When you think of cemeteries, what comes to mind? If I’m to be honest, I don’t think of all of the quiet visits I’ve taken with my mom, nana, and great-grandma. I don’t think of the cool shade of the lush, green trees or the soupy, humid air globbed around us as we grabbed musty cloth flower wreaths from a car trunk lined with hay dust and cow feed. Although I can practically smell the broiling earth and hear the parched crunch of July grass as the four of us shuffled between the rows of granite and marble names, this is not what I think of. No—cemeteries will always transport me to time I’ve spent with my dad.
Chilly, misty earth gorged on the humidity of the afternoon and smelling damper than had seemed possible a mere few hours before. The soft hooting of an owl echoing from the shadow of a skeletal tree hunched over a gleaming, platinum moon—swollen and looming. Somewhere: a creak, a snap, a groan. Probably a couple of teenagers leaning against the icy headstones, making out. They’re too involved in each other to notice crumbles of dirt tumbling off of a strangely fresh grave, the ripping of grassroots, an ominous, filthy hand shooting up.
But while I was watching those corny, C-movie zombies stumble after regretfully sexually-active teenagers, I was sitting, illuminated by the blue glow of zombie horror, six minutes away from a mummy.
Until I was nearly 10, I lived a few minutes from Sabina, Ohio. In the Sabina Cemetery, there’s a headstone that reads:
Found Dead 1929
Because I was born in 1997, I missed the three and a half decades between the time his body was found and the time he was buried, and, despite the fact that I lived and went to school in Sabina until the fourth grade, I’d never heard of him. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago—March 2016—that I became acquainted with “Eugene.” Not officially, of course, and not even through his gravestone—through an article on Facebook.
What drew my attention was the fact that there was an alleged mummy in Sabina, Ohio. When I clicked on that article—after scrolling past it initially—I was fully bewildered. I mean, I know that he was buried thirty-three-ish years before I was born, but I really thought that I would’ve heard the story of Eugene at some point in the first ten years that I lived in Sabina. But I hadn’t, not even when I returned during high school to work in a local pizza place.
So you find out that you grew up in a town that used to have a mummy—what do you do?
Naturally, I scrambled to find out more, but (not surprisingly) researching an unidentified man is hard. No matter how interesting the story, there just isn’t a surplus of intricacies that waiting to be unearthed like there are people with names. Mysteries—especially mystery mummies—are searchable, though, and “Eugene” had a lot of articles on Google.
What all of these articles agree on: on June 6, 1929, an African-American man between 50 and 80 was found dead along highway 3C outside of Sabina. He was ruled to have died from natural causes, but he had no identification on him, so authorities weren’t able to alert his loved ones of his death. The only thing that the unknown man had on him was a slip of paper with the address “1118 Yale Ave, Cincinnati.” Hoping that they would finally be able to identify him, the Sabina authorities apparently contacted police in Cincinnati, who went to check out the address. It was an empty lot.
They began asking those living on either side of the lot about the man that had been found in Sabina. Although they didn’t find any answers, it was decided that unidentified man would be named for the last guy questioned: Eugene.
Through all that, “Eugene” had been sitting in Littleton Funeral Home, indifferent. When nothing was found on him, the coroner went ahead and embalmed Eugene, but they weren’t sure what to do with him. They were still hoping that someone would come to Sabina and restore Eugene’s actual name, but no one came asking for him. The owners of the funeral home placed “Eugene” in a separate building and waited.
Although no one really advertised that that’s where “Eugene” was being held, word soon spread. Legend has it that about 1.3 million people visited “Eugene,” signing their names in the little guest book that I like to imagine was placed beside his couch but was probably placed awkwardly near the door like it is for most funerals, and Eugene’s perpetual stay in the room behind the Littleton Funeral Home was an endless funeral procession.
Who knows how long he would’ve stayed there if not for the college kids.
I know they’ll say kids will be kids, but what kind of kids steal a dead guy? Apparently, students from Ohio State University. They were frat boys. They drove 55-ish miles to Sabina. They stole Eugene. They propped him up on the steps of one of the buildings on campus when they got back. It took the people who weren’t in on the prank three days to realize that he was dead.
