(NEXSTAR) – An alleged pickpocket who was accidentally mummified by a mortician experimenting with an embalming technique 128 years ago will finally be buried this weekend in Pennsylvania. His identity will also be revealed.
The man has been on display at the Auman Funeral Home in Reading for more than a century. Workers there nicknamed him Stoneman Willie. He died of kidney failure in a Berks County jail on Nov. 19, 1895, according to the funeral home’s current director, Kyle Blankenbiller.
Blankenbiller explained that Stoneman Willie provided a fake name when he was arrested for petty theft and that his relatives could not be located following his death. The funeral home’s original owner, Theodore Auman, used an experimental embalming concoction to preserve his body, hoping that his family would eventually surface.
“He basically began to mummify almost instantly. Within six months to a year, he had completely mummified. Almost turned to stone … that’s pretty much where the name Stoneman evolved,” Blankenbiller said in a phone interview, adding that the chemical mixture applied to his body “exploded his tissues” because of the strength of the fluid.
Over the years, schools and even churches have organized field trips to see the preserved corpse.
In honor of his upcoming burial, the funeral home redressed him in 19th-century garb, including a black suit, bow tie and bright red sash. Photos show that his hair and teeth are still intact.
“He is so endeared in the local community and certainly with our employees,” said Blankenbiller. “We never refer to him as a mummy. He’s just our friend Willie.”
While a local icon in Reading, Stoneman Willie has garnered even more attention since the funeral home announced it would be finally laying him to rest on Saturday. Blankenbiller estimates more than 600 people have visited the funeral home this week alone to pay their respects.
The funeral home wanted to bury him in 2020, but the pandemic upended their plans. This gave Blankenbiller and his team more time to nail down Stoneman Willie’s identity. They frequented the Berks History Center, dug through archives, and met with local historians to learn more about his past — which has been shrouded in mystery.
They eventually discovered he had Irish roots and came from an affluent family, according to Blankenbiller, who is now 99% certain of Stoneman Willie’s real name.
“That 1% we let out just in the hopes that one of his family members might step forward and recognize him as a great-great-uncle or something like that. I don’t foresee that happening,” said Blankenbiller. “We’d be shocked, absolutely shocked, if somebody stepped forward.”
The Reading Eagle reported that a motorcycle-drawn hearse containing Stoneman Willie was a part of the town’s 275th-anniversary parade this past Sunday. The funeral home will hold an official ceremony on Saturday and reveal his name on a tombstone at his burial site.