Eugene the Mummy and Other Displayed Bodies
NEW EPISODE! What happens when a person is found deceased and has no one to claim them. In the old days, they were put on display. And in this episode, we tell stories of when those displays went on for decades. We share this macabre story and then chat with Comedian Glen Tickle.
For the last several years of his life, Jeremy Bentham carried a set of glass eyes in his pocket everywhere he went. Bentham was an English philosopher who is widely regarded as the father of modern Utilitarianism. His ethical theories about morality and happiness are still studied today. But Bentham had a bizarre notion about how his body should be treated after his death. He wanted to be dissected for science, and then put on permanent display forever. The glass eyes in his pocket were for that very reason. To give the mummified and stuffed version of Bentham the look of being alive.
In practice, it didn’t go as planned. Bentham’s head was the only part of his body that was preserved, and it went horribly wrong. So in an attempt to comply with the philosopher’s wishes, his bones were posed into a sitting posture, adorned with his clothing, and a wax head was placed on top. His real head, only partially mummified, was placed at the feet of the figure and the entire thing can be seen to this day at the entrance to the Student Center the University College London. The head no longer sits at the feet, it’s now in a case above him, but it’s pretty gruesome. The wax figure looks like any wax figure and you’d never know that it contained the man’s real skeleton. It’s a strange case of the corpse of a human being displayed according to their wishes.
But in Oklahoma in 1911, Elmer McCurdy was another story. Three Osage County Sheriff’s Deputies along with a small posse of other men had cornered McCurdy in a hay shed. He had been accused of a train robbery. McCurdy was a known criminal and alcoholic. He set out to rob a train that was carrying $400,000 in cash. When he and his men stopped the train, they learned it was the wrong train. There was hardly any money on the train they robbed, so they stole some whisky and $46. When the men cornered McCurdy in the shed, he had been up all night drinking the whisky he stole and coughing from his tuberculosis. McCurdy began firing a gun at the men and they returned fire, killing him.
McCurdy’s body was taken to the local funeral parlor where his body went unclaimed. It seemed he had no next of kin. And back then, when the body went unclaimed, they embalmed it with an arsenic-based preservative that kept the body preserved for much longer than usual. And that’s what Undertaker Joseph Johnson did. Then he decided to dress it in street clothes, put a rifle in its hands, and put it on display in the back of his funeral home. He charged a nickel for people to come and peer at “The Oklahoma Outlaw,” The “Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” Johnson displayed the body and charged people to see it for the next 5 years until two men claiming to be McCurdy’s brothers showed up to take the body and bring it to California for burial. That was a lie. The two men worked for a traveling Carnival, and promptly put McCurdy’s body on display in their traveling sideshow tent. They billed it as “The Outlaw Who Would Never Be Captured Alive.” My guess is that they didn’t tell the onlookers that the man they were looking at only stole $46.
McCurdy stayed with the Pattersons until 1922 and was then sold to a traveling museum of crime. He was displayed along with wax figures of Jesse James and Bill Doolin. It went on like this, with McCurdy spending a few years here and there being displayed at random traveling museums. At one point, he was even displayed in the lobby of a movie theater to promote a film. The body was displayed as a “Dead Dope Fiend” to promote the Dwain Esper film “Narcotic!” Eventually, the life of McCurdy the mummy long outlasted what would have been the natural life of McCurdy the living outlaw. In 1967, it was featured in a David Friedman film “She Freak” and was displayed in a funhouse in Long Beach, California. By this point, most people didn’t even know the figure was an actual human corpse. But while filming an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man, a prop master moved the body and the arm fell off. When they saw bone and tissue, they took it to the L.A. Coroner’s office and it took ten years, but by 1977, McCurdy’s body was finally laid to rest in the Boot Hill Cemetery back Oklahoma. Concrete at least 2 feet deep was poured over the body to ensure it wouldn’t be taken for display ever again.
And that brings us to a similar story. One that happened here in Ohio. I’ll tell you the story of Eugene the mummy after a quick break from our sponsors.
I’m going to preface the story of Eugene the Mummy with a disclaimer. This is an unsolved mystery. So if you’re the kinda person who needs your stories to be wrapped up with a tidy bow and a nice button on the end, I apologize in advance. That said, it’s still an unbelievable story.
If you visit the town cemetery in Sabina, OH, there’s a grave that’s often visited as a roadside attraction. It reads: “Eugene. Found dead 1928. Buried 1964.” Like the story of Elmer McCurdy, the corpse was left unburied for decades.
So back in 1928, the body of an unknown black man was found on the side of the road. The story was that he was coming to Sabina looking for work, but never made it. He had died of natural causes. When authorities went to identify the man, they had trouble. He carried no ID, no names anywhere on him. All he had was $1.40 and a small slip of paper that read “1118 Yale Ave.” The police thought this was a clue to the man’s home to they went to the address, which existed in Cincinnati. It was a vacant lot. Apparently a man named Eugene lived near that lot, so they began referring to the deceased as “Eugene.” Townspeople had claimed to have seen the man walking the day before. They said he looked ill.
While the story of the outlaw in Oklahoma was one of exploitation, for Eugene, the story is more about the desire to identify the mystery man. Littleton Funeral Home in Sabina received the body of the man and they embalmed it like normal. But they didn’t know who to contact to claim it, so they put it out in an open shed near a bus stop behind the funeral home for people to see. Eugene was dressed and laid out on a couch for display. If you remember back to the episode we did about the Most Kissed Girl in the World in France, you may remember that it was a common thing in the old days to put a body on display when it was unidentified. So today that would be a super weird thing to do. We might just see an artist drawing of the face and they’ll put it on the news. But back then, people didn’t think twice about walking by this shed and seeing a dead body lying on a couch. Littleton really wanted someone to come claim the body. And no one did. 30 days came and went, and the funeral home was still displaying Eugene’s body. Instead of being disgusted at the sight, the town came to think of Eugene as a sort of macabre mascot. Months went by. And Eugene was still on display. Then years. Eugene’s embalming had now mummified him and everyone in Sabina and surrounding cities knew about Eugene. They would come to visit him, curious kids would take road trips from all over Ohio to see the Mummy Man of Sabina. And all the while, the man had never been identified. Newspapers and television ran stories. No one claimed to know him.
Occasionally Eugene was the subject of pranks by local teens. They’d steal the body and take it various places in town. Police would find the body and call Littleton to come retrieve it. And this went on for years – 36 years!
Finally in 1964, one of those pranks led to the end of Eugene’s posthumous career as a tourist attraction. Students at The Ohio State University woke up to see a mummified man dressed in a sharp suit lying on one of the benches on High Street near campus. The story of Eugene by this point was pretty well known around Ohio, so authorities called Littleton Funeral Home in Sabina – an hour away – and asked if they were missing their mummified man. It turns out they were.
It was after this – and believe it or not, it wasn’t the first time Eugene had been brought to Ohio State for a prank – that the owner of Littleton Funeral Home decided that it was time to finally put Eugene to rest. They held a simple ceremony. And while Eugene had been a public figure in the town for decades, no one knew him in life. And not many people attended the memorial. He was buried without fanfare in the small Sabina Cemetery. His tombstone is a simple stone, flat to the ground under a tree. “Eugene: Found dead 1929, Buried 1964.” And if you didn’t know this story, you’d never know it was there. Well that, and it’s often covered with coins from people who have heard the story and made the pilgrimage to Sabina to pay homage. 94 years later, no one has ever claimed to know the man that turned up missing. And at this point, it’s likely that no one ever will. But to the people of Sabina, Ohio – his legend will live forever. The Internet Says it’s True.
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