RIP Stoneman Willie: Pennsylvania's "accidental" mummy to be buried after 128 years
Reading, Pennsylvania - After more than a century living with a macabre mystery, the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, is finally closing the casket on its oddest-ever resident – a mummified man set to be buried Saturday.
Crowds of people have lined up all week to pay their respects, snap photos, or gaze with bewildered awe on a scene unlikely to ever be repeated in the US.
"Bye, Stoneman. God bless you. Rest in peace," Suzanne Schrum (74) said as she patted the corpse's forehead and stroked his copper-colored hair, more than six decades after she first laid eyes on the mummy.
"Stoneman Willie" was the nickname bestowed long ago on an alleged thief who died in 1895 in jail and was taken to the Theo C. Auman Funeral Home when no one claimed the body, before being accidentally mummified by undertakers.
"Fast-forward 128 years and he's still here," funeral home director Kyle Blankenbiller told AFP.
The man gave a false name when he was jailed, but his true identity will finally be unveiled during Saturday's ceremony, a fitting end to his life – and bizarre afterlife.
"We're 99% certain we know who he is," Blankenbiller said during funeral preparations which even included Willie's remains joining a recent parade commemorating Reading's 275th anniversary.
"We're doing the right thing, but it's going to be bittersweet," he said.
Stoneman Willie: The accidental mummy
The corpse has eerily laid in an open casket for almost his entire stay at the funeral home.
His leathery skin and smooth sunken facial features have been the object of fascination for thousands, including countless curious locals, researchers, and, in decades past, schoolchildren on class trips.
Willie has become a quirky fixture of Reading history, "our friend" who is now getting a well-deserved sendoff, Blankenbiller said.
According to Willie's cellmate, the man arrested for pickpocketing adopted the fictitious name James Penn because he did not want to shame his wealthy Irish father. On his death, no next of kin were located and the body was sent to Auman's.
With embalming still an emerging science, Blankenbiller said, Auman experimented with a new formula.
"The intensity of the concoction that he used" led to Stoneman Willie's mummification, a moisture removal process that forestalls decomposition.
What is planned for Stoneman Willie's burial?
Now, "he's been gawked at enough," Blankenbiller said. Burying Stoneman Willie during anniversary commemorations for the city is the "reverent, respectful thing to do," he added. "The community will say their final goodbyes to this guy that they've known for generations."
Among them was Berks County resident Michael Klein, who was fascinated by the "mystery of who this guy really was," he told AFP.
The burial will be dignified: a service, the identity reveal, a tombstone in a local cemetery – with Stoneman Willie clad in a vintage black tuxedo, fittingly from the 1890s.
"Everyone comes to America to live the American dream. Nobody comes to die in a prison unknown," Klein said. "That's what the true darkness of this myth is, and that will soon be solved."
Cover photo: Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP