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Army museum's morbid oddities now in Maryland

The bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln is mounted under glass, like a diamond in a snow globe, in its new home at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The lead ball and several skull fragments from the 16th president are in a tall, antique case overlooking a Civil War exhibit.

The military museum, known for its collection of morbid oddities, moved in September from the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in nearby Washington, D.C. At Walter Reed, visitors had to pass through a security gate and find the museum on the campus, where parking could be a problem.

The building stands outside the gates of Fort Detrick's Forest Glen Annex. You can just drive up, walk in and come face-to-face with a perpetually grinning skeleton directing you to an exhibit on the human body. There, you can see a hairball from the stomach of a 12-year-old girl and the amputated leg of a man with elephantiasis - a disease that causes limbs to become bloated. The leg floats upright in a glass jar like an enormous, pickled sausage.

The museum's collection of 25 million objects includes plenty to inspire fascination or disgust - or both. It's a treasure trove for researchers like Candice Millard, author of the new book "Destiny of the Republic," about the assassination of President James Garfield. She wrote that she held in her gloved hands at the museum the section of Garfield's spine pierced by a .44-caliber bullet from Charles Guiteau's gun.

Guiteau's brain and partial skeleton are in the collection, too.

Deputy Director Tim Clarke Jr. said the museum will close in January and reopen by May 21 with its largest display of objects to mark its 150th anniversary.

The $12 million relocation established a permanent home for an institution that has had 10 addresses since 1862. That's when Surgeon General William Hammond directed medical officers in the field to collect "specimens of morbid anatomy" for study at the newly founded museum along with projectiles and foreign bodies. A photograph nearly covering one wall of the museum's new Civil War exhibit shows amputated legs stacked like firewood.

Most of the museum's objects, including 2,000 microscopes and hundreds of thousands of brain specimens, are in a warehouse.

"We are sure" Clark said, "that we are programming and planning an exhibit that will astound our visitors."

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