When Maura died, a Smithsonian curator likely took part of her brain
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It would have been her first time seeing snow.
Nearly one month before, Maura had arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, from the Philippines.
She had come for the 1904 World’s Fair, a historic exhibition of U.S. expansionism and innovation.
But Maura wasn’t attending the fair.
She and her fellow Filipinos were there to be put on display.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Maura.
We couldn’t find any photos of her.
We don’t know who her family was.
But here’s what we have learned:
She was born around 1886.
Based on her tattoos, an article in the St. Louis Republic said she was probably from a high-status family.
And we know she was from Suyoc, a mining community 200 miles north of Manila.
She was Kankanaey, an Indigenous Igorot group that lives in the Cordillera mountains of Luzon.
The term Igorot is used broadly to describe multiple ethnicities from this region.
When Maura was around 13, the Philippines became a U.S. territory after more than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule.
A three-year war for Philippine independence followed.
At least 220,000 Filipinos died.
After the United States claimed victory in 1902, William Howard Taft, then governor of the Philippines, was eager to use the World’s Fair to show off the new territory and justify the occupation.
We don’t know what the Americans promised.
But they began recruiting Indigenous people from all over the Philippine Islands to travel to St. Louis.
Maura, now about 18, was one of them.
In Manila, Maura and more than 230 other Filipinos from across the islands boarded the Shawmut, a commercial ship.
For more than a month, they crossed the Pacific Ocean, packed together in the steerage quarters, seeing nothing but water on the horizon.
“In the ship we slept at night in different compartments.” — Kario, a man who was on the voyage, in a personal account he wrote sometime in the 1930s
“In the morning the Igorots danced on the deck to the outside of the ship with gongs.” — Kario
Some of the passengers were taking the journey for a new experience.
But others didn’t know why they were on a boat to the United States.
“On the interior of the ship we had nothing to do except to stay. None of us knew why we were carried to America.” — Kario
When the ship arrived in Tacoma, Washington, they were greeted by hundreds of curious locals.
They traveled by train from Tacoma to St. Louis for five days.
First it was unbearably hot.
The train operators sent a telegram:
“Chief of Igorrotes has just thrown his suit out the window. What shall we do?”
“Why did you not shut the windows?” officials responded.
Using a derogatory term, the train workers replied:
“Did shut window, but they broke out the glass. Head hunters are getting uneasy with the heat …”
Some of the train cars didn’t have heat as they passed through colder areas.
In those cars it was unbearably cold.
“In America the cold was so great that my body could not stand it.” — Kario
Upon arrival in St. Louis, a man named Ibag was rushed to nearby Mullanphy Hospital.
Within days, he and another man both died of pneumonia.
Fair officials expected more deaths.
They set aside a plot that could hold 40 graves in a cemetery across town.
The Suyoc group slept in bunk beds as the exhibits grew around them, a staged version of their own lives back in the Philippines.
Pneumonia soon took hold of Maura too, and she was admitted to Mullanphy Hospital.
We can only speculate about her time there.
But we know it began to snow, a rarity for April in St. Louis.
The St. Louis Republic newspaper later reported that she shared her wish that her body be returned to the Philippines for burial.
Maura died a few days before the fair began.
Truman Hunt, the American assigned to the Igorot group, broke the news.
They mourned in a circle for hours.
Newspapers fixated on their funerary customs.
People from Maura’s community went to view her body at the funeral home.
A member of the Suyoc group said a blessing. But they weren’t allowed to carry out their traditional customs of preparing the body before burial.
Hunt promised that her body would be returned to the Philippines.
Down the street, the fair opened to the public.
The 47-acre Philippine Exposition became one of its most popular exhibits,
particularly the Igorot Village.
Their daily chores became entertainment for the fairgoers.
The men from Suyoc demonstrated how they checked the quality of ore, first by licking it.
Visitors thought they could taste the metal’s qualities.
They were just removing the dirt to see it better.
Fair officials pressured the Igorots to eat dogs several times a week for the crowds, even though they only did so on rare occasions back home.
That fueled a stereotype about Filipinos that lingers to this day.
They were called “savages” by fair officials and newspapers.
Some Filipinos grew tired of it.
Two Visayan women refused to attend the English school inside the fair, protesting how some Filipinos were showcased.
“All the Filipinos in our village are very angry to be called savages.” — Teresa Ramirez, in a letter printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Meanwhile, the head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution’s U.S. National Museum, Ales Hrdlicka, had been closely monitoring the fair.
Hrdlicka ranked people by race, believing White people to be superior.
He collected human body parts to research his now-debunked theories about the anatomical differences between races. He began what he called a “racial brain collection” for the Smithsonian.
He hoped he could take the brains of Indigenous people who died at the fair.
Hrdlicka traveled to St. Louis and autopsied two Filipinos who had died.
We know from official Smithsonian documents that he took the cerebellum of a Suyoc Igorot, likely Maura, since she was the only known person from Suyoc who died while in St. Louis for the World’s Fair.
We don’t know what happened to the rest of the brain or why he only took the cerebellum.
He also took the brain of an Igorot from Bontoc.
In September, fair officials mailed the museum the brains of two more Filipino people who had died.
The collection Hrdlicka started would grow to at least 268 brains, including 27 from Filipino people, some of which were collected by the U.S. Army stationed in the Philippines.
A global network of professors, researchers, doctors and Army surgeons collected the brains in autopsies and sent them to the National Museum.
Four of the brains were willingly donated to the collection by the donors themselves or their families. The others appeared to be taken without consent.
In December 1904, a newspaper article said that people were visiting the funeral home to see Maura’s body.
But few people would know what Hrdlicka did until over 100 years later.
Janna Añonuevo Langholz found Maura’s story during a rare April snowstorm in St. Louis.
