(READING, Pa.) — More than 128 years after he died in a Reading, Pennsylvania, jail, a man who was accidentally mummified and left at a funeral home without any identification will finally get his long-awaited burial.
Officials at Auman’s Funeral Home, the Reading funeral home that has displayed what is known as “Stoneman Willie” for visitors since the body was brought there in 1895, said it has successfully identified the corpse and can now give it a burial.
The funeral home has been holding special visitation hours for Willie all week in anticipation of a grand burial ceremony on Saturday, where the deceased man’s name will be revealed on his tombstone, according to Kyle Blankenbiller, the funeral home’s director.
“I think it’s the honorable thing to do,” Blankenbiller told ABC News on Wednesday. “It is bittersweet for us already.”
The man had given a fake name after he was arrested for pickpocketing and later died in jail of kidney failure, according to historical records researched by the funeral home, Blankenbiller said.
No family members were able to identify the body for years, according to Blankenbiller.
At that time during the 19th century, embalming techniques were still in their infancy, he noted. The funeral director’s original owner, T.C. Auman, had the corpse embalmed with untested techniques, leading to the corpse retaining hair, teeth and flesh, Blankenbiller said.
The corpse’s skin and flesh became discolored over the years and now appear to be dark brown.
Auman used this process to ensure there was enough time for the man’s family to identify him, the current funeral home director said.
“Mr. Auman would petition the state and retain the right to keep him here on the basis to monitor the experiment,” Blankenbiller said.
He said such petitions continued being granted up until the 1950s, when the state approved for the body to remain at the funeral home without a set date.
Stoneman Willie became a staple at the funeral home over the years and an attraction for town residents and visitors.
Schools and churches would hold field trips to look at the body, which is wearing a dark suit and red sash across its chest, and learn about the corpse’s history, the funeral home said.
“Our employees never refer to him as a mummy. He’s our friend Willie,” Blankenbiller said.
In the meantime, the funeral home’s workers continued their research to determine the man’s identity, and several decades ago, narrowed it down to three people, according to Blankenbiller.
In the last 10 years, Blankenbiller said he and his team did more research into Stoneman Willie and went through several books and archives to try and determine his identity.
“It was a matter of writing things side by side chronologically and comparing these stories,” he said.
After a lot of digging, Blankenbiller said they were able to determine his identity with “99%” certainty.
T.C. Auman always referred to the corpse by a name, but no one knew if it was correct, according to Blankenbiller. However, the research proved he was right, he noted.
“It felt good to finally find his identity,” he said. “We all did it together.”
On Sunday, Stoneman Willie’s body and hearse were driven around as part of Reading’s 275th anniversary parade. There will be an official ceremony on Saturday, including a police escort and an event at the gravesite, to reveal his tombstone and bury the body, Blankenbiller said.
“This was not going to be a sideshow. This was not going to be a freak show. This is going to be honorable and memorable for him,” he said. “He’s been gawked at enough as some sort of sideshow. We don’t see him as that.”
Blankenbiller said he and his employees do feel bittersweet that Stoneman Willie won’t be part of their everyday lives anymore, but they are happy he is finally going to be laid to rest.
“He’s just been such an icon to our funeral home and a legend,” Blankenbiller said. “We always greet his casket ‘Hey Willie,’ when we pass it.”
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