READING: A leather-skinned mummified man lying in an open coffin in Reading, Pennsylvania, known only as “Stoneman Willie” to the public, got two things he went without for 128 years on Saturday – a burial and his real name.
Dressed in a period tuxedo, his generations-long public afterlife as the stuff of city lore and ghost stories ended when he was introduced to the world as James Murphy of New York at a funeral in Reading.
A group of funeral home employees and well-wishers, said in unison, “Rest in peace, James,” as they unveiled his tombstone, with his real name in small letters below large type reading, “Stoneman Willie.”
His send-off included a colourful procession with a motorcycle hearse carrying his casket.
Murphy was of Irish descent, an alcoholic, and was in Reading at a firefighters’ convention when he died in the local jailhouse of kidney failure on Nov 19, 1895, said Kyle Blankenbiller, the director of the Theo C Auman Inc Funeral Home where Murphy’s remains had resided.
Blankenbiller said at the funeral that Murphy’s real name was known to Theo Auman, the director of the funeral home in 1895. Murphy’s real name had been passed down within the funeral home over the past 128 years, but it was not until the latest decision to give him a proper burial that the research was done to conclusively confirm his identity as James Murphy.
The once unidentified man was in jail after being accused of theft and was accidentally mummified by a mortician experimenting with new embalming techniques.
Local officials were unable to locate relatives, said local historian George Meiser.
“Weeks passed, months passed, years passed and no one claimed the remains,” Meiser said at the service.
It took some sleuthing by local historians to unearth his real name through records from the prison, funeral home, and other documents to find the truth.
The funeral home was eventually granted permission by the state to keep the body instead of burying it to monitor the experimental embalming process.
He got his nickname “Stoneman” from his hard-as-stone leathery skin.
Pastor Robert Whitmire told gatherers that to those who may have known him, “Stoneman Willie…at one time may have been a beloved friend and family member.”