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Oddities from the Vault

Featured Oddities from the Vault

A Fun Look at Some Odd Items


October is the time to ponder the odd, the unexpected and the unusual.  And we have those in the United Methodist Archives and History Center.    This month we look at three items which reflect on our changing attitudes toward death and dying over the past two hundred years; the John Wesley death mask, the shoes of a women who was knocked off her feet by lightning in a church and the ‘thumb’ of the Rev. George Whitefield.  What oddities we have!

The Wesley Death Mask

The only known surviving death mask made from John Wesley.  Death masks were a standard part of funeral 'art' in the 18th century.  At the very least it was a commemoration of the individual.  For the wealthy and nobility it was often used as a template for the funeral casket or mausoleum adornment.   In Wesley's case we know that this death mask hung on a wall; there is a string attached to its back.   In the 1990s three copies of this mask were made and distributed to Duke University, Southern Methodist University and Rylands Library at the University of Manchester

The death mask was acquired by Drew University in the 1890s from Thomas Osborn, a leading figure in British Methodism.  It was made approximately 6 hours after Wesley's death – note the shape of the eyes.  One can also see that Wesley suffered from a stroke on his right side, and it has been suggested that the bump on his upper right lip was caused by crooked teeth – as a teenager today Wesley would be given braces!


Whitefield's Thumb

The "thumb" was donated to Drew University in the 1980s by a donor who claimed that the thumb had been in his family's possession for generations. It is identified as from the hand and generically known as the “thumb.”   It is well known that George Whitefield, after dying at Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1770 and being buried in the church's ministerial crypt, was visited by the curious and the devout for many years. In fact the crypt was visited regularly until the late 1890s.   As early as 1775 there are records of people opening his casket to take items, mostly clothing.  However, in the 1830s the entire right arm was removed and sent to England.  The gentleman in England kept the arm for about 20 years only to return it in  his old age.  The mayor of Newburyport was so pleased to have the bones returned that he built a special casket and had a parade through the town.   People continued to visit the tomb as late as the 1930s to view the remains.  In the early 20th century the coffin lid was replaced with slate which prohibited further viewing of the bones, although visitors still came to the crypt.


Lightning and Shoes

A final story comes from Quakertown, New Jersey in 1895.  On August 4th  lightning hit the church just as the Sunday service was ending.  It is not clear from the two surviving articles if church service was let out early because of an impending storm or if the  storm came up swiftly and the lightning came out of an apparently ‘clear blue sky.’  Several of the parishioners were standing around the church, some at the front, some near the middle and some near the porch.  

The bolt of lightning struck the bell tower and ricocheted down the tower and into the church.  Some twenty people were in the church when this happened and all were knocked to the ground and apparently unconscious.  Pastor Bowman was the first person up after the event. He later told the newspaper reporter, “ I don’t know what it was, I just felt myself sinking, and I sank down on the floor.  Didn’t feel the building shake.  I didn’t hear a sound or I didn’t see a thing.  I realized I was going and I know I went, but why I couldn’t tell for the life of me. “  A church member, Miss Minnie Frace,  “… was hit on the temple. . . . She had steel hairpins and steel-ribbed corsets [and the ] lightning melted the hairpins . . .  It [the lightning]  pulled the nails from each slipper and made a hole in each one and ripped holes in the side of each at the instep while the leather didn’t appear to be burned. “

The lightning also frightened the horses and started a small fire that was quickly put out.  Someone in the church thought it significant enough that they preserved the damaged shoes from one of the women.  Those shoes have now passed over into the Greater New Jersey archives. And yet by keeping them they surely imply that the people survived and this was a way to remember God’s grace.  

So there are our October oddities.  Enjoy this Fall season.