Five Questions About... This Brain in a Jar That Was Stopped at the Border

What’s in the jar? WHAT’S IN THE JAAAAAAARRRRRR???
February 20, 2020, 7:49pm
There’s a lot of things you can send by postage without judgment. A book. Yup. A ‘lil cactus? Sure! A breakup letter? Well, it’s a bit harsh, and old school, but OK, you do you, Samantha from my hometown   A human brain in a mason jar though… well, I have
The human brain in the jar. Photo via the CBP.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

There are a lot of things you can send by postage without judgment. A book. Yup. A ‘lil cactus? Sure! A breakup letter? Well, it’s a bit harsh, and old school, but OK, you do you, Samantha from my hometown.

A human brain in a mason jar though… well, I have some judgments.

This macabre package was exactly what the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents found last weekend when they intercepted a package at Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Michigan on Valentine's Day.

According to a press release, the officials flagged it due to its incredibly suspicious label of “Antique Teaching Specimen” and sent it to an inspection facility. Here officers carefully opened the package and found “a human brain specimen inside of a clear glass mason jar without any paperwork or documentation in support of its lawful entry into the United States.”

The brain was being sent from Toronto to Kenosha, Wisconsin. The shipment of the brain is currently being investigated by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.)

“Individuals looking to import shipments such as this, need to remember that the CDC has a strict Import Permit Program that must be adhered to,” said Area Port Director Michael Fox about the brain in the jar.

Needless to say, I looked into this mystery of the brain-in-the-jar and I have some questions.

What’s going on in that jar there, buddy?

Now I’m no expert in brain-in-jar transportation methods but I’ve noticed a few things going on in the photo the CBP posted.

The brain is in one of those snap jars your aunt uses to make pickles. It doesn't even get some formaldehyde à la Rasputin's alleged hog which lives in a jar in Russia.

Instead of something to preserve it has… bubble wrap and it's not even well applied. This looks like the work of someone who half-heartedly stuffed some bubble wrap they had lying around into the jar 'cause the brain was rattling around too much. Furthermore, what’s separating the all-important brain from this bubble wrap? Well, from the looks of it, a gosh darn paper towel! I suppose that could be like a fancy paper towel used by medical experts but, to me, it sure as hell looks like Brawny’s finest.

Again, I am NOT a brain-in-a-jar transportation expert and this is merely aesthetic but, human-brain-in-a-jar-mailer, next time please don’t mail your human brains in something where the frontal cortex can leave a gross smudge on the glass. Brain smears give me the heebie-jeebies.

Who was selling it?

This one is a little tricky. A spokesperson for the CBP told VICE that “since this is currently under investigation we can not comment further as to the specimens final destination” so we get no answers from them.

However, a quick bit of research brings us to the Skull Store, a Toronto-based store that sells, well… skulls and stuff. On the store's website, they’re selling “Human Brain, Wet Specimen B”—which, you know, indicates there may have been a previously sold specimen A. The brain and the jar look remarkably similar to the one in the CBP photo. Wet Specimen B is being sold for the bargain price of $1,975 (it was marked down from $4,500.) In the description of the brain, the store says it is a “REAL preserved partial human brain” that “was once part of a medical collection but was sold off upon the doctor's retirement.”

Left, the brain in the jar found by the CBP. Right, the brain in the jar for sale by the Skull Store.

The description says the store has to ship the brain without fluid to “comply with postal regulations.” In their write up the skull stores states, “we can ship this worldwide.” VICE has reached out to the Skull Store for comment but has yet to hear back, this story will be updated when we do.

As to who may have bought the brain, well….

Where was it going?

There are a few hints to help us with the first portion of the puzzle, the biggest being the box was labelled as “an Antique Teaching Specimen.” Which at first indicates this most likely was headed to some sort of institution of learned people, or the home of someone who considers themselves learned.

There are colleges and universities in Kenosha as well as there is a natural history museum. I reached out to the Kenosha Public Museum to see if they know what’s up with the brain in the jar and they said it wasn’t headed their way. Gina Radandt, the museum's curator of collections, told VICE that while medical specimens do get transported by museums from time to time, it’s typically not in a mason jar.

"Not sure a brain specimen has been sent like this in over a century,” said Radandt, a 21st century museum employee.

So, the fact this was shipped in such a way suggests this most likely wasn’t on its way to a university or college. This means, most likely, this was sent by someone who knows to slap that label on weird things so border agents don’t think too hard about it. If it was a private collector that opens up the door to way too many possible destinations. Let’s cross our fingers it wasn’t a weird sex thing or headed to Wisconsin’s one hipster bar.

Whose brain was it?

If this brain was important enough to be put into a jar and be sent across the Canadian/U.S. border it stands to reason it must have come from an important person, right? Maybe it’s a famous Canadians scholar like Marshall McLuhan's or something? He seemed just odd enough to have secretly preserved his brain for future Communications 101 students. Or maybe it’s prime minister Mackenzie King, who was known for his love of talking to the dead, and just so happens to be buried in Toronto. That said, again, I know virtually nothing about antique brains so this could quite literally just be some schmucks brain.

If the former owner of the brain isn’t well-known, it may not be even kosher to know whose brain this was. Cadavers are donated anonymously to medical students but I couldn’t find if organs in jars are done the same way. I know you’re not supposed to name skeletons (due to the fact they once, you know, had real names) maybe it’s the same for organs. Hopefully, the border agents haven’t started calling this brain "Brian" or something.

What’s in the jar? WHAT’S IN THE JAAAAAAARRRRRR???

A brain, obviously.

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.