On the news, she heard that one of the last times St. Louis had seen snow that late was in 1904.
Her mind flashed to the World’s Fair.
As a Filipino American activist and artist born in 1988 on the historical site of the World’s Fair, she had always known the history of the Philippine Exposition.
But she wondered what the Filipinos back then had thought of the snow.
Looking through newspaper archives, she realized it had been 117 years since Maura died.
Inspired by Maura’s story, she began to document life in the villages on a website: “1,200 Lives and Deaths at the World’s Fair.”
She started leading tours of the neighborhood that was once the site of the Philippine villages.
And she raised money to put headstones on the unmarked graves of the Filipinos.
She searched for Maura’s burial place.
Janna found an old Smithsonian report that showed Hrdlicka had taken the cerebellum of a Suyoc Igorot’s brain to the Smithsonian.
Her heart sank.
Documents from the Smithsonian never listed Maura’s name. The autopsy date differs in two records and a note said the cerebellum came from a male. But Janna was sure.
“Since Maura was the only person from Suyoc that died, I know that’s her.” — Janna Añonuevo Langholz, in an interview with The Washington Post
Most available records supported her conclusion.
Outraged, and hoping to see it returned, she began discussions with the Smithsonian. The brain collection was now managed by the National Museum of Natural History.
An official eventually told her that the cerebellum had probably been cremated sometime between 1908 and the 1950s.
Smithsonian documents listed at least eight other brains as “Condemned & Destroyed.” Most were marked as “desiccated,” or dried up.
Janna asked where the cerebellum was cremated so she could visit the site, but the Smithsonian couldn’t provide a location.
The Smithsonian later told The Post that it could not verify the identity of the person whose cerebellum was taken.
Exhausted, she traveled to the Philippines to visit family in January 2023.
This time, Maura found her.
Janna’s work prompted The Post to investigate the Smithsonian’s human remains.
The Post spent a year looking into the brain collection, Hrdlicka’s network and Maura’s story. While reporting this project, we were in touch with Janna.
Searching through old archives, we found Maura’s death certificate and a newspaper article about her body being shipped to the Philippines.
The article stated that the year after Maura’s death, a Filipino man petitioned to have his brother’s body returned.
As a result, at least six bodies would eventually be sent back to the Philippines by ship.
One was Maura’s.
We emailed Janna to tell her the news.
Janna happened to be traveling to Maura’s home province that morning.
Her family urged her to visit the Suyoc community.
She looked for the descendants of the people she had come to know from her research.
They talked about Maura, speaking a mix of Tagalog, Ilocano and Kankanaey.
In Suyoc, overlooking the hills where Maura once lived, Janna stopped to honor her.
The search for Maura’s burial site continues in the Philippines.
Residents of Suyoc are hoping to build a memorial in her honor.
Janna is seeking resolution for the three other brains taken from Filipinos during the 1904 World’s Fair.
Months after reporting on this story began, the Smithsonian contacted the embassy of the Philippines to inform it of the human remains in the Smithsonian’s possession.
The secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie G. Bunch III, apologized for the way the institution collected many of its human remains in the past, and said it was his goal to return as many as possible.
As of August 2023, the Smithsonian has repatriated a total of four brains from what Hrdlicka called his “racial brain collection.”
The other 255 brains remain in museum storage.
A Washington Post investigative series on human brains and other body parts held by the Smithsonian.
Have a tip or story idea about the collection? Email our team at [email protected].
To accurately reflect the racism that was common at the time in newspaper articles and official documents, The Post chose to show original records that contain language considered offensive by modern standards.
Kario and Teresa Ramirez’s accounts were originally published in English, and the telegram exchanges were most likely communicated in American Morse code.
How to order the books
Washington Post print subscribers will receive this story in the Aug. 20, 2023 edition of the newspaper.
“Searching for Maura” is a book available for purchase in English and Filipino. To order, go to wapo.st/maurabooks.
About this story
To see photographs, newspaper clippings and other source material that informed this story, read How The Post reported Maura’s story.
Illustrations by Ren Galeno, a visual artist from Davao City, Philippines.
Andrew Ba Tran, Nate Jones and Regine Cabato contributed to this report.
Editing by Jenna Pirog and Hannah Good. Additional editing by David Fallis, Sarah Childress, Aaron Wiener. Copy editing by Anjelica Tan, Kim Chapman and Jordan Melendrez.
Filipino translation and editing by KC Schaper, Regine Cabato, Hannah Dormido and Christian Jil Benitez.
Project editing by KC Schaper with additional support from Tara McCarty.
Design by Tara McCarty and Audrey Valbuena. Digital development by Audrey Valbuena. Print design by Tara McCarty. Additional design by Laura Padilla Castellanos. Design editing by Christian Font and Christine Ashack.
Additional editing, production and support from Jeff Leen, Jenna Lief, Phoebe Connelly, Matt Callahan, Junne Alcantara, Ed Thiede, Isabelle Jordan Lavandero, Brian Gross, Greg Manifold, Grace Moon, Sofia Diogo Mateus, Matt Clough at Meredith Craig.
Video editing and sound design for “Searching for Maura” by Lindsey Sitz. Animation by Sarah Hashemi. Narration by Claire Healy and Nicole Dungca. Additional narration by Angel Mendoza, David Fallis, Arjun Singh and Anne Branigin. Additional graphics by Artur Galocha. Additional sound recording by Justin Scuiletti. Additional photo and design support by Robert Miller, Troy Witcher and Audrey Valbuena.
“Pagan Funeral in St. Louis To-Morrow” was published in the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat on April 22, 1904. “Called ‘Savages,’ Now Visayan Girls Won’t Go to School” was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Aug. 20, 1904.