Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Arkansas History's Mysteries - The Strange Career of Old Mike

Only a hobo, but one more is gone
Leavin’ nobody to sing his sad song
Leavin’ nobody to carry him home
Only a hobo, but one more is gone
- Bob Dylan

On the evening of August 20, 1911, a short man stumbled through the crowd to listen to a tent revival meeting being held in the city park in the railroad town of Prescott.  The man was a drifter who had been traveling the state for a good while.  He was likely getting to be too old for the rambling life.  He was crippled by an arthritic condition on his left foot and walked with crutches.  He usually spent his days selling pencils and shoestrings to the people on the sidewalks of the towns he visited.  It was hardly an enjoyable career for someone who had difficulty standing for long periods of time.  But, now he could relax after his long day.  After the revival meeting ended, the man sat down in the grass and leaned against a tree to rest.  This was the hobo’s last ride; sometime during the night, the man died.

 The next morning, city officials discovered his body and took him to the Prescott Hardware Company, which doubled as the city’s morgue.  The coroner declared the cause of death a heart attack, quickly settling the matter.  The man carried no identification – not unusual in 1911, which meant that identifying him would be difficult.  Dr. W.W. Rice, the Nevada County Coroner, also could not find any clues to the man’s identity in his pockets.  He seemed to have been carrying all of his worldly possessions in his pockets -- eighty cents, a silver teaspoon, a handkerchief, and about a dozen pencils.  Asking around, it seemed that there were plenty who had seen him in town, but unfortunately no one could recall his name.  One person said that he had seen the deceased a few weeks before in the drunk tank in Little Rock where the municipal judge ordered the man out of town.  Another witness claimed to have seen the man in Gurdon and Arkadelphia, both towns served by the railroad that came through Prescott.  He seemed to be wearing a suit purchased at Texarkana, and when asked about the suit, the merchant who sold it could not remember anything about the buyer.

 There were some clues that authorities hoped would be able to help them to identify the man.  He was a small man, only around 5 foot 4, full head of hair, thick mustache, and a tattoo on his right arm of a woman standing on a pedestal.  He had rather elaborate dental work, which caused many to suggest that he might have been of European origin, possibly Italian.  Blue Avery, who worked at the funeral home in the 1960s and 1970s remarked, “In my opinion, he has some of the most beautiful gold work in his lower teeth that I’ve ever seen.”  One person claimed that he had talked to the deceased and the unknown man had told him that he had a sister in Chicago.  Unfortunately, the witness said that he could not recall the man’s name.

 With few clues from which to work, the coroner released the man’s body to the Cornish Funeral Home, where the undertaker, John D. Cornish, would embalm him.  The man was not the only unidentified body in the funeral home.  There was a woman whom the funeral home employees referred to as “Old Kathy.”  Keeping with the naming convention of unidentified bodies, the funeral home workers started calling the drifter “Old Mike.”  While Old Kathy was eventually claimed by family members, no one came to give Old Mike his proper name.  The funeral home decided to take the unusual step of placing “Old Mike” on display with the hopes that someone would come along and identify the man.  A week passed with no one providing any information.  Weeks passed into months.  At some point a woman visited Prescott in the hopes that he was her long lost husband.  He was not.  The months then passed into years.  And “Old Mike” went from being a tragic figure into being a town attraction.  Because the funeral home decided not to bury “Old Mike,” instead the anonymous drifter would remain on display for the next 64 years.

 Old Mike, as he will likely forever be known, stood in a closet in the back of the funeral home behind a curtain.  Reverend Jerry Westmorland, who would preach his funeral years later, recalled that as a child it was always a thrill to see Old Mike.  “You would dare your friend to touch him,” he remembered, “All you had to do is go by the funeral home and ask to see Old Mike and they’d usher you right back to the back.  They had him behind a curtain and then they’d draw back the curtain and there he’d be!”  An article from the Arkansas Democrat in 1970 claimed that two busloads of children came in to see Old Mike in a single week’s time.  One persistent story told by many who lived in the Prescott area was that some high school kids stole his body at one point and took him to the movies with them.  Traveling carnivals also asked to purchase his body, one offering $1000 to the mortuary.  Blue Avery remarked, “They wanted to know if we’d sell him, but we couldn’t from an ethical standpoint.”

 Although he had been embalmed, the years had still taken their toll on Old Mike.  Constant embalming had caused his body to mummify.  The mummification process caused his skin to darken leading to the rumor that Old Mike had turned into wood.  Over time, the skin around the eyes tightened.  The funeral workers placed caps over his eyes with drawn pupils on the caps to make it appear that Old Mike was looking at you presenting an even more ghoulish image.  He had also shrunk from 5’4 to around 4’5, his weight declining to around 50 pounds.  Even with the mummification, Old Mike seemed to have held up pretty well over the years.  Blue Avery recalled, “Some have asked why we keep him.  The reason is that it is such a good job of embalming.  Some people even today have doubts about him being dead.”  Every few years, the funeral home workers would replace Old Mike’s clothes, burning his old suit and replacing it with a new one, ready for the next round of sightseers.

 While many readers might think that the idea of keeping a body on display for over sixty years is quite disturbing, it seems that there was little dissent from the public at the time.  Peggy Lloyd, who grew up in southwest Arkansas recalled that when visitors to the town wanted to see the sights, she’d try to direct them to the Nevada County Depot and Museum, but they’d often be more interested in learning where they could find Old Mike.  He became known nationwide.  Even Johnny Carson made reference to Old Mike in one of his Tonight Show monologues.

 In 1975, one funeral home worker finally decided that enough was enough.  To him, having a body – a human being – on display for entertainment purposes was beyond tacky.  So, he contacted the office of Arkansas Attorney General Jim Guy Tucker to report the sad tale of Old Mike.  Since the Arkansas Legislature had recently passed a law that required that bodies be buried in a reasonable time period after death, it seemed a good time to make sure that Old Mike receive a proper burial.  Tucker’s office ordered that the Cornish Funeral Home bury Old Mike.  The funeral home decided to provide Old Mike with a private funeral; they did not contact the press, but decided to keep it a small affair – only five of the funeral home employees and a preacher were in attendance.  Rev. Jerry Westmorland preached the funeral.  The theme of his eulogy was that we might not know who Old Mike was, but God did.  He was laid to rest in the De Ann Cemetery in Prescott with a simple headstone that read, “Old Mike, Died August 21, 1911.”

 Who was Old Mike?  We will likely never know.  He was one of many drifters who crossed this state in the early part of the twentieth century.  He came to Prescott with little and died with little.  He had a name, but that name was lost the moment he drew his last breath.  And herein lies one of the biggest ironies of the story:  The fact that he died without a name meant that he would become possibly one of the most famous parts of Prescott’s cultural landscape.