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What's a pickled punk?

The pickled punk – a preserved human fetus -- was one of the circus sideshow's weirdest attractions.
The pickled punk – a preserved human fetus -- was one of the circus sideshow's weirdest attractions.
Gabriel Eckert/iStock/Thinkstock

Imagine row upon row of medical specimens, the full glory of their abnormalities forever preserved in liquid-filled clear containers. At the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there's no need to use the imagination. Here, you'll find more than a thousand fluid-preserved specimens -- ranging from body parts to entire bodies -- ready for your visual inspection.

The museum, founded in 1863 by Thomas Dent Mutter, M.D., is something of an anomaly itself -- one of the last places on Earth to publicly view preserved specimens, including a collection of pickled punks [source: Mutter Museum].

What's a pickled punk? The colloquial term was coined by carnival workers and used to describe human fetuses preserved in fluid and displayed in clear containers. Teratological specimens – those involving abnormalities of physical development –are created through a process known as "wet preservation," which uses a chemical solution to prevent decay. Some of the earliest preservation solutions used ethyl alcohol, while later solutions were formaldehyde based. Most creators of private collections guarded the exact specifications of their mixtures with great care.

Although few, if any, pickled punks are still displayed at carnivals and circuses, the practice of their preservation is centuries old. One of the first known collections of preserved human fetuses belonged to Frederik Ruysch, a Netherland native and physician whose curiosities numbered well into the thousands by the late 1600s. His collection included a two-headed human fetus with three arms and two legs, as well as the left hand of a human fetus holding a neonatal heart. In 1717, Ruysch's collection was purchased by the Russian czar Peter the Great, and many of the items were put on display at the Kuntskammer Museum in St. Petersburg. The Russian ruler put the specimens on public view as a way to combat the superstitions that ran rampant throughout the Russian populace; an opportunity to view deformities in a scientific setting would, he reasoned, counter people's fear of monsters [sources: University of Amsterdam, Weesjes].

The pickled punk and other specimens remained a mainstay of curiosity cabinets throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but were generally held in private collections and medical settings. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that pickled punks came into their own as popular entertainment, becoming a prime attraction at carnival and circus sideshows. Not all pickled punks were actual human specimens, though. Many carnival-goers instead glimpsed plastic models that simply resembled human fetuses, in part because traveling across the United States with real pickled punks proved increasingly difficult.

That's because by the 1970s, a number of state laws prevented the transportation of bodies and body parts from state to state. Ward Hall, proprietor of the "Freak Baby Show," traveled the Midwest with a display of 20 authentic pickled punks -- until police confiscated much of the collection during a visit to Grayslake, Ill. A second and well-publicized raid that targeted Ward's remaining pickled punks set off a series of raids on other pickled punk displays throughout the United States, with most charges stemming from the illegalities of possessing human remains [source: Hall].