It wasn’t the first time, though, that Eugene was stolen. Local students would take Eugene for rides to other towns. Actual adults would take him and prop him on their porches, scaring any neighbors or other bystanders who happened by. It was soon after the frat boys from OSU kidnapped Eugene, however, that town authorities finally decided “enough is enough.”
On October 21, 1964, “Eugene” was buried. When he arrived in Sabina thirty-five years before, just as dead as he was when they lowered him into the grave he’d been denied since the end of the 1920s, he was missing fingers, but he was dressed nicely.
But what kind of peace can a spirit have when he rests beneath a name that isn’t his own?
I’m not saying that one day the body buried as “Eugene” will one day thrust his fists through the pale, crumbling dirt of the Sabina Cemetery and pull himself from the grave. I’m not saying that he’s going to stumble over the crumbling sidewalks of the town that terrorized him after death. I’m not saying that he’s going to seek his revenge and devour the souls or the flesh or the firstborns of those who kidnapped his body, only to find that he’s decades too late, shrug his crumbling shoulders, and devour their grandchildren. I’m not saying that he’ll wiggle his missing fingers at harmless passersby.
Yeah, even the most imaginative people from my town aren’t saying that, but there are still people talking about the “mummy” of Sabina they called Eugene.
There are generic forums online, dedicated to sharing stories about Eugene. The forum-of-sorts that has stuck with me the most shouts “Your Story: Help make a little history!” at you from the top of the page as soon as you click on the link. It’s part of a Greenfield, Ohio news (and gossip) site that was managed by a guy named Larry Chapman until he abandoned it in 2011.
Some had cute, mischievous memories involving Eugene, as was the case of Sandi Collins, who said:
We lived in Sabina until I was 10 and lived right down the street from Eugene. I remember on the weekends buses would pull in to view Eugene. On occasion my friends and I (the Littleton kids – their parents owned the funeral home) would try and scare the visitors by making scary noises and tap on the window outside in the back of Eugene’s house. Also, if I remember correctly, we would have tea parties with Eugene.
It’s pretty natural, though, I’d say, to be a little terrified of the dead guy the town’s funeral home stored in a shed out back. One commenter, Vicki Unger, wrote:
I remember Eugene from Sabina Methodist Church Camp in the early 60’s. We told ghost stories about him, and giggled about him. Then when walking through the dark at night, we were always afraid he might be behind the next tree. When I finally got to see him, his hair and nails were all grown out and his skin was beginning to flake away.
There’s just something almost horrifying about how, decades ago, these adults were children who incorporated a corpse into their childhood culture—and these are stories just from a small page. I would’ve loved the chance to talk to the people who were around when Eugene was found or their children—the first generation of children—whose stories swallowed Eugene up in waves of mysticism and games—incorporating the dead man behind the funeral home into their ghost stories and urban legends, superstitions and jokes. It was these children who passed these stories on to their own children, maybe even took those children to see him once they were old enough.
But it was the grandchildren who began to question it:
An anonymous poster in 2005 said in regards to the reason that Eugene was finally buried, “It was a time of racial unrest and I believe the Littleton’s were afraid of a riot. Think of it, a black man on display in a mostly white community. It just wouldn’t have happened if Eugene wasn’t black.”
A few other people in 2004 shared similar ideas. It was something that I’d wondered about myself. When I began to read the anecdotes people were sharing, it seemed that he was a part of the community and treated fairly well. Several accounts said that Eugene received a new suit each year. One of the stories shared on Chapman’s site actually said that these suits came from the Littleton Funeral Home’s owner, citing Littleton’s son as its source. Another said, “A placard at the site stated that this was intended to show what professional mortuary service could do and that he was regularly shaved, hair cut, and nails groomed.”
And then there were the stories of the pranks, of “Eugene” being kidnapped and taken for rides and showing up on porches during Halloween. The people of Sabina may’ve had fond memories of “Eugene,” but they were also treating him as an object—a prop—instead the body of a man, a formerly living being deserving of respect.
The fact is, when we look back on the 1920s, there were other “mummies” displayed—and most of them were part of some minority. Oddball Ohio: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places mentions an African-American man named James “Gold Tooth Jimmy” Davis, who was killed by “law enforcement” near Canton, Ohio. After it was sold to make up for embalming costs, Jimmy’s body travelled the US, eventually becoming the star of Captain Harvey Lee Boswell’s Palace of Wonders for thirty years until he was sold in the 1990s and apparently disappeared (Pohlen 158).
