Mummies Alive! The Gunslinger Mummy (A Review)

Is the Gunslinger Mummy an Example of Ancestor Worship?

Mummies Alive - Logo
Mummies Alive - Logo. Smithsonian Channel

Smithsonian Channel's Mummies Alive Series: "The Gunslinger Mummy". 2015. Narrated by Jason Priestley. Featuring Jerry Conglogue, Ron Beckett, Richard Shepherd, Andy James, Tammy James, Marshall Trimble, George Wunderlich, Christopher Beekman, Jon Austin and Jeff Smith. The Mummies Alive series is a production of Impossible Factual Ltd. and Saloon Media in association with Smithsonian Channel and Shaw Media.

Executive Producers for Smithsonian Channel are Tim Evans, David Royle and Charles Poe.

The new Smithsonian Channel series called Mummies Alive premieres Sunday, June 7th at 9 PM (check local listings), with the first program in the series, called "The Gunslinger Mummy". This documentary is the first of six focused on our fascination with extremely well-preserved human corpses, whether those corpses were created by accident or intent. Each video in the series will premiere on succeeding Sundays, and of course re-aired on the Smithsonian Channel at different times. "The Gunslinger Mummy" is among the least known of these stories--it was definitely new to me--and it was filmed with what seems at first a peculiar point of view: but on reflection becomes remarkably clear and recognizable.

The Gunslinger Himself

The Gunslinger Mummy is the well-preserved body of a 19th century man with a wonderful mustache, currently stored not in a museum but on display in Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in Seattle, Washington.

In the program, official Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble describes the persistent legend of how he got there: the man was an Arizona cowboy who got into a gunfight with an opponent during a poker game, was shot and stumbled off into the desert where he died. There his body was exposed to the desiccating effects of heat and drying, and he was found and brought to Yuma by a couple of passing cowhands.

The rest of the program describes the efforts of historians and bio-anthropologists to figure out the "reality": how did this man actually die, why is his body so well preserved, and how did his body come to be placed on display first during the late 19th century and then in the 1950s, in the Seattle curiosity shop. Tools used to investigate the man's history include CT imaging technology, virtual autopsy, experimental archaeology, and documentary and oral history.

Specialists involved in the discussion include arms, embalming and genealogical historians; bioanthropologists and a forensic pathologist; and the owners of the curiosity shop and the descendant historian of a conman who may well have led to the man's use as a circus sideshow.

Our Peculiar Attitudes

The fascinating part, to me anyway, is the underlying attitude the participants and we the viewers have about this issue. It seemed peculiar to me at first, to be examining a man's body with such dispassion, but as an anthropologist, I must recognize this is a nearly universal human attribute. There's a clear description of 19th century mores--the man's presence in the shop is credited to the efforts of a perfect storm of avaricious circus sideshow performers, funeral parlor salesmen and con artists.

And of course, the man is still on display in the Seattle curiosity shop. Why is that so?

I think the key lies in the discussion's focus on the attitudes of how people see the "wild west", the idea of the heroic gunslinger, the violence and danger of the western United States in the 19th century. In this discussion, the Gunslinger is seen as an example of how we have reconfigured what the reality of the west was--boredom, loneliness, petty criminality and disease--to fit our romantic notions of Doc Holliday, Butch Cassidy and Wyatt Earp.

A Global Phenomenon: Ancestor Worship

But what the program misses, and perhaps the sum total of the series might address, is that the "Gunslinger Mummy" is a cultural phenomenon constant in many if not most human societies. That constant--attempting to cheat death, to keep hold of our loved ones, to live forever, to celebrate and venerate the past--is, in anthropology speak, ancestor worship.

Rather than setting up mummification as an exotic "other" practice, the "Gunslinger Mummy" shows us that perfect preservation of human bodies is the result of an intentional western practice that, well, let's face it, we're still practicing.

The Gunslinger Mummy is, absolutely, an example of the practice of ancestor worship, particularly in view of the romantic "wild west" aspect. In fact, you could argue that the program itself is a form of ancestor worship--heck, so is the study of archaeology for that matter. In that respect, the programcould well have benefited from a cultural anthropologist's input. 

The Bottom Line

The remainder of the series is on more "typical" lost bodies: updated reports on Otzi the Iceman, Incan "ice maidens", bog bodies, Pompeii, a New Kingdom Egyptian. I think the producers were wise to start with the Gunslinger, because his story does situate the concept of perfectly preserved bodies on display among all of us humans, all of our human cultures, even if they didn't make a particular point in doing so.

In my opinion, "The Gunslinger Mummy" is worth a look on that basis alone, in addition to the detective story that the surface plot entails. It'll be interesting to see how the rest of the series plays out.

Reviews of the series:

Mummies Alive runs between June 7th and July 12th, on the Smithsonian Channel.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.