Lizzie was asleep when she heard the terrifying noise. Was someone in her bedroom?
As she rolled over to open her eyes and take a look, the shadow of a man came towards her, diving under her bed like the monster in a kid’s nightmare. Lizzie sprinted for the door, closing and locking it behind her. Her quick thinking and calm reaction had just captured whoever was in her room.
It was Monday, October 7, 1895 in Reading, PA and Lizzie Dautrich had just stopped a burglar as he went through the rooms of the boarding house where she lived. The burglar’s identity would remain a mystery and lead to the one of the most fascinating tales in Reading history- the story of Stone Man Willie.
The thief Lizzie Dautrich caught was in town for the 1895 Fireman’s Convention; not because he was a fireman, but because the influx of out-of-towners offered great business potential for pickpockets and other petty criminals like him.
But when Lizzie shut the door on his robbery attempt, things took several unexpected turns. The man was taken to prison where he revealed that his name was James Penn. Penn had apparently travelled to Reading from Philadelphia (about 60 miles) where he was well-known by the police as a heavy drinker and persistent burglar. The Reading authorities decided to keep Penn in jail for several weeks while he worked through the hurdles of alcohol withdrawal.
During that time, Penn’s previously unrecognized ill-health deteriorated beyond the realm of withdrawal issues. When the doctor told Penn that he would soon die of kidney failure, Penn revealed that his real name was not James Penn.
Not only was “Penn” not going to live past his prison stay, he was also not going to reveal his true identity to the police. “Penn” admitted having a few relatives, but didn’t want to disgrace them with the news of his dying in jail.
So “Penn” died in 1895 in a Reading, PA prison. And very few people knew about it or cared.
But a few did.
The body was taken to Theodore Aumen’s Funeral Home in hopes that it could be preserved long enough to figure out who “Penn”s relatives were so they could bury the body properly. Aumen had been experimenting with some new embalming methods and decided to put them to the test on “Penn”.
The new embalming agents worked extremely well; so well that “Penn” essentially became mummified. The hair and teeth remained in near-perfect condition. The skin took on a dark red color but was otherwise unblemished minus the wears of living.
The man formerly known as James Penn somehow became renamed as Stone Man Willie, and until recently, the search for his relatives continued without success for over a century! Meanwhile, Willie stayed at Aumen’s, where the funeral home staff referred to him as a friend.
Finally, 128 years after his death, Stone Man Willie is going to be buried this weekend in Reading, PA. His relatives never learned his story, but it has become legendary in local folklore.
After being on display more than twice as long as he lived, Stone Man Willie was given one last tribute this past Saturday, during the city of Reading’s 175th Anniversary Parade. He travelled in style, sporting a sharp black suit and rolling in a vintage, glass hearse pulled by an equally cool-looking motorcycle. His procession through the streets was led by a traditional, New Orleans style funeral parade (which I was lucky enough to play trumpet in).
Rumor is that, thanks to advances in technology, Stone Man Willie’s true identify has been finally found, and that his actual name will be announced on his tombstone when he is buried this weekend.
I had the unexpected chance to be one of the last people to look on Stone Man Willie before they closed his casket. I was amazed at how well-preserved he was, that this story has gone on for so long, and that I was inches away from mummy. I could have touched him! (I didn’t.)
I live about 30 miles from Reading and was totally unaware of the Stone Man story. But I’m grateful to have learned about it at the last minute, and even more grateful to have played a very small role in this amazing tale.
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