Skip to main content

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.

Business Owners: Reach 300,000+ potential customers per month for just pennies a day by advertising on Pennsylvania Oddities!

Sources/Further Reading:

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

Popular posts from this blog

Natalie, Pennsylvania: A Murderer's Paradise

When a miner named Michael Wanzie was murdered in June of 1905, it was evident that something wasn't quite right in the tiny village of Natalie. Although the scenic mountain village had a population of less than two hundred, the slaying of Michael Wanzie was the fourth murder committed in the village in less than a decade.

By 1924 the population had nearly doubled, thanks to a building "boom" that saw the construction of 40 new homes during the preceding year by builders employed by the Colonial Collieries Company, owners of the Natalie Colliery. Twenty of these homes, many of which still stand today, were built by the Evert Construction Company of Kulpmont. In 1923 there were 56 homes in the village, housing 375 residents. By April of 1924 that number would swell to just under 400 residents and 93 homes.

Although the building boom lent a measure of respectability to the village, Natalie was still imbued with a notorious reputation as being one of the most lawless place…

The Lutz Axe Murder

A small two-story house standing at the corner of Franklin and Montgomery streets in West Pittston presents a humble appearance. Simple in design and white in color, it is remarkable only because it is so unremarkable. A local resident may drive by the house every day for years without ever noticing it, or thinking about it. Certainly, from its understated appearance, nobody would ever guess that this humble house was the home of John Lutz, who, in 1899, committed of the most heinous murders in the history of Luzerne County.

The tiny house at the corner of Franklin and Montgomery is, in fact, a murder house. It is the scene of a gruesome crime that took place more than a century ago. What you are about to read is the story of that house and the killer who lived inside.

On November 29, 1899, John Lutz came home to his 31-year-old wife, Augusta, and their five young children. Lutz, who was nearly ten years older than his wife, was said to have been suffering from feelings of jealousy. Th…

The Murder of Daisy Smith

On a Monday morning in early October of 1898, about two miles below the iron railroad bridge which crosses the river to Selinsgrove, a farmer's horse had fallen ill.  Henry Smith sent out his teenage daughter, Daisy, to gather some sweet fern.  Hours passed and the Daisy had not returned with the medicinal herb so Mr. Smith decided to look for her after dinner.  He discovered the body of his beloved daughter next to the highway not far from the barn, face down beneath a large chestnut tree; her throat cut ear from to ear.

Of all the murders that took place in Northumberland County, it is the murder of pretty Daisy Smith which has become the most famous, largely due to the brutality of the crime. Daisy, who was just sixteen at the time, was found with a gash across her neck so deep that her backbone was visible, and her body had been riddled with several loads of buckshot.  It was the type of death befitting the most heinous of villains, and the fact that this fate had befallen su…