Looking for a Great Soap? You Might Become One.

I'd like to introduce you to the Soap Lady.
Publish date:
January 8, 2016
science, weird, soap, museums, Soap Making, Saponification, Soap Lady, Adipocere

Most who meet me would qualify me as sweet, and I suppose I am to some degree; but for as long as I can remember I've had this bubbling undercurrent coursing through me that causes me to be drawn to all things macabre.

This fascination has presented itself in myriad ways, not limited to my finding the story line of Sweeney Todd charming, hours-long, child-like-fascination-induced conversations with taxidermists and human embalmers, and a need to visit and photograph cemeteries across the world.

My newest source of intrigue? The Soap Lady.

Miss Marci actually brought this approximately 150-year-old specimen to my attention, and I've since unearthed (get it?) as much info as I can find.

For starters, I can tell you that Soap Lady was accidentally found on a Philadelphia construction site in 1875, and at that time was presumed to have died as a middle-aged woman during the Yellow Fever outbreak of the late 1700s.

However, when folks finally got around to doing actual x-rays of her in 1986 (talk about being low-level priority), they discovered her clothing had buttons that weren't around until the 1830s. They eventually concluded that Soap Lady probably died in her late 20s, and at a much later date than previously assumed.

Those details aren't too important, though. The real point of interest here is the fact that the body fat on Soap Lady has been transformed into a soap-like substance called adipocere by way of human saponification.

Your everyday saponification process, aka soap-making, involves "the hydrolysis of a fat by an alkali with the formation of a soap and glycerol."

In the case of Soap Lady, the fat was her own, and the alkali required for hydrolysis was her alkaline environment: warm, moisture-laden, and low on oxygen. Wikipedia says prime breeding ground for adipocere formation is mud found deep in the earth (like at the bottom of a lake, or anywhere oxygen is low), or even in a sealed casket if conditions are right. More:

Adipocere formation begins within a month of death, and, in the absence of air, it can persist for centuries .... An exposed, infested body or a body in a warm environment is unlikely to form deposits of adipocere. Corpses of women, infants and overweight persons are particularly prone to adipocere transformation because they contain more body fat.

So basically, adipocere formation replaces the normal putrefaction process, encasing the body with a waxy soap-esque substance instead of breaking down tissue. It's actually not very common (sorry to those of you who actually wanted to be your own cleanser), hence the intrigue surrounding our dear Soap Lady.

  • Gross or downright fascinating?
  • You can see Soap Lady for yourself at The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Has anyone gone?