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Belated Burials: Expired, Unidentified, and Famous!

Fans of bizarre tourist attractions saw their travel plans disrupted recently when it was announced that Stoneman Willie, a preserved corpse on display since 1895 in Reading, Pennsylvania, had finally been identified and would be buried under his real name. His imminent interment was teased to Reading when his casket appeared in a motorcycle hearse at the town’s 275th anniversary parade last weekend, and his funeral home stewards kept him available for public farewell viewing this week in all his empty eye socket snaggly-toothed charm.

Stoneman Willie is the latest body entering the “proper burial” stage of Dead Guy Fame. He’s one of a dying breed of already-dead people. The posthumous population peaked roughly a century ago. Usually what would happen is that an unidentified stranger would expire in a town, then the local undertaker would embalm the corpse, prop it up in a chair or a corner of the casket showroom, and hope someone would recognize it (and pay the aftercare bill).

Grave of Speedy.

There’s no way to know how many times this was done and resolved fairly quickly, but a few display corpses went unclaimed — lighting up the nightmares of local children — for decades, long enough to become unofficial local attractions. The lonely corpses with no apparent next-of-kin were viewed with affection by owners, usually descendants of the original embalmer — a family heirloom equivalent to grandpa Ezekiel’s taxidermy weasel lamp, or Aunt Ethel’s wig.

In that respectful spirit, we offer this brief guide to America’s Belated Burials:

Speedy – Paducah, KY
Real name: Charles Atkins. Died 1928, buried 1994.
Named Speedy because he never moved.

Grave of Spaghetti.

Spaghetti – Laurinburg, North Carolina
Real name: Cancetto Farmica. Died 1910, buried 1972.
Named Spaghetti because he was Italian. He was a traveling carnival worker who got hit by a tent stake during a fight.

Eugene – Sabina, Ohio
Real name: unknown. Died 1929, buried 1964.
Named Eugene because a paper in his pocket had the address of a vacant lot, and the living neighbor next door was named Eugene.

David Elihu George – Enid, Oklahoma
Real name: John Wilkes Booth. Died 1903, buried ?
This stranger, who some believe was really Lincoln’s assassin in disguise, was embalmed and displayed in Enid for 40 years before being sold to a circus. In the early 2000s we were told he was in the hands of a private collector in Virginia.

Sylvester the Curiosity Shop mummy.

The Dummy – Guthrie, Oklahoma
Real name: Elmer McCurdy. Died 1911, buried 1977.
Luckless Old West criminal spent his last post-life years covered in day-glo paint in a spook house before he was rediscovered (during a “Six Million Dollar Man” TV series location shoot) to be a corpse and buried.

The Mummy – Middlebury, Vermont
Real name: Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef. Died 1883 BC, buried 1950 AD.
Son of an Egyptian Pharaoh. His postmortem fame has cratered; even his gravestone has been removed.

And there are at least two places in America where embalmed bodies are still cheerfully exhibited:

Sylvia & Sylvester – Seattle, Washington
Official ambassadors of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Sylvia’s origins remain murky, but Sylvester had the corpse name “McGinty” in the 1890s. He was embalmed after being shot in Arizona.

Sylvester the Curiosity Shop mummy.

Mummies of the Insane – Philippi, West Virginia
Long-time residents of the Barbour County Historical Museum. Previously living residents of the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. Not mummies. They were embalmed in 1888.

May they outlive us all.

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