hundreds of brown bead strings, a necklace with twenty red fawn hoofs, an eagle claw pendant, a bear jaw pendant, two rattlesnake skins (one with fourteen rattles in it), numerous bunches of thread and twine, seven needles made of horn and bone, two bundled cane whistles, and more.

Recognizing the discoveries significance, the miner informed Archibald Miller, Mammoth Cave's manager, who subsequently moved the mummy and grave goods to Mammoth Cave. In an effort to capitalize on the discovery and attract visitors to Mammoth Cave, owners Hyman Gratz and Charles Wilkins exhibited them near the entrance of the cave at the Rotunda. The mummy was a smash hit, drawing in visitors from all corners of the country, and catapulted Mammoth Cave into immediate fame. Guides led visitors through Mammoth Cave, ensuring they always passed through the Rotunda to catch a glimpse of the prehistoric mummy. However, superstitious miners working in the Rotunda during the War of 1812 grew worried about its presence and went on strike. To address this and end the strike, the mummy was moved from the Rotunda to another passage known as the Haunted Chamber (now Gothic Avenue). Here, she was placed in a recessed niche on a ledge near the entrance of the passage, a place to this day still known as Mummy's Seat. Visitors today can view the ledge when exploring the cave on the Gothic Avenue Tour.

Fawn Hoof mummy

After spending a few years on display in Mammoth Cave, Nahum Ward, originally from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, and later residing in Marietta, Ohio, acquired the mummy in November 1815 during a lengthy visit to Mammoth Cave. He transported the mummy via a rented springboard wagon to Lexington, Kentucky, where it gained popularity through successful exhibitions. Ward then journeyed east, making stops in Cincinnati, Marietta, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York where he charged twenty-five cents to locals eager to view the mummy. The tour eventually reached Worcester, Massachusetts, where the mummy found a new home at the American Antiquarian Society in 1817. A small carte de visite held by the American Antiquarian Society, once displayed with the mummy, bears the inscription "Photograph of a female mummy taken from the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in October 1815 by Nahum Ward of Marietta, Ohio."

By 1822, Fawn Hoof's fame had reached a global scale, with newspapers throughout England and Scotland covering her remarkable discovery. In the March 15, 1822 issue, the Liverpool Mercury featured an article from Archaelogia Americana, providing a comprehensive description not only of Mammoth Cave but also of the discovery of Fawn Hoof and the crypt she was found in.

Liverpool Mercury Fawn Hoof article

In 1852, during a visit to the American Antiquarian Society, author Nathaniel Parker Willis wrote: "The boudoir of this lady of uncertain age was in one of the side avenues of the cave...there has been many a charming fancy portrait thus drawn from the departed Fawn-hoof, and of all the ladies of past ages, I doubt where there is one who is the subject of a more perpetual series of unwritten poems. She is Kentucky's posthumous belle." His remarks bestowed the name "Fawn Hoof" upon the mummy, a title that persists to this day.

Under the guardianship of the American Antiquarian Society for 59 years, Fawn Hoof was exhibited at the 1876 World Fair (Centennial Exposition), held in Philadelphia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the 1893 World Fair (World's Columbian Exposition) in Chicago, before being transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in exchange for other specimens in the National Museum. There she was photographed and displayed until 1900. Post-1900, the Smithsonian egregiously undertook the removal of flesh from Fawn Hoof, dissected her bones, and placed her in a box. Assistant Secretary of the National Museum was later quoted saying, "the skeleton of the mummy was considered of more scientific value as a determinant of race than the mummy." And with that, Fawn Hoof faded from public memory.

Fawn Hoof mummy

In 1926, the Mammoth Cave National Park Association, actively seeking to designate Mammoth Cave as a national park, appointed Ted Giles as its publicity director. Among his responsibilities was the creation of narratives surrounding Mammoth Cave and its history, with Fawn Hoof being a notable focus. However, having been out of the spotlight for so many years, her whereabouts were a mystery.

That November, Giles began a correspondence search with all of the major museums of the world. Numerous newspapers nationwide and throughout Europe ran articles regarding the search, with several publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Constitution, and others, inaccurately reporting that Fawn Hoof hailed from Amazonian descent. Just over three months and many return letters later, persistence finally paid off, and the disarticulated bones of Fawn Hoof were rediscovered within the Smithsonian Institution's Division of Human Anthropology, patiently waiting in box 4789.

Today, there is plenty of misinformation circulating online about Fawn Hoof, including many images of a mummy in a glass display case falsely attributed to her. These photos actually depict another Mammoth Cave mummy called Lost John who was discovered in 1935.

