Eugene: The strange tale of a celebrated corpse and the town that embraced him

You know when you hear a story that is so fascinating, so utterly captivating, that you become mildly obsessed, to the point that you simply have to hijack your own Sasquatch blog just to tell it to the world?  This is that story.

I was visiting my friend Joey in Columbus, and we were chatting over dinner.

“So I heard this story,” he said. “It was in some small town in Ohio. I’m not sure where, but I think it was around here somewhere.

“Anyway, a drifter wandered into town and he died, and nobody knew who he was…”

Thus began my introduction to Eugene. A quick Google search determined the story occurred in the farm town of Sabina, Ohio, not far from Columbus. We resolved to visit the next day.

—–

Eugene’s narrative in the public record begins with this single paragraph in the Sabina News Record of Thursday, June 13, 1929:

The body of an unknown colored man between the age of 40 and 45 was found along the road three miles east of town by C.E. Rice, at six o’clock Thursday morning. The authorities were notified and Coroner Kinzel conducted an inquest, and said life had passed from the body several hours before found. No marks of violence were found and it is believed that the man walking the highways in search of work and death resulted from natural causes (sic). The sum of $1.40 and a card bearing the address of 1111 Yale Avenue, Cincinnati, was found in his pockets. The body was removed to the Littleton Funeral Home.

The address in the unknown man’s pocket* — the sole clue to his identity – turned out to be a vacant lot. A resident of the neighboring house was named Eugene, so, for reasons lost to history, authorities decided to call the dead man by that name. His death certificate listed natural causes, but it’s not known why he died. Residents who saw the man pass through town the day before said that he appeared to be ill. A 2013 Wilmington (Ohio) News-Journal article reported that Eugene had “several old stab wounds on his body.”

Ohio law required that an unidentified body be kept for 30 days to allow time for the family to be located. Accordingly, the Littletons embalmed Eugene and placed the body in a brick shed behind the funeral home. Thirty days passed and Eugene was not claimed, but the residents of Sabina held out hope that someone would eventually see and recognize the corpse.

Little did anyone know at the time just how many people would see Eugene. The man would lie in the shed for the next 35 years, open to public viewing, during which time he would become a local celebrity and tourist attraction. Yes, once word of Eugene got around, the morbid and the curious descended on the little town like moths drawn to a flame.

It’s estimated that over 1.5 million people, sometimes arriving by the busload, viewed the body over the years. The Columbus Citizen called Eugene “one of the most famous individuals in Ohio.” Cars lined up on summer weekends. Sabina residents were accustomed to directing sight-seers to the shed.

As the years passed, Eugene became part of the fabric of Sabina life.  Teenagers would go see him on Friday nights.  Children called him “the stone man” and dared each other to stay in the shed alone with him.  Considering the circumstances, the townspeople treated Eugene as well as they could. The shed was remodeled. A nice sofa was brought in for him to rest upon. The corpse was dusted regularly, and his clothing was changed when it got dingy. Unknown in life, Eugene became Sabina’s treasured curiosity; the sort of thing you invited your out-of-town friends and relatives to see.

Even with the eyes of Ohio upon him, Eugene remained unclaimed. And as the twentieth century advanced, pranksters and ruffians became a bit bolder. According to one article, grave robbers stole Eugene’s gold teeth. In another incident, Eugene was pulled out of the shed one night and propped up against it, greeting startled Sabinans in the morning. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Poor old Eugene was even taken all the way up to Columbus and laid out on a park bench at Ohio State University. Authorities called the funeral home – I guess back then you knew to phone the Littletons when a half-mummified corpse turned up somewhere – and they retrieved the body.

The OSU incident appears to have been the last straw. The Littletons finally decided it was time for Eugene to have a proper burial, one befitting such a famous citizen. He would not be buried as “John Doe” in an unmarked potter’s grave; oh no, Eugene would have a decent funeral.

The Littletons purchased a plot in Sabina Cemetery, and one cold, windy October day in 1964, Eugene’s earthly body was interred. Chairs were set up for the unknown family of the deceased and Methodist minister Dr. F. M. Wentz committed Eugene’s body to the grave. “It was a simple but dignified committal service,” the Sabina News Record reported, “and was the concluding chapter of 35 years of mystery.”

eugene

Short and sweet, and incorrect — Eugene was found in 1929, not 1928.

That’s a little optimistic, considering pretty much the entire mystery is alive and well. Who was this man, and why was he in Sabina, anyway? Why did he die? Was he a loner, a hobo, unemployed and searching for work on the verge of the Great Depression? A criminal, perhaps, on the run from the authorities? Or was he an ordinary guy who left his family and friends one day to do an ordinary errand in Cincinnati, never to return? Mysteries.

—–

So, intrigued, Joey and I made our way to Sabina. The town is small and very peaceful, probably not much different today than it was when Eugene passed through on his final sojourn 87 years ago. We located Littleton’s funeral home, the neat brick shed still standing behind the stately house. I peered in a small window at the back of the shed and saw nothing unusual, just typical shed stuff. We then found the cemetery and drove around a bit looking for Eugene’s grave. It’s not a big cemetery and we found the spot after a few minutes.

The tombstone was covered with offerings of coins and small ornaments, as well as with grass and leaves from a recent lawn-mowing.  “This is awful,” Joey said. “I need to clean it off.” He went back to the car, grabbed a towel, and proceeded to dust away the debris. We left Eugene a few coins and contemplated the grave.

In death, unlike in life, Eugene enjoyed a measure of fame and notoriety, essentially becoming a companion to all of Sabina, Ohio. The man with no identity and the plain little town shared a natural bond. Sure, people had fun with Eugene, but that’s what we do when something is too weird, too close to home, and too unimaginably sad – we joke around. We can’t help it.

Eugene’s end is not how most of us would probably choose to exit this plane of existence, but you know, maybe it wasn’t too bad after all.

Rest ye well, fellow traveler.

*All other articles, save this first one, put the address at 1118 Yale Avenue, Cincinnati. I’m assuming this one was a misprint.

—–

Internet sources on Eugene are few and far between, but here are a few interesting sites to visit for more information. Many thanks to Peggy Dunn at the Sabina Public Library for helping me research this article.

Sabina Historical Society’s Eugene page

Eugene’s Facebook page

1980s TV news report on Eugene

Roadside America: Eugene the Mummy

Newly discovered! Added 12/28/16:  Jet Magazine article, 1958

 

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