For 128 years, he has been known only as Stoneman Willie, a figure lying in an open coffin in a Reading, Pa., funeral home, leathery and as hardened as his nickname suggests.
Little was known about him, other than he was picked up while drunkenly walking the streets of Reading one night in October 1895 and again, days later, for breaking into a boardinghouse. A prison warden noted that he stood 5-foot-11 and had sandy brown hair and a mustache.
Willie appears to have lived at life’s margins but became a legend in death. Generations of schoolchildren and other visitors have paid their respects at the Theo C. Auman Inc. Funeral Home, which has cared for Willie’s remains since he died in custody shortly after his second arrest.
On Saturday, under gray skies, Willie was finally given two things that had been denied him for more than a century: a proper burial and a name.
Kyle Blankenbiller, the funeral home’s director, said researchers are near certain that Stoneman Willie was James Murphy, a New Yorker of Irish descent who was in Reading for a convention.
Mr. Blankenbiller acknowledged that, clinically speaking, Willie is a mummy. The mystery of his identity has only added to his lore. He has been treated as a ghost story, a freak show and a roadside attraction over the years, but on Saturday, Willie was interred among other sons and daughters of Reading at the Forest Hills Memorial Park cemetery.
A granite tombstone was placed at his gravesite with both of his names, and a large informational bronze relief detailing his story will eventually be installed, too.
A tourist in town for a convention
He may have been cast into a caricature, but before James Murphy became Stoneman Willie, he was a just a tourist.
It is believed that he was in Reading for a state convention of firefighters. A known alcoholic, he was arrested twice that week — on Oct. 1 for public drunkenness, and on Oct. 7 for burglarizing the Morris Brown Boarding House.
Willie gave his age as 37 and his name either as James Penn or William Penn, which could explain how he got his nickname, said George Meiser IX, the Berks County historian.
Willie died in the Berks County Prison on Nov. 19. The official cause of death was kidney failure. But because he used a fake name, his family was never notified and his body was released to Mr. Auman’s funeral home.
At the time, Mr. Auman was experimenting with a new technique developed during the Civil War for preserving bodies. But the embalming formula he used, found in a German medical journal that detailed how to preserve meat, did way more than it was supposed to. Testing later revealed that the formula he used included high levels of formalin, cyanide and arsenic.
The result, Mr. Blankenbiller said, is that “if you touch him, he’s like stone, he’s hard as wood.”
“He weighs nothing,” he said. “He’s that petrified.”
Auman’s Funeral Home had considered burying Willie before but a plan began to coalesce just before the start of the pandemic. Mr. Blankenbiller and local historians set to work figuring out who Willie really was, combing through prison and funeral home records and other documents to piece together Willie’s story.
Mr. Auman had always identified him as James Murphy, but Mr. Blankenbiller said that identity had never been definitively confirmed.
Part of the confusion arose from the fact that Mr. Auman had prepared the body of another prisoner named Michael Pohouski around the same time. Local cemetery records showed that Pohouski was “definitely buried,” Mr. Blankenbiller said.
Mr. Blankenbiller said Willie had mentioned to his cellmate that he had a brother and a sister in Manhattan and another sibling in Brooklyn.
Mr. Blankenbiller was able to find evidence that one of those relatives, Donald Murphy, was living in Manhattan at the time. Once Mr. Blankenbiller was able to definitively say that Pohouski was not Willie, he knew he had the right guy.
‘A rite of passage’
James Murphy may have been from New York, but Willie has been a son of Reading for 128 years.
Alexa Freyman, 32, grew up in Reading hearing stories about Willie from her parents and grandparents. There were tales, she said, about how his fingernails and hair were still growing.
Ms. Freyman finally got a look for herself in May when the funeral home announced plans to bury Willie.
“It sounds silly but it’s something you can share with your parents and grandparents, and it’s something they shared with their grandparents and parents,” she said. “It’s morbid, but it was something that brought us together and gave us some sort of reference historically to who we were and what happened here then.”
Mr. Meiser said he first saw Willie in 1949 when he and a few of his friends from junior high school asked to see him.
“It was a rite of passage,” he said. “Everyone had to go see Stoneman Willie.”
In the days leading up to the burial, visitors had one last chance to pay their respects to Willie as he lay in repose in a coffin at Auman’s, dressed in a tuxedo that dates to the 1890s and likely weighs more than he does.
There were signs, however, that Willie wasn’t ready to go just yet.
Last Sunday, Willie was the centerpiece of a parade celebrating Reading’s 275th anniversary. But the elevator to get Willie from the funeral home’s second floor broke down. Then the hearse overheated and had to be towed to a mechanic. Arrangements were made for Willie to make his way through the city in a motorcycle-drawn hearse. Halfway through the parade, the motorcycle died, and a backup hearse had to be called.
Mr. Blankenbiller said that it’s going to be “very strange” to not have Willie in the funeral home anymore.
“We’re hoping we’re doing the right thing,” he said.