The True Story of Shamokin's Famous "Mystery Head"
|Hickory Ridge Colliery|
Hardly a week goes by that I don't receive an email from a Pennsylvania Oddities reader asking me to write about the Shamokin "mystery head"-- yes, the very same human head, complete with curly hair and mustache, that was put on display in the window of the Farrow Funeral Home (presumably to show off the establishment's embalming abilities) and later displayed at a local mining museum. The head belonged to an unidentified murder victim whose headless body was found in the woods near the Hickory Ridge colliery in 1904, and the head has been a source of local pride and urban legend ever since.
I've resisted the urge to write about the "mystery head" for a few reasons. Having grown up in the area, I heard about it so many times that the story has worn thin. Secondly, the erroneous local legends and false claims are probably a lot more entertaining than the actual truth about the "mystery head". These local legends run the gamut from plausible to patently ridiculous. Based on the stories I've heard over the years, it has been speculated that:
A) The head was stolen from the window of the funeral home many years ago and has remained missing ever since. (Plausible but false, even though I've heard this explanation given by many reliable sources).
B) The head was stolen and used during Satanic rituals by devil worshippers at the abandoned Catholic school in Marion Heights. (Definitely not true, but it sounds cool).
C) The embalmed head was found in a cardboard box in someone's basement and given to Judge Krehel, who used it for many years as a paperweight in his office. (Another cool story, but definitely not true).
D) The head's whereabouts are unknown, but the victim's body was ground up and served as mystery meat in local elementary school cafeterias. (That could explain the curly black hairs I once found in my rigatoni in third grade).
Before we get to what ultimately became of of Shamokin's Mystery Head, let's review the murder itself, and the subsequent discovery of the headless body. Unfortunately, historical records contain numerous inaccuracies regarding the facts of the incident. One newspaper from Washington, PA, lists the date of the body's discovery as November 19, 1904, while other Pennsylvania newspapers give the date as November 21 for the discovery of the body. All sources agree that the nude body was found by three hunters about a hundred yards from the Hickory Ridge Colliery. Most sources state that the body contained 5 gunshot wounds. Local officials offered a $50 reward for the head, which was later found beneath a pile of rocks on November 29, 1904. The head was located by search parties after their dog picked up its scent.
Thanks to a mind-boggling display of police ineptitude (most likely due to the local custom of not giving a damn about Italian, Hungarian, Polish and other immigrant laborers who flocked to the coal region in the 18th and 19th centuries), this crime has not only remained unsolved for more than 110 years, but no suspects were ever named. Astonishingly, this lackadaisical policework was par for the course in Northumberland County during those days:
"Northumberland County has an unenviable record- a record that is doubtless without parallel in the United States... Within the past fifteen years ninety-seven murders have been committed... Only five persons have been brought to trial and only one convicted of murder in the first degree... " - Bloomsburg Columbian, March 16, 1899
By the end of 1908, that number had risen to 118 murders, the vast majority of which remain unsolved to this day.
Most newspapers describe the victim as being of Italian descent and conclude that the victim worked in the mines. However, other papers reported that the condition of the man's hands indicated that he was not a mineworker.
So what became of the head?
While the body of the victim and the pursuit for the murderer were soon forgotten, the head never faded from public memory. It was embalmed and displayed in the storefront window of the Farrow Funeral Home, in the hopes that someone might recognize the face. It was then stored in a basement inside a cardboard box until 1976, when it was loaned to the newly-founded Anthracite Heritage Center. The mystery head was placed on a pedestal and concealed with a black cloth.
"Visitors were told what was beneath the cloth, then asked if they would like to look. Most did."- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 19, 1977
On November 24, 1976, Judge Peter Krehel ordered the Anthracite Heritage Center to remove its most popular exhibit. However, when County Coroner Ernest Kortin went to the museum to arrange its removal, it was discovered that the head was missing.
This is the point in time where all the crazy rumors begin, but the fact of the matter was that the head was removed not by burglars or members of a Satanic cult, but by Robert Morgan, a member of the museum committee. "It's missing only because we want to protect it from being destroyed. It's in our possession. It's in our custody," Morgan told the Washington Observer-Reporter. Morgan, along with other members of the museum committee, hid the head from authorities while awaiting word from the American Civil Liberties Union. They believed that the head was historically significant, and that, once turned over to Judge Krehel, would be buried in an unmarked grave. Which is precisely what happened.
After a long (and presumably bizarre) series of appeals, Judge Krehel finally got his wish. In late February of 1977, the famous "Shamokin mystery head" was buried after 73 years, in a secret location. In this sense, one can still argue that the head's whereabouts still remain unknown.
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Arizona Republican. November 25, 1904
The Ocala Banner. November 25, 1904
The Forest Republican. November 23, 1904
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 19, 1977
Washington Observer-Reporter. December 10, 1976