The National Museum of Health and Medicine, Maryland, USA
It’s not large like Mount Rushmore, iconic like the Statue of Liberty, or symbolic like The White House. It’s small and virtually hidden from view.
Most locals don’t know it still exists and most tourists wouldn’t know where to find it… even if they knew to look for it.
Yet it was right at the centre of one of America’s most famous events.
I stumbled on it by accident – which is, I assume, how most people must find it.
I had gone to a museum in Silver Springs, Maryland, near Washington DC, not for any particular reason except that the title offered the potential of some interesting discoveries: The National Museum of Health and Medicine.
With a name like that it could have been full of boring scientific exhibits but thankfully there was much more to it than that… including America’s hidden history.
I was the only person at the museum that afternoon.
To be fair, it was a sunny summer weekday so those who weren’t at work probably had better things to be doing than visiting a medical museum.
But even with the warm rays streaming in through the windows, it was eerie to be alone.
Behind the glass cabinets were specimens of the human body. Slices of brain, skulls with vertebrae still attached, diseased organs.
The museum has evolved over the years but its origin was in military medical cases, so many of the specimens showed the trauma of war.
Bullets to the head, amputations from a time before anaesthesia, and (from more recently) the concrete slab from a Baghdad airbase that was the first stop for wounded soldiers.
I wandered into one room that housed items from research once done into human deformities. Conjoined twins floated in a jar next to an enlarged intestine and a leg swollen with elephantiasis.
It could have been a carnival freak show if it hadn’t been surrounded by such scientific descriptions and explanations.
Uneasy, I moved into the final room in the museum.
It was in here that I discovered the highlight of the visit. Oddly, it was tucked away in a corner with no overt signals previewing what I was about to see.
There were no windows nearby and this part of the room was quite dark. I walked towards the exhibit and as I got closer became intrigued by the title about the glass cabinet.
I looked in, saw it, and had to read the description twice to make sure I had understood it correctly.
It was the bullet that had killed Abraham Lincoln.
Artefacts of Lincoln’s assassination
After the president was shot that April day in 1865, his autopsy was done by Army medical staff in the White House.
Here, in this innocuous glass cabinet, were the mementos of that day.
There were hair and bone fragments from Abraham Lincoln’s skull, part of the surgeon’s shirt stained with the President’s blood, and medical documents relating to his treatment and death. And, of course, that bullet.
The tiny bit of metal, encased in glass and mounted in wood, might not look like much today but it rattled a nation and, in some respects, the world.
John Wilkes Booth had once held it in his hand, placed it into a gun, carried it to the theatre, and, for the first time in history, assassinated an American President with it.
It felt strange that such an important part of the country’s history seemed to be hidden away.
True, to look at, it’s not much. But what it represents is a crucial time in the evolution of the United States.
The museum seemed to have several items of importance that it just casually placed on display without much fanfare – a part of President James A Garfield’s spine (the 12th thoracic, 1st and 2nd lumbar vertebrae, to be exact), and the skeleton of Able, the monkey who survived a trip into space in 1959.
Maybe the point is not to make a big deal about it all, to just present these items for those who are in the know and would like to study them.
Perhaps it would be distasteful to put more effort into the promotion and marketing of body parts and instruments of death?
Or perhaps it’s all about the surprise – those visitors who make the effort to stop at the museum are supposed to be rewarded for their commitment?
If the latter is the case (and it’s probably giving someone too much credit to assume it’s intentional), then it worked on me.
27 thoughts on “America’s hidden history”
We are ashamed to say we have not visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine AND we had no idea so much Lincoln assassination history was housed here. Do we have to give our passports back?
If you’re looking to give your passports away, I’m more than happy to take one off your hands! 🙂
Wow, that is pretty incredible that something so integral to the history of the US could be so well hidden away. Nice find!
I know – I was so surprised they didn’t make a bigger deal about it. Still, it made the discovery even more enjoyable.
Wow! This is such a cool find and so random that it would be tucked back in this museum…it’s almost like ‘they’ don’t want anyone to find it?! Thanks for adding to my random knowledge bank 😉
Hopefully it’ll help you out at a trivia night one time! 🙂
Creepy (and cool)! Reminds me a bit of the stuff I saw at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, which totally fascinated me as a a kid. We were just in Maryland on our way to and from New York for 4th of July. Wish we’d know about this. Sounds perfectly macabre…
It’s a strange place because it sounds like it should be macabre but it’s actually quite sterile and scientific. There’s definitely much more of a focus on the medical side of things than the freaky stuff.
Is this the man that the movie ‘Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter’ was based on? I think you just ruined the end of the film for me.
Sorry. I’ve got another spoiler alert for you: the movie is pretty bad.
Very creepy, not sure I would want to see the twins and the leg. Don’t seem right looking at things like that, unless you are into medicine for a profession
Certainly there’s a lot of things in the museum’s collection that aren’t on display and are only for medical research. I think the exhibits are just there to give you an idea of the kind of work they do.
Can’t believe that they have the bullet here and no one visits! You would think it would be a memorial or place of worship for a lot of Americans.
I wonder if it would become that if more people knew about it.
wow, really interesting! I had no idea all these things were apart of our history!
I guess you never really think about where the bullet ended up. You kind of assume it just got lost somewhere.
This is one amazing museum trip! Very educational and anatomical! History is preserved even the artifacts of a highly publicized crime.
That does sound like an exceptionally creepy place to be walking around alone!
It’s science! It’s not creepy!
(Ok, it was a little creepy in some parts…)
You would think that something as important to American history would be a focal point in marketing for the museum. I guess the fact that they didn’t chose to make it more apparent what you were to find in the museum, made the trip that much more enjoyable.
If it was me, I would market it as much as possible. It looked like the museum needed visitors!! 🙂
Great article, but there is one factual error I would like to correct. Lincoln was not taken to a military hospital after he was shot. He was taken across the street to a boarding house, where he died the next morning. His body was then taken back to the White House, where the autopsy was performed in what was, at the time, a spare bedroom in the northwest corner of the second floor. I believe this room was converted into a dining room during the Truman renovations.
Hi Lenn. Thanks so much for picking this up! You are completely correct! I have no memory of where I got that bit of information from originally but I must have read it somewhere. Oh well… that’ll serve me right for not double-checking something. I really appreciate the note!
Please forgive me if I sound like some sort of grammar nazi but … this is something that has always bugged me. The area is Silver Spring, Maryland not Silver Springs. This a common error made by locals and tourists — probably made more often by locals oddly enough. There is a silver spring off Georgia Avenue near “downtown” Silver Spring from which the area’s name is derived. There is only one spring. I don’t know why this really rather trivial point bugs me so much but it does. Sorry to be complaining about such a minor issue, particularly since I enjoy your blog overall (some of your pictures are fantastic!). While I am a native Washingtonian (born in DC) and have been living in the city for past 40 odd years, I grew up in SE Asia and your photos bring back so many memories of my childhood. I apologize for venting.
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Clearly conjoined twins who were born intact (or very close to birth). They most likely passed away soon after birth, in my opinion, as their organs couldn’t function properly without Mom’s assistance even though the umbilical cord supplied the required oxygen. The autopsy, which determined the cause of death and described the conjoined aspects, is likely what caused the incision and stitches.