Baby Mummy

Although Fawn Hoof stands out as the most renowned mummy discovered in Short Cave, it wasn't the first to capture attention. That distinction belongs to a mummy simply known as Baby Mummy. Unearthed in the summer of 1811 by saltpetre miners, this infant, aged between nine to twelve months, was impeccably preserved, wrapped in a canvas-like cloth, and enveloped in deerskin, much like Fawn Hoof.

Sadly, when the miners transported the infant mummy from the cave to normal atmospheric conditions, all but its skull disintegrated into dust within mere hours. Adding to the tragedy, uncertain about how to handle the situation, the miners disposed of the remains and clothing in a furnace. Deeply troubled by this turn of events, cave owner Charles Wilkins directed his laborers to preserve any future discoveries, promising them rewards for their efforts.

While Baby Mummy may be gone, its memory persisted through the tales of early Mammoth Cave tour guides. In 1856, one of the guides at Mammoth Cave told the following tale: "Mr Croghan, the owner of the cave, when exploring a new avenue a few years ago, discovered a young child lying on the ground apparently asleep. It was cold to the touch, yet he could hardly believe that the life was extinct. He had it removed to the hotel. But imagine his astonishment, when visiting the body the next morning, to find nothing left but ashes. It had probably been entombed for years."

Scudder Mummy

Following the discoveries of Baby Mummy and Fawn Hoof in 1811, another significant discovery unfolded in 1814. Two mummies were unearthed side by side, positioned nine feet below the surface of Short Cave. One of them was identified as a male, and the other as female, both remarkably well-preserved and found resting in a squatting position. The identification of these mummies, along with the prior discoveries of Baby Mummy and Fawn Hoof, earned Short Cave the nicknames "Mummy Cave" and "Mummy Valley."

Scudder Mummy

The male mummy, believed to be under 14 years of age at the time of death, stood at a height of 5' 1/4", with hardened flesh clinging to its bones, weighing 6-1/2 pounds. Adorned in three layers of garments, the innermost being a deerskin adorned with large brown feathers meticulously fastened. The second layer comprised a twine-constructed envelope, similar to a modern-day bed comforter, filled with feathers. The outermost layer consisted of a finely woven, well-constructed square sheet made from inner tree bark fibers, akin to the one found on Fawn Hoof.

The mummy's skull exhibited a two-inch-long fracture directly over the cerebellum, believed to be the cause of death. In 1814, both the male mummy and its wardrobe were dispatched to New York, where they were presented to John Scudder for exhibition at his American Museum. Following Scudder's death in 1821, his son John Jr., relocated the American Museum to a larger building on the corner of Broadway and Ann Streets in the fast-growing Lower Manhattan. In 1841, legendary showman P.T Barnum acquired the museum and, consequently, the mummy. Featured in Barnum's promotional booklets, the mummy drew throngs of visitors until tragedy struck in 1865 when Barnum's American Museum was destroyed by fire, leaving the mummy lost for good. The only known image of the Scudder Mummy is a drawing created by naturalist and professor at Transylvania University Constantine Samuel Rafinesque around 1816 (shown above), later published in the Medical Repository in 1817.

As for the female mummy, historical records are scant. Dr James Rice of Glasgow, Kentucky, examined her shortly after discovery, noting that she was larger in size than the male, having a rifle ball-sized wound hole in her thorax, and having been cloaked in fabric garments similar those found on the male mummy. She was later sent to cave owner Charles Wilkins in Lexington, Kentucky, and later to an unknown location. Some claim that she was sent to the Western Museum in Cincinnati where she was lost to a fire in 1844, but there was no museum in Cincinnati in or around the time of her discovery. Others claim that her remains were sent to Peale's Philadelphia Museum, but there are no records indicating that she found a home there either. Where she is today, if she exists at all, is unknown.

Hopewell death mask

It's noteworthy that in the carte de visite from the American Antiquarian Society featuring Fawn Hoof and Rafinesque's depiction of the Scudder Mummy, both mummies are depicted with what seem to be funerary masks. The shamans of the Adena (500 BC to 100 AD) and Hopewell (100 BC to 500 AD) cultures engaged in ceremonial rituals, often donning death masks crafted from skull and cloth. After the completion of the rituals, these masks were interred with the deceased. This custom has been discovered in the Mound City complex of Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, specifically within Mound 7, previously known as Death Mask Mound. Fragments of a death mask resembling the one depicted on Rafinesque's Scudder Mummy were uncovered at this site in the 1920s.

