Some years back, my last good band was working in rock ’n’ roll bars all over the South. We were always the last people out of the bar, so we couldn’t help but get into conversations with full-time hopeless drunks, who, once we got to know them, turned out to have some really interesting stories to tell.
About once a month, upon learning that all of us band guys grew up around Augusta, Ga., a drunk would ask, “They still got that little dead guy stood up in that funeral home down there?”
The first few times I heard this, I wrote it off as an urban myth or just dumbass drunk talk. I figured if there was a little dead guy on public display in Augusta, I would’ve known about it. But I wasn’t sure, so I checked it out.
Well, it turned out that Elliot’s Funeral Home on Telfair Street did have a little dead meeter-greeter guy, nicknamed George, working their parlor for a number of years. All dressed up in a suit, George was not only a novelty, bringing in walk-in prospects, he was also a demo for the embalmer’s art.
Apparently, George got this posthumous gig after he was retired from the cadaver tank at the old Medical College of Georgia. When the college moved out of its original location in 1913, nobody claimed George, so he got moved to the funeral home and put to work.
When I called to check up on George in 1987, a woman at Elliot’s told me that George hadn’t been on display in some time, and that he had been moved “upstairs.” Then she corrected herself and said that George had been buried a year earlier.
Personally, I think they’ve still got the little guy upstairs.
As it turns out, George was just one member of a whole souvenir-corpse fraternity. For instance, there was frat brother Eugene (another nickname) up in Sabina, Ohio. In June of 1929, Eugene turned up on the shoulder of Highway 3C, dead of natural causes, and with no ID. The good folks at the Littleton Funeral Home came and retrieved Eugene’s mortal coil, prepared the body for burial, and waited for family to claim the body.
When no family showed up, the Littleton mortician decided to try his own special embalming recipe. The recipe worked well, and the folks at Littleton were so proud, they built Eugene his own little glass-walled house out in the side yard of the funeral home. Eugene was a big draw. Thousands of people came to see himLittleton has the guest books to prove itand tour buses came by regularly.
But wouldn’t you know, it wasn’t long before those wacky Sabina kids started stealing Eugene and taking him for rides around town. They’d leave him standing on the courthouse steps, or up against some skittish neighbor’s lamppost. One time Eugene made it as far as the Ohio State campus in Columbus.
In 1964, the Littleton Funeral Home folks decided Eugene had done enough traveling. They dressed him up in a new suit, buried him in the Sabina Cemetery, and put up a nice marker.
Just down the road, in Paducah, Ky., there was frat brother number three, “Speedy” Atkins, nicknamed for his rapid work at a local tobacco factory. Speedy went fishing one day in 1928, fell into the Ohio River, and drowned.
For 66 years, according to the Associated Press, “Townsfolk and the occasional busload of out-of-towners gawked at his mummified body, which was stored propped against a closet wall and carefully washed and dressed three times a year to keep mold off.”
Speedy too had been the subject of an embalming experiment, carried out by funeral director A.Z. Hamock. Whatever Hamock used, it worked and worked well, although there was the unfortunate side effect of Speedy turning orange. Hamock never revealed his secret formula; he took it to his own grave in 1949.
At this point, A.Z.’s wife Velma took over the day-to-day operation of the funeral businessand of Speedy. During the summer, Velma would dutifully take Speedy out of the closet and share him with sightseers, free of charge.
Speedy also made three national TV appearances. Apparently, he was a dream to work with. “I never saw a dead man bring so much happiness to people,” Velma said.
In 1994, Velma had Speedy buried. “It’s just time,” she said.
Visit Walter Jowers’ Web site at http://www.nashscene.com/~housesense.