As I sit here reflecting on the week and everything that has transpired I can think of only one word: whirlwind. It was only seven days ago that I was flying my drone on Penn Square, capturing Reading’s 275th anniversary parade when I ran into a reporter and cameraman from Reuters who were covering the story on Stoneman Willie’s festivities and burial. Two weeks prior to that the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story on the upcoming burial, and to my surprise revealed that Auman’s Funeral Home was sure of Willie’s true identity and would be announcing it at his burial on October 7th. To get a more complete understanding of this journey, we need to go back to the very beginning.
Planning to bury a Legend
WFMZ broke the news on April 26th, 2023 that Auman’s was planning to bury the long-time local legend Stoneman Willie. My knowledge of Stoneman Willie up to this point was second-hand. I am not of the generations who rode their bikes to visit him after school. I am not even sure they allowed him visitors by the time I learned to ride a bike. Nevertheless the whispers of those that did persisted. He was perhaps shrouded in even more mystery, a relic of a very different time in Reading.
I have always held a deep fascination for local history and a love for mysteries, so this was the perfect storm. It was so clear to me that identifying him was the only way to end this 128-year saga. How could we possibly put this man in the ground without at least trying to find out who exactly he was? In 2023 when we finally have the technology to do so? Despite knowing his final attempts at obscuring his identity were for the sake of his family; there is no one left to disgrace. Stoneman Willie has more than made up his debt to society for his petty crimes by being a part of the essential progress of embalming. If you have ever attended a funeral and were able to say goodbye to a corpse who resembled the person you knew, you can thank Willie for that.
It is not a comfortable thought to imagine what the process of perfecting embalming realistically looked like. It was likely those who lived and died on the fringes of society, like Stoneman Willie, in which pioneering embalmers like Theodore Auman could experiment. The alternative was being thrown in an unmarked grave in a Potter’s Field; ultimately forgotten. Or worse sent to a medical college and dissected.
The more I dug into newspapers and tried to make sense of Willie’s story the faster and hotter the flame within me burned. It consumed me for three weeks. The last piece of published evidence I found happened to be that Wilkes-Barre Times article about Auman being sure the body was that of James Murphy. The article stated burial arrangements were being made, but I could find no record of a burial. I figured it was another dead end.
I do not take any credit for identifying Stoneman Willie, as it wasn’t my intention or place to do so. I merely reported on my findings and hurled the ball into Auman’s court, hoping they would be inspired by the piece and see the clarity in which identifying him makes a much better ending to this story. I published my story on May 19th and on June 1st they held their press conference stating DNA analysis had been done in 2008 and that nothing was found and they would not be trying again. Considering all of the advancements in the way of DNA testing since 2008 this was disappointing but I ultimately moved onto other projects and assumed the burial process would go ahead without identification.
Even before the news that Willie would be identified I already considered my experience a success. I got to meet the likes of Gerald Conlogue, a renowned mummy expert, and compare our findings as it related to the search for James Penn’s identity. I was able to break the news of his fascinating research that was completed in 2004 which found coins in Willie’s throat and showed that perhaps it wasn’t actually kidney failure which killed him. This was by far the most interesting and in-depth project I had ever tackled. My following agreed; it was reshared over two thousand times.
Back to the Present
Fast forward to a week ago, I introduced myself to the Reuters team at the parade and gave them my background. I also mentioned I would be glad to share the usage of my footage. The next day their story was published and within hours there was a cascade of media outlets reproducing their story.
CNN used my interview and drone footage. Fox News quoted Berks Nostalgia. USA Today quoted me and linked to my article. Perhaps most shockingly, as I was leaving my Thursday morning dentist appointment I saw I had an email from the New York Times asking for an interview. I knew when Stoneman Willie’s burial was announced in April that it had the makings of a story that would receive mass attention, but I never expected to go along for the ride.
This week of media coverage culminated in yesterday’s burial and reveal that our beloved Stoneman Willie was indeed James Murphy of Wilkes-Barre. It poured all morning, preventing my drone from getting any sky footage. Legendary local historian George M. Meiser IX was kind enough to mention me and my research in his eulogy to Willie. Yes, being in the New York Times is an honor, but to be recognized by a man who has dedicated much of his life to documenting our past, a man whose Passing Scene books I spent time pondering over as a child is just about as good as it gets for this budding local historian.
James Murphy died quietly in Berks County Prison 96 years before I was born. Who could have imagined our paths would be destined to cross in this way. That I would be a part of the final chapter of his story. It is a tale that seems too bizarre and unique to top. Though I certainly hope this is not the peak; only the beginning of a storied career in bringing you a new perspective on our history. At 32 I would like to think I have at least a few more decades to do so. There is more work to be done; always another story to tell. I will continue to do so as authentically and enthusiastically as I have with Stoneman Willie. Who knows, maybe someday the world will again take notice.