February 19, 1843, Ms. Charlotte Haven visited the Nauvoo, Illinois home of Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. For a small fee, Mrs. Smith invited Charlotte to follow her up a staircase to a dark attic room where several Egyptian mummies waited to welcome them.
According to the accounts of many visitors, the mummies were somewhat unpleasant to look at, with little of their original wrappings remaining. They couldn’t have been in great shape, either because, according to Charlotte, Mrs. Smith held up a detached appendage of one of them and said, “This is the leg of Pharaoh’s daughter—the one who saved Moses.”
The back story Charlotte and other visitors received was that the four mummies in Mrs. Smith’s possession included “King Onitus,” two of his daughters, and one poor unknown Egyptian who was spending his afterlife a long way from home.
The four mummies, as well as can be traced, arrived in the US from somewhere near Thebes, in the spring of 1833 along with seven others and at least a couple of scrolls covered in hieroglyphs no one in the US could yet read.
A man named Michael Chandler, armed with an unsubstantiated story about being the nephew and heir of Egyptologist Antonio Lebolo, claimed the shipment and spent the next two years exhibiting what was the largest collection of mummies to have yet toured the United States. He lost a few here or there along the way and eventually sold the final four to the early Mormon church in Ohio.
But Chandler wasn’t the nephew of Antonio Lebolo, at least not as far as any scholar has been able to find, and if Pharaoh’s daughter—the one who saved Moses—lost her leg in the afterlife, it didn’t happen in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Mummies have a strange history in the US, where they’ve found themselves displayed in parlors, ground into medicine, and used by painters to get that just right shade of mummy brown. They were unrolled before curious audiences, occasionally stripped so their linen could be recycled into paper, and yes, sometimes they were the unwitting mouthpieces of showmen and religious leaders.
The “lives” of mummies in 19th century America, thousands of miles from where, in life, they had planned to rest for eternity, was strange indeed. Strange enough even, that when I first began to learn about the Lebolo mummies and Michael Chandler, I thought there’s a great book in that.
I often have that thought as I’m researching. And once in a while I act on it.
My new novel Gentleman of Misfortune follows the story of the Lebolo mummies and the imposter who stole them. In my story, his real name is Lyman Moreau, a clever gentlemanly criminal, who hatches a plan, assumes an identity, and finds himself caught up in a dangerous journey that will bring him face to face with love and loss, and will force him to consider his own mortality. His adventure takes him through several states, along the Erie Canal, across the paths of several historical figures, and to the doorstep of a prophet. He doesn’t quite get all the way to Mrs. Smith’s attic. But there’s probably a great book in that, too.
You can check out a brief excerpt of Gentleman of Misfortune here. If it sounds like your kind of book, please consider one (or more) of the following:
1. Buy yourself the book. Reading is good for you, and you deserve it.
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19th century gentleman swindler Lyman Moreau finds his next big scheme and loses his heart among a collection of mummies bound for the most successful prophet in US history. #historicalfiction #tbrlist #newbook https://amzn.to/2Q47em1
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