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July 5, 2006

'Alton Mummy' is finally resting in peace

From: St. Louis Post-Dispatch - MO, United States - Jul 5,2006

By Valerie Schremp Hahn

Just at the edge of the St. Francis of Assisi Church cemetery in Portage des Sioux, steps away from the shrine marking the graves of two parish priests, William "Deaf Bill" Lee finally lies at rest.

His flat, gray, granite grave marker shows his name, a figure of a fisherman and three dates: 1863, the year he was born; 1915, the year he died; and June 24, 1996, the day he was buried - 10 years ago last month.

Where did Deaf Bill hang around for 81 years?

Lee, who after death became known as the Alton Mummy, was a poor, hard-of-hearing fisherman known for delivering drunken sermons on the Missouri and Illinois riverbanks, said Troy Taylor, who has written about the oddities of Alton. Deaf Bill would deliver sermons on street corners and in Sunday morning church services, and his exploits landed him in jail several times.

A man named Bill Bauer operated a ferry that crossed the Mississippi River and came to know Deaf Bill, a frequent customer. Bauer also owned the Bauer Funeral Home in Alton, and when Deaf Bill grew older, Bauer signed him into the Madison County poor farm. He died there on Nov. 13, 1915, at age 52.

Residents of the poor farm usually were buried in a potter's field, but Bauer decided to hold on to Bill's body until he could find relatives, who perhaps lived across the river in West Alton.

During the time of Bauer's search, he also was experimenting with a new embalming procedure, which he used on Deaf Bill. But as the corpse remained at the funeral home, the air dehydrated it. Nobody came forward to claim him, and Bauer never got around to burying him.

The body was moved to a closet, where it remained for several decades. Bill was propped in the closet for guests to view him. He was about 5 feet 3 inches tall, weighed about 50 pounds and had a mustache. His legs were crossed, and arms folded. The skin was leathery and dark and felt like wood.

A traveling showman once offered the funeral home $2,500 for Bill, but the morticians refused to sell. Schoolchildren would come by to see Deaf Bill, and requests to see him always went up around Halloween.

Tom and Dallas Burke bought the funeral home in 1948, and Deaf Bill was part of the deal.

Tom Wyatt, coordinator of the Alton History Museum, remembers going to the home for a funeral when he was a college student in the early '60s; he was not quite sure whether the tale of the Alton Mummy was true. He asked a funeral home employee, who led him to a closet and opened the door. And there in a corner stood Bill, his arms crossed in front of him, wearing a diaper. "The skin was very black, kind of petrified-like," Wyatt said. "The first time I saw him, it was quite a shock."

Several years ago, the funeral home offered Deaf Bill to the Alton History Museum. "And the board said no - that would be just dreadful," museum founder and Alton historian Charlene Gill said. People soon agreed it was finally time to lay him to rest.

Dallas Burke and Brian Fine, co-owners of the Burke-Fine Funeral Home, called the Rev. Michael Sandweg, who was the pastor of the Catholic churches in West Alton and Portage des Sioux. Sandweg checked church records and cemeteries and learned that Edward Lee, who died in 1884 at age 4 1/2, was buried in St. Francis of Assisi cemetery. Sandweg wasn't sure whether the boy and Bill were related, but he heard that both had parents named Thomas and Sara.

That late June day in 1996, more than 350 people filed through the funeral home to see Bill one last time. He lay in a varnished poplar casket with gold trim, his hands crossed over a bouquet of red and white carnations, and his dark hair and mustache neatly combed. He wore a donated turn-of-the-century tuxedo coat and trousers with a white shirt and black string tie.

Six men from the Knights of Columbus Council 460 in Alton served as pallbearers, and about 30 others stood under a tent for a graveside service.

As Sandweg sprinkled holy water on the closed casket, he said, "Every person born into this world has a right to a proper and a decent burial. So we bury him today and pray for his soul."

Gill, the historian, thinks Bill is finally in his proper place, although he did add an odd element to Alton history. "Alton is just full of nice little" - she chuckled and corrected herself - "well, bad little stories."

© 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch L.L.C.