Revelations about a 19th Century San Francisco Mummy

UC Davis Anthropology Professor Dr. Jelmer Eerkens hosted a presentation in the Recital Hall on April 24 about a young mummy who was found buried in San Francisco when workers were renovating a home.

The homeowner’s daughters decided to name the mummy “Miranda Eve” until anthropologists found out the mummy’s real name. The body was presumed to be female because it was buried in a dress inside a decorative casket.

The body was quickly reburied, but there was little investigation done. Eerkens and his anthropology class back at Davis wanted to understand more about the body and what life was like in San Francisco during the time this mummy was alive, so they conducted further research.

There used to be five cemeteries in the area before they were converted into a neighborhood. The home where Miranda Eve was found was built on top of what used to be the Odd Fellows Cemetery in the Richmond district of San Francisco. 10 percent of the people that were buried here were young children.

In 1933, the Odd Fellows Cemetery was being turned into the neighborhoods that are there today. Most of the bodies that were buried here were being transferred to another cemetery, but some were missed in the process. More bodies were found around the area in 1999.

Eerkens was able to obtain hair samples from the mummified body in order to find out more about who they were. “There is a lot we can learn about people from chemical signatures in their hair,” said Eerkens. “Hair is made out of things we consume.”

The researchers were able to determine the estimated age of the mummy by looking at their teeth and the height of the body. The mummy stood at 3 feet tall, so they knew this mummy was a young child. “There is a pretty strong correlation between age and stature,” said Eerkens.  

They estimated that the child was alive back in the 1800s. Eerkens said that the average life expectancy was less than 20 years for the average adult due to disease and infections. Infant mortality rates were higher than 50 percent at this time. These children died of diptheria, croup, scarlet fever and other diseases.

Eerkens and his team determined that the ancestry of this child was European. They also found a living relative of the child, Peter Cook. They retrieved DNA samples from him and found out Miranda Eve’s real name: Edith Howard Cook.

Edith Cook was born on December 29, 1873 and died October 13, 1876, according to her birth and death records. She died of marasmus, a term used for wasting away. Eerkens and his anthropology team were able to accurately predict most of her information. Eerkens said that one thing to take from this is an appreciation we should have for modern medicine.

“I don’t understand the logic of the anti vaccination movement. As someone with autism and hearing people say ‘Oh I don’t want my kids having autism’ as an excuse to not get vaccinated like they would rather have their kids die of disease than having autism makes me feel even worse,” said Heather Kasinger, a 20-year-old anthropology major.

Eerkens said that a lot of people died from “preventable” diseases in the 1800’s. There was no water treatment in the area until the 1900’s. There also were no vaccines and antibiotics available to the public at this time, so there was not much a family could do if their child got sick.

“This presentation was interesting because the mummy was so preserved. I have never seen something so preserved all the way down to the detail of the face,” said Deanna Edais, an 18-year-old biology major. “After hearing this, my kids will definitely be getting vaccinated. It’s crazy that kids died from diseases like tuberculosis because right now it’s preventable. You can just get a shot and then you’re good.”

For more information on UC Davis archaeology or to learn more about working in his lab please email Eerken at [email protected].