Audubon Avenue Mummy

In 1814, a mummy was discovered along Audubon Avenue in Mammoth Cave by two saltpetre miners, adding to the collection of mummies previously discovered within the area. The miners, desiring to keep their discovery under wraps temporarily, covered the mummy with large stones and made markings on the cave walls for future reference. Unfortunately, upon their return, they couldn't relocate it, and the mummy stayed concealed until 1840 when the Mammoth Cave Hotel owner rediscovered it. Sadly, the mummy had suffered extensive damage and fragmentation from the weighty stones placed on it, diminishing any interest and value that the hotel manager had hoped to benefit from. It was never displayed to the public and the location of it today, if it in fact still exists, is unknown. Several cave tours, including the Mammoth Passage Tour, pass through Audubon Avenue where this particular mummy was discovered nearly two centuries ago.

Little Alice Mummy

Little Alice stands out as one of the most contentious discoveries of the Mammoth Cave area. To attract visitors to Grand Avenue Cave (formerly Wright's Cave/Long Cave), a privately owned cave belonging to Larkin Proctor, Proctor hatched a scheme to pilfer a mummy from the nearby Salts Cave, a property owned by the Mammoth Cave estate, and clandestinely transport it to Grand Avenue Cave. Since Fawn Hoof's bags were sent packing in 1815, there had been no mummy on display in the Mammoth Cave area, and Larkin understood that acquiring one would be a lucrative opportunity for his cave business.

Little Alice mummy

According to the Cutliff family tradition, three local men, two Lee brothers and William Cutliff, executed the plot and stole a mummy from Salts Cave, sold it to Proctor for $85, and deposited in Grand Avenue Cave.

One July 23, 1875, Proctor proclaimed the "discovery" of a new mummy within his cave. He specified that the mummy belonged to a completely nude female located in a previously uncharted area of Lee Avenue in Grand Avenue Cave. He detailed the mummy's positioning in the cave as lying on her left side in a sleeping posture with her left arm resting on the ground, albeit missing her left hand. He noted the shrinkage of flesh on her arms and lower limbs, but highlighted the well-preserved state of her body and head, measuring 4' 5" in height.

Suspicions of the discovery were widespread within the community, with none more skeptical than newspaper editor Samuel Young. Young asserted that the mummy had indeed been stolen from Salts Cave and transported to Proctor's cave. Tensions escalated between Young and Proctor, leading to repeated heated exchanges. Meanwhile, business flourished at Proctor's cave, where the mummy and surrounding controversy had attracted thousands of paying customers.

Little Alice mummy

Over the following fifteen years, the mummy remained on exhibit and closely guarded. Around 1890, it was sold to Henry Ganter, the former manager of a stagecoach line and Mammoth Cave Hotel and cave manager. In the years that followed, the mummy was exhibited at Mammoth Cave until Ganter retired to his farm just east of Mammoth Cave. During at least part of his retirement, the mummy inexplicably lay stored in his barn when not being exhibited at Mammoth Cave.

In 1916, George Morrison sought out Ganter to gather information about the underground passages that extended beyond the boundaries of the Mammoth Cave lands. Morrison aimed to open a new cave entrance to showcase these passages, some of which were thought to be exquisite. Ganter, privy to the secrets of the passages and aware of a suitable entrance location, willingly shared this information with Morrison. During their meeting, he also introduced Morrison to the esteemed mummy.

Five years later, Morrison returned to the cave area, successfully opened the new entrance, and developed the eastern half of the cave commercially, naming it the "New Entrance to Mammoth Cave." This sparked a bitter rivalry with the management of the Natural Entrance (now Historic Entrance). To further intensify the competition, Morrison displayed the mummy, which he had acquired after Ganter's death, at the New Entrance. In 1922, he promoted her as "The Lady of the Cave," describing her as a little girl turned to stone or mummified by the cave air, found in Salts Cave in 1875. Morrison claimed that she had been exhibited in various places, including the Smithsonian Institution, and suggested a narrative involving the little girl being captured by Indians, sacrificing her life to avoid torture.

Little Alice mummy

During this period of time, Morrison named the mummy "Little Alice," a name that persists to this day. Little Alice remained at the New Entrance until 1931, when Morrison sold his land and exhibits to the National Park Commission for the new Mammoth Cave National Park. After this, Little Alice was showcased in a small museum within Mammoth Cave until her retirement from public display in the late 1950s.

In 1958, 83 years after her discovery, the most traveled mummy ever discovered in the region was relocated to the University of Kentucky's Anthropology Department where she underwent her first ever detailed anthropological examination. During the examination, Dr. Louise Robbins revealed that Little Alice lived during the first century AD, and shockingly, it was discovered that Little she wasn't a she - she was a he! From that point forward, Little Alice went by the name Little Al.

