Museum's Amelia Earhart's 'Hair' Is Just Thread

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Michele Norris speaks with Toni Mullee, the executive director of the International Women's Air and Space Museum in Cleveland. They discuss the museum's realization from a recent DNA test that what they thought was a lock of Amelia Earhart's hair was, in fact, just thread. The museum has decided to keep the thread on display alongside an explanation of the story.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now to a prized artifact that relates to the history of aviation. Curators at the International Women's Air & Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio thought they had a lock of Amelia Earhart's hair, but then a group of Earhart expeditionaries looking for her remains in the Pacific Ocean asked to examine the hair. They wanted to test it against any DNA they might turn up in their search. Well, what they turned up turned out to be troubling for the Cleveland museum. And Toni Mullee of the International Women's Air & Space Museum joins me now to explain why. Welcome to the program.

Ms. TONI MULLEE (International Women's Air & Space Museum): Thank you.

NORRIS: And Ms. Mullee, you discovered that this cherished piece of history was not what you thought it was. What was it?

Ms. MULLEE: Well, it turned out to be a piece of thread.

NORRIS: Thread. Not hair, thread.

Ms. MULLEE: Yes. I'm afraid so.

NORRIS: That begs the question: What does that thread look like? Does it actually look like hair?

Ms. MULLEE: It really does like look like a clump of hair, like a clump you might take out of your hairbrush. And we certainly thought it was a bit of hair for over 20 years.

NORRIS: And how did it land there at the Air & Space Museum in Cleveland?

Ms. MULLEE: The hair sample was donated originally in 1984 at the Smithsonian Institution, which then forwarded it to us. And we tucked it in a drawer and it had been there until March of this year.

NORRIS: Now, how did the original owner, and I'm using that word loosely, get their hands on this clump of what they thought was hair?

Ms. MULLEE: Well, that's a mystery we're still trying to solve. It apparently belonged to the aunt of the donor, and she had handwritten a note explaining that the lock of hair had come from the White House, that a maid at the White House had taken it out of the room that Amelia Earhart had been staying in. The aunt had passed away when the artifact was sent out, however. So, we really don't know. We've gone as far as we can with it to try to determine why the misunderstanding occurred.

NORRIS: Ms. Mullee, I have to ask: What was your reaction when you realized that it wasn't hair?

Ms. MULLEE: Extraordinary disappointment. We really felt, obviously, that we had this great artifact, but we were really hoping that we could assist with the DNA testing of any artifacts they uncover in the Central Pacific. We thought we would be right in the middle of all that.

NORRIS: Well, Toni Mullee, it has certainly been interesting to talk to you. What an adventure this has been for you.

Ms. MULLEE: It really has been an adventure. Thank you.

NORRIS: That was Toni Mullee. She's the executive director of the International Women's Air & Space Museum. She tells us that the artifact formerly known as Amelia Earhart's hair is on display, but with an explanation that it is not what they once thought it was.

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