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Cockermouth Post Article December 2013 – The Cumbrian Mummy and a Cockermouth Woman

Something slightly different this month – hardly festive, but unusual. It concerns a South American mummy and its Cumbrian connections. Annie Kay was born in Cockermouth in 1851 and in later years, as Mrs Annie Aitken, she went out to Peru with her husband and joined a thriving British community. Their two sons were sent, to a religious college in Melle, Belgium to continue their education. Mrs Aitken subsequently decided she would donate an Incan mummy to the college’s small museum as a token of her appreciation. A mummy (Pocahontas II) was found by the British Consul in Tereca and arrangements made to ship it to Belgium via England. Pocahontas duly arrived safely in London on a L & NWR train. All was going well until an inquisitive porter opened the packing-case to investigate the contents. Imagine his horror when he discovered what he believed to be a corpse stuffed inside the case. His mistake was an easy one to make, since South American mummies are mummified in an upright position, with their knees drawn up to their chest, unlike their Egyptian counterparts. Naturally, the police had to be summoned and the inevitable inquest followed. The coroner’s jury returned its verdict:

…this woman … did die at some unknown date in some foreign country, probably South America, from some cause unknown …

Needless to say, the press, at home and abroad, had a field day. Meanwhile, poor Pocahontas continued on her weary way to Melle in Belgium. Unfortunately, by the time she reached her destination, decomposition had started to set in, and she no longer smelt as pleasant as she had done at the start of her journey. In Belgium the order was given for the mummy to be buried in the local churchyard, although the college was allowed one withered hand to go on display (where it still is today).

Mrs Aitken was rather put out that her generous gift had come to grief and decided to sue the railway company for damages in December 1901. In court it was pointed out that there was no right of ownership over a corpse, and the Belgian authorities had treated it as a corpse (‘they do funny things in Belgium’, noted Mrs Aitken’s counsel). But when does a mummy cease to be a corpse? (answer: ‘uncertain’), and isn’t a corpse always a corpse? (‘no – but once a corpse has become a mummy, it is always a mummy’!). Mrs Aitken, by that stage living back in Cockermouth, won her case, plus £75 damages and interest.

Gloria Edwards

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