After more than a century of gruesome mystery, the American town of Reading, Pennsylvania, finally closed the coffin of its strangest inhabitant: an accidental mummy who will finally be buried on Saturday after in 128 years.
Crowds lined up all weekend to pay their respects, take photos or gaze in awe at a sight that will likely never be repeated in the United States.
“Goodbye, Stoneman. May God bless you. Rest in peace,” said Suzanne Schrum, 74, as she stroked the forehead and copper hair of the dead, more than six decades after first seeing the mummy.
“Stoneman Willie” was the nickname once given to a suspected burglar who died in prison in 1895 and was moved to Theo C. Auman Funeral Home when no one claimed his body, before being accidentally mummified of the undertakers.
“We fast forward 128 years and he’s still here,” funeral director Kyle Blankenbiller told AFP.
The man gave a false name when he was imprisoned, but his true identity will finally be revealed during Saturday’s ceremony, a fitting end to his life… and his strange existence after death.
“We’re 99 percent sure we know who it is,” Blankenbiller said during funeral preparations, which saw Willie’s remains take part in a recent parade to mark the 275th Reading’s anniversary.
“We’re doing the right thing, but it’s going to be bittersweet,” he said.
The body remained sad in an open casket for almost its entire stay at the funeral home.
Its leathery skin and soft, sunken facial features have been the subject of fascination for thousands of people, including countless curious locals, researchers and, in recent decades, students on field trips. .
Willie has become a unique element of Reading history, “our friend” now receives a well-deserved farewell, Blankenbiller said.
According to Willie’s cellmate, the man caught stealing adopted the fictitious name James Penn because he didn’t want to embarrass his wealthy Irish father.
When he died, no family members were found and the body was sent to Auman.
Blankenbiller explained that, when embalming was still a new science, Auman experimented with a new formula.
“The intensity of the mixture he used led to Stoneman Willie’s mummification, a process of removing moisture that prevents decomposition,” he said.
Now, “it’s been looked at enough,” Blankenbiller said. Stoneman Willie’s burial during the city’s anniversary celebration was “reverent and respectful,” he added.
“The community will say their final goodbye to this man they have known for generations,” he concluded.
Among them, Berks County resident Michael Klein, was fascinated by the “mystery of who this man really is,” told AFP.
The burial will be dignified: a ceremony, the identity revealed, a tombstone in a local cemetery, all with Stoneman Willie wearing a black tuxedo from the 1890s.
“Everyone came to America to live the American dream. No one dies in an unknown prison,” said Klein. “That is the true darkness of this myth, and it will soon be resolved.”