The Art of Human Petrification

Petrification is said to be “the process by which organic matter exposed to minerals over a long period is turned into a stony substance” according to the Oxford Dictionary. Most sources I found claim it takes millions of years for something to become petrified. But does it really take that long?

In 2005, USA Today published an article stating that “researchers at a national science laboratory in south-central Washington have found a way to achieve in days what takes Mother Nature millions of years — converting wood to mineral.” The way it is achieved is by soaking “wood [in] an acid bath, then soaked it in a silica solution for days. The wood was air-dried, cooked in an argon-filled furnace at temperatures as high as 1,400 degrees and cooled in argon to room temperature.”

I recommend having a read through Petrified Wood: Days or Millions of Years? written by John P. Pratt and Ronald P. Millett who question what we are told about how long it actually takes nature to petrify wood. Is it true that it takes millions of years? 

It actually appears that petrification can happen in a much shorter timeframe than what the “experts” claim.

Take this petrified foot found in a cowboy boot that was manufactured in the early 1950s. It was found near Iraan in West Texas in a dried up creek bed in 1980. How could this be if petrification takes as long as they say it does?

There is an article called A Bride Turned to Stone that describes a case from the 1870s of a young bride, after cracking open one of her husband’s geodes and drinking the silica-rich water found inside, who turned almost instantly to stone. 

Consider for a moment that petrification does not take as long as we were told it takes. Consider the fact that petrification can occur within a week, even hours, long before the body even begins to decay.

A few images come to mind.

In the 1890s, a man named Thomas Holmes claimed to have found an embalming process far superior to the that of the ancient Egyptians. He claimed to be able to immortalize people’s loved ones by turning the corpse into marble using an antiseptic gas. He even goes so far as to suggest putting the petrified corpse under a glass case with lights.

Human petrification
Corpses Made Into Marble. The Kewanee Star, August 30, 1895, Vol. VIII, No. 18.

The Father of Modern Embalming

Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1898) is considered to be the “Father of Modern Embalming”, as his techniques are still used today. He was born in New York City to a wealthy merchant, son of Thomas Holmes (1785-1863) and Eunice Demarest (1784-1849), and graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. It is believed that he graduated in 1845, but the records are unclear at that time. His name appears in NYC directories from 1847 onwards as a Physician and Surgeon. 

Human petrification

It was said that “while at university, Holmes had become concerned with methods of preservation used on cadavers for anatomical study. He complained that preservation was either improperly rendered, ineffectual, or not attempted at all. He also thought that the preservatives used at the time (arsenic-, mercury-, and zinc-based compounds) were injurious to the health of the medical students performing dissections. Later, whilst studying under a phrenologist, he had the opportunity to examine the heads of a number of Egyptian mummies, and concluded that embalming could be achieved without the use of hazardous compounds.” (Source: Wikipedia)

After much study and experimentation, Holmes developed what he considered a safe arterial embalming solution. It is said that he based his earlier work on Jean Nicolas Gannal of Paris.

Human petrification

When the war began in 1861, Holmes realized the financial opportunity he had:

Holmes quickly realized the commercial potential of embalming and resigned his commission and began offering embalming to the public for $100. He approached the U.S. Government and obtained exclusive rights to embalm Union soldiers so they could be shipped home for burial in their home communities. Not one to miss an opportunity to make money, Holmes employed salesmen to canvas homes in both the North and the South to sell coupons for embalming to the families who had sons fighting in the war. As armies gathered for the typical huge Civil War battles, Holmes and his crew would set-up camp nearby overlooking the battlefield. At the conclusion of the battle his men would search the thousands of dead bodies for embalming coupons. Those found with the coupons would be carried to the nearby embalming tents for preparation and shipment back home to their families.

Source: Forensic Geneology
Human petrification

Although many sources claim Holmes charged $100 for his embalming services, this receipt from May 12, 1863 states that he charged a more modest amount of $22. 

Human petrification

He apparently embalmed over 4000 soldiers and officers during the American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 26, 1865), allowing their bodies to be sent home to their families and given their respective funerals.

Human petrification

In 1861, he earned his notability when he embalmed the good friend of President Abraham Lincoln, Union Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth. This apparently had put him in high demand, and he began selling his embalming concoction for more money.

There were many people, surgeons and pharmacists, who became aware of how potentially lucrative embalming can be. They followed the soldiers into war and would hurry to find the dead officers, knowing that there would be a demand for the embalming and that the family of the late officer would pay.

By the end of the war, Thomas Holmes was a very rich man.

To Petrify Human Bodies. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 9, 1895, page 2.

But What About Petrification?

Now, this is great learning all about Holmes and his embalming endeavours, but what I’m mostly interested in is his petrification discovery. His ability to turn bodies into what looks like white marble — in a week! — is a pretty remarkable feat! Why was that not his legacy? In fact, it’s near impossible to find any information on his ability to petrify corpses, aside from the two articles I found from 1895.

In 1896, he allegedly made an attempt to murder his wife and was arrested, following several murder-suicide threats. It is claimed that he spent the last years of his life in and out of mental institutes.

Hmm, sounds familiar.

Human petrification
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Wednesday, January 10, 1900, page 3.

Holmes left his body on January 8, 1900. He is buried at his family plot in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, and supposedly had asked not to be embalmed when he died.

Human petrification

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