Historical Society Showing Oddities
A new exhibit, Bizarre Bits: Oddities from the Collection, opens tomorrow at the Virginia Historical Society. It’s a roomful of items you might not expect to see there.
The Museum was organized in 1831 and it’s accumulated a considerable collection of things that you could call bizarre, weird, or just plain odd.
Rasmussen: We have something like ten million manuscripts, 180 thousand books, 15 thousand museum objects, 200 thousand photographs, five thousand maps, and so on. So when you have that many objects, collected over a span of 179 years, you’re bound to have some strange things in there. We come across these things periodically and we found them both interesting because they tell us something about what people thought was important at different times, and those ideas very different then they are today, so it does make you think a little bit.
Curator Bill Rasmussen says he’s discovered the exhibit to be more interesting than he thought it would be. He was especially fascinated by several documents related to the 1706 trial of Grace Sherwood as a witch in what is now Virginia Beach.
Rasmussen: She was accused by a number of her neighbors, of witchcraft, and that was a crime. That was a felony according to English law at the time. One of her neighbors, Luke Hill, said that her witchcraft made his wife miscarry. Another neighbor said that she, her witchcraft killed their pig. The court investigated, they had her dunked, put on a stool and dunked in the water, and she floated, and that was an indication that she was a witch. So then they had five ancient women, the document says, examine her, and they found evidence on her body that she suckled demons. Well we have a document, it was a record that was made actually 100 years later, because the actual court records have disappeared. But somebody made a copy of this in the early 19th Century, and of course that points out the fact a lot of these records are missing, and so how many witches were out there that we just don’t know about.
Some of these items in the collection will make you say wow others may bring on more of an uhhhh.
Rasmussen: You can stop me wherever you want to, there is no order to this, you just sort of wander around and look. This one is particularly interesting, again a letter from a man, Robert Minor, a sailor. He’s out at sea in the 1850’s, out at sea way too long, and he writes back to his wife, and he sends her whatever he could think of, you would think a couple of clips of hair would be the norm, but no, he sent her fingernails and toenails.
You’ll find a pencil sketch of Stonewall Jackson by his mapmaker Jed Hotchkiss, a cigar partially smoked by Jefferson Davis, the bullet that killed the first Confederate officer, nails from part of the State Capitol that collapsed in 1870, silhouettes cut by an armless woman using her mouth, and a child’s small pox scab.
Rasmussen: It’s this tiny little scab and the letter that it was put in, from Robert Massey to another member of the Massey family, because you could inoculate one with this as protection against small pox.
Considering the things that were kept, Rasmussen says, he wonders what types of things were turned away. But he added, The Historical Society is still collecting things that tell the story of Virginia.
Rasmussen: Well this has been going on for 179 years, there’s no reason that it should stop. We’re always interested in objects that tell the history of Virginia, and Virginian’s interests. So, bring on the oddities.
Admission to the Virginia Historical Society is free.
John Ogle, WCVE News