Lost John Mummy

For millennia, Native Americans mined within Mammoth Cave, employing mussel shells sourced from the nearby Green River to extract minerals such as gypsum and selenite from the cave walls. Over time, these ancient miners ventured deeper into the branching passages in search of fresh supplies. Evidence in the form of chip marks on the walls, remnants of cane reed torches, and abandoned moccasins have provided valuable insights into the routes they traversed during their explorations.

In the 4th century BC, a Native American miner, likely traveling with companions, entered the cave with the intent of finding more gypsum. His only source of light in the otherwise pitch black cave, was a burning cane reed torch. Carrying hickory nuts for sustenance and extra torches for survival, he progressed through the cave, covering nearly two miles, encountering one gypsum bare room after another until finally, the light of his torch unveiled the sought after gypsum.

Lost John mummy

Cautiously navigating a small ledge, he reached a nook beneath a colossal six-ton boulder supported by several smaller stones. While kneeling and scraping at the gypsum from the boulder's underside, he or a companion accidentally dislodged one of the supporting stones, causing the massive boulder to collapse. In a desperate attempt to escape, he tried to crawl to safety, but to no avail. Upon impact, the miner's humerus snapped in half instantly. As the boulder came to rest, it pinned the miner's chest, neck, and hips beneath it. Though his head and legs protruded from the sides, any prospect of escape was extinguished. This spot would become his final resting place - his tomb. Over the passing months, decades, and centuries, his body dried and hardened. As time went by, the dry atmosphere of Mammoth Cave transformed the body into a mummy.

Roughly 2,500 years later, on June 7, 1935, experienced cave guides Lyman Cutliff and Grover Campbell led a Civilian Conservation Corps crew two miles into the cave with the goal of constructing a better trail through the passages. Despite their intimate knowledge of the cave passages, they discovered a ledge twenty feet above the floor, seventy feet south of Waldack Dome. This ledge, previously unexamined by both men, became the focal point of their attention. Methodically, they ascended the wall, and near the top, their gasoline lanterns revealed a narrow passage between a large limestone block and the cave wall. On their hands and knees, Cutliff and Campbell surveyed the area and were astonished to find the protruding head of the mummified miner half buried in the sand.

Realizing the significance of their discovery, they understood that merely mentioning the new mummy could draw hundreds, if not thousands, of people to the site. As a result, they decided to notify Mammoth Cave's manager and the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., and maintained relative silence until experts arrived to take charge. Their only slip-up occurred during a conversation with hotel clerk Arthur Doyle, to whom they disclosed their discovery. During the conversation, Doyle half-jokingly asked, "So, you've finally found Lost John?" alluding to a man who had gone astray years earlier. From that moment on, the mummy was christened "Lost John."

Lost John mummy

Shortly thereafter, archaeologist Alonzo Pond from the National Park Service and anthropologist Georg Neumann arrived at Mammoth Cave. With the assistance of the Civilian Conservation Corps, steel cables and chain hoists were employed to raise the six-ton boulder. Then, Pond carefully removed the sand from around the mummy's head, shoulder, and arm. Despite being partly crushed and fractured under the weight of the boulder, the body exhibited remarkable preservation.

Upon inspection, it was established that the miner was male, approximately 45 years of age at the time of death, standing at a height of 5' 3-1/2". Apart from the modest woven garment that covered him, only two items were found in his possession - a polished mussel shell and a woven bag, both of which the miner had been using for collecting gypsum at the time of his untimely demise.

After lifting the boulder, a raised platform was built to allow visitors to ascend and observe the location where the mummy was discovered, all while avoiding disruption to the ongoing archaeological work.

After archaeologists completed their work, Lost John was then placed in a glass display case and exhibited in Mammoth Cave where visitors could marvel at antiquity.

Lost John mummy

However, after only twelve months of being showcased, Lost John began to accumulate fungus and wither.

Lost John mummy

In late 1936, archaeologists and members of the National Park Service met in Washington, D.C. to decide how to better preserve the mummy, ultimately opting for it to be stored in a synthetic fiber bag with silica gel to absorb any moisture. Collectively, they deemed the discovery of Lost John the most significant archaeological discovery In the United States east of the Mississippi.

Initial estimates on how old the mummy was centered around 500 years. However, radiocarbon dating efforts in the years that would follow, revealed a much different story - the mummy was at least 2,400 years old.

In 1976, with the enactment of federal laws prohibiting the display of Native American remains, Lost John was relocated and buried in close proximity to the original discovery site. Today, various cave tours pass near the burial site; however, there are no signs or markings indicating the specific location.


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