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Re-enactor discusses 'grave topic' at Washington County Museum After Dark

Halloween inspired show delves into history of embalming.

CHASE ALLGOOD - Oscar Hult, 55, holds a bottle of embalming flued to a crowd at the Washington County Museum on Thursday, Oct. 20. Hult has been lecturing for six years across the region about the fascinating history of embalming, which began during the Civil War.Standing over a casket, Oscar Hult is all smiles.

For him, it’s 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 museum’s annual Halloween-themed “Museum After Dark” series, which delves more into history’s 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 wasn’t 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.

CHASE ALLGOOD - Oscar Hult has given his talk to dozens of groups across the region, and said while the subject matter is often taboo in polite society, it's a fascinating look at an important part of American history.

It’s a fascinating piece of American history, Hult said, and not one that many people are familiar with.

“It’s 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 it’s an important topic for people to understand.

“It’s important to be aware of where we come from,” Hult said. “It’s our history, and if we don’t think about where we’ve been, we won’t know where we’re going.”

Hult’s 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. It’s important that the subject be respectful but that doesn’t mean that you can’t 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 embalming’s early history.

Hult’s lectures have gotten a bit of a following. Because of its morbid nature, Hult said it’s 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 he’s not surprised his talks have proven more popular than his previous lectures on 19th century journalism.

“It’s a topic that has universal appeal,” he said. “Everybody knows that this is where we’re all headed, eventually.”

By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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