In Tim Stelloh’s article, “Behold! The Heartbreaking, Hair-Raising Tale Of Freak Show Star Julia Pastrana, Mexico’s Monkey Woman,” chronicles the life—and afterlife—of Julia Pastrana, whose performer name was The Monkey Woman. After she died (assumably from giving birth), her loving husband had his wife and son embalmed and kept them close by, doing what any good family man would do and turning his deceased family into an exhibit. The show must go on! And it did for 153 years—until Julia was finally buried in Mexico in 2013.
Julia died in 1860 in Moscow, Russia, though. Even Jimmy died in Canton—a much bigger place than Sabina. Sabina didn’t have a sideshow to sell Eugene to, so they made their own.
Even the people who submitted their stories to “Your Story!” with the hopes of “helping to make a little history” didn’t point out that we’ve never learned his real name. None of them even brought up the tidbit that some articles toss at us, saying that someone came to visit Eugene early on and seemed to recognize him, yet turned away and left him.
This person, if he—or she—knew the real identity of Eugene, swallowed his name.
Today, the lot that stood empty at 1118 Yale Ave, Cincinnati in 1929 is still an empty lot. The weeds are taller than I am. The sidewalks are cracked, and litter is caught in the weeds at the edge of the sidewalk like krill in the baleen of an urban whale. The buildings on either side are nice, though: the duplex to the left with worn but unchipped bricks, and the house on the right with crisply pale siding and a car shining from the driveway a few feet from the weeds.
The highway “Eugene” was walking along when he died was known as the 3-C highway. It ran from Cincinnati to Columbus to Cleveland. I actually take an evolved form of this highway to get from my home in Leesburg, Ohio to the University of Mount Union in Alliance. Sabina, however, rests there, a small blip of a town, and “Eugene” was an even smaller blip. Although I’ve scoured the reports and the articles, I’ve been unable to find whether or not he appeared to be moving toward or away from the vacant lot in Cincinnati that would hold nothing but dead ends after his death. Some said that he’d been heading toward Sabina in search of work but never made it; others, that citizens of Sabina reported seeing him walking about the town.
Unlike the people who posted on Larry Chapman’s website, I never saw “Eugene.” I can see him there, though, walking in the heat of June. I’ve tried to creep into his mind so many times that my own chest is filled with the deep, labored breaths of someone who has been walking for quite some time in the heat. I wonder if he knew that he would die along that road, his body too worn and too tired to keep walking along under the sun. I wonder if, even as he died of “natural causes,” he knew that they wouldn’t be able to match a name to his face. I wonder if he knew he would become a small-town roadside attraction that people would come from all over to see. How could he possibly? In his reality, as he walked amongst the dirt and the weeds, he had a name.
Sometimes I imagine that he’s still walking that highway like something from a cheesy B-movie. Every time someone calls him “Eugene,” I like to think that he growls his real name in reply. But those who are living have the deafest of ears, and his growls crumble to whispers that the breeze sweeps away. He is doomed to a forever of “Eugene.” No one else seems to care.
Published in Hiram College’s Echo (2017). Third place.
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“Eugene.” Ohio History Connection. Ohio History Central. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
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TheresaHPIR. “Eugene the Mummy.” Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State. 2 Mar. 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
Pohlen, Jerome. Oddball Ohio: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places. Chicago: Chicago Review, 2004. Print.
“Sabina Cemetery: Sabina, Ohio.” graveaddiction.com. Grave Addiction. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
“Sabina, Ohio: Eugene the Mummy.” RoadsideAmerica.com. 23 July 2009. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
“Seen By Thousands; Never Identified; ‘Eugene’ Buried with Dignity.” The Sabina Historical Society. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
Stelloh, Tim. “Behold! The Heartbreaking, Hair-Raising Tale Of Freak Show Star Julia Pastrana, Mexico’s Monkey Woman.” BuzzFeed News, 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
“Tales of Sabina’s Eugene.” highland-ohio.com. Larry Chapman, 19 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.