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Re-enactor discusses 'grave topic' at Washington County Museum After Dark
Halloween inspired show delves into history of embalming.
Standing over a casket, Oscar Hult is all smiles.
For him, its just another day at the office.
Hult, an amateur historian and Civil War re-enactor, was on stage at the Washington County Museum on Thursday, Oct. 20, giving a spooky lecture about a rather unappetizing subject, the history of American embalming.
Hult, 55, is an Albany haberdasher by day, who has spent years researching the American Civil War. He spoke to a crowded room at the Washington County Museum as part of the museums annual Halloween-themed Museum After Dark series, which delves more into historys more macabre subjects.
Modern embalming practices began during the Civil War as a way to preserve fallen Union soldiers on their journeys home to be buried, Hult said. Before the Civil War, most people lived and died in their home towns, and there wasnt need to preserve bodies for more than a few days.
But that changed with the invention of the railroad, Hult said. Now, people could travel great distances, traveling far from their homes for the first time in their lives.
Thomas Holmes, the father of modern embalming, taught morticians across the North how to preserve bodies. Prior to the Civil War, embalming was only done on anatomical cadavers at universities, and was often done using arsenic, mercury or other poisonous chemicals.After the death of Elmar Ellsword credited as the first Union casualty of the Civil War and a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln Holmes perfected a formula that involved injecting chemicals into the arteries of the deceased, which could preserve bodies for years.
Holmes techniques went on to create the modern funeral industry as it exists today, Hult said.
Holmes died in 1900 in an insane asylum, likely driven mad by the harmful chemicals he used in his experiments, Hult said.
Its a fascinating piece of American history, Hult said, and not one that many people are familiar with.
Its this thing that we now regard as commonplace, Hult said. I thought it was a story that should be told.
Talking about death is often seen as a taboo subject in American culture, Hult said, but its an important topic for people to understand.
Its important to be aware of where we come from, Hult said. Its our history, and if we dont think about where weve been, we wont know where were going.
Hults wife has worked off and on in an Albany area funeral home for years, Hult said, which gave him an insight into a world he had never thought much about before.
It opens up the world and makes the period more real to people, Hult said. Hopefully, this sparks something in them to want to learn more about it, and about history.
Hult said he tries to make his talks fun and interesting, but said he walks a tightrope with making sure that his lecture is respectful. The Civil War lasted only four years, but accounts for nearly half of all soldier deaths in U.S. history, according to the Civil War Trust.
I try very hard to be respectful for the people who fought and died in that conflict on both sides, Hult said. Both sides were fighting for what they believed was right. Its important that the subject be respectful but that doesnt mean that you cant have a little bit of fun.
A historical re-enactor, Hult started by giving lectures about the early days of American journalism and war correspondence at events for the Northwest Civil War Council. Hult said he eventually grew bored with the subject after about two decades. He switched gears six years ago, talking about embalmings early history.
Hults lectures have gotten a bit of a following. Because of its morbid nature, Hult said its not uncommon for people to attend his lectures dressed in gothic or steampunk style clothing. At Thursday's talk, a handful of women sat in the front row, dressed in black Victorian-era outfit, complete with black makeup.
There are people from all walks of life out there, Hult said, laughing.
Hult said hes not surprised his talks have proven more popular than his previous lectures on 19th century journalism.
Its a topic that has universal appeal, he said. Everybody knows that this is where were all headed, eventually.
By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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