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Oddities from the Collections?

06/08/2010

Paragraphs were blotted out with hot irons and acids from this medical treatise of 1573 because the Spanish Inquisition deemed it heretical. (On deposit from the Richmond Academy of Medicine)

Why in the world would the VHS do a show about oddities? Will visitors come to see it? Perhaps the answer to the second question is, “if the oddities are odd enough.” Let me try to convince you that they are.

Over the years, staff members have come upon very strange objects in the collection. Decades ago, an archivist found fingernails and toenails in a mid-nineteenth century letter from a husband at sea to his wife, and in disgust he tossed the body parts away. More recently, while working in the depths of storage, Heather Beattie, museum collections manager, recoiled in horror on opening a box that contains an actual human skull; her shriek went unheard in the silence. There’s odd stuff in this collection! That’s partly because the Society started collecting 179 years ago when ideas about museums were very different than they are today. “Curiosities” were in vogue then.

The "Slovenly Peter" picture books (1850s) were a popular German series created to frighten naughty children into behaving. (Virginia Historical Society, Call no. Rare PZ34.3 H699 1853)

How do you define “oddity”? That’s the first question that occurred to me when I thought about what the show should include. Fortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary provides an easy guide to follow. Precious stones were once valued “for their Beauty, Colour, Oddity, Curiosity.” A person is “odd” if he possesses “an odd characteristic or trait, a peculiarity.” Something that is “fantastic, grotesque, or strange-looking” is odd. So is “a strange event.”

Stones? We’ve got minerals, as well as wood, shells, and fungus. How about rattlesnake fangs—or the rattlesnakes themselves? We haven’t found either yet, but we’ve got a letter that says the fangs were given and the snakes were offered to the VHS.

"Our Junior Partner" (Virginia Historical Society, Accession no. 2001.163)

Was a man odd if he was slight, beardless, high voiced, and came to Congress with whip in hand? His contemporaries thought so, as they did about a Civil War general who was convinced that one arm was longer than the other, who practiced hydropathy (water therapy), and who sometimes fell asleep with food in his mouth.

As to the fantastic and strange-looking stuff, we have plenty. How about a children’s book that depicts political leaders during World War II as animals? Or early medical tools for drawing blood and perforating the skull?

As to strange events, how about a letter that documents two women dressing as Union soldiers? My favorite is the account of the 1706 trial of Grace Sherwood of the Virginia Beach area as a witch. One neighbor claimed she caused his wife to miscarry. Another said she “bewitched their pigg to death.” A third testified that Grace came to her in the night “and rid her and went out the keyhole or crack of the door like a black Catt.” When they dunked Grace, she floated. Then “five an[c]ient women” examined her and found evidence that she suckled demons. That was more than proof enough—Grace was clapped in irons and put in jail.

Odd enough for you? Tell us what you think. Want to see more? Come see the show. It opens June 12.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 02/28/2011 10:42 am

    The Washington Post, which rarely acknowledges the existence of Richmond, actually reviewed this exhibit in the 2/27/2011 edition…eight months after i t opened .

    I am driving down this weekend to see it!

    • 02/28/2011 11:30 am

      Thanks for alerting us to Marc Fisher’s review of our “Oddities” show. I just read it: it’s the best review of any show I have come across in a long time. It makes me want to look at the show again!

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