Who Is Eugene? The Strange Story of the Mummy of Sabina, Ohio

Sabina, Ohio, is a little town roughly 50 miles southwest of the state’s largest city, Columbus. With a population of under 3,000 people, it probably wouldn’t draw much attention if it hadn’t been for a discovery made in the summer of 1929 and the town’s peculiar manner of dealing with that discovery.

On June 6, 1929, two locals found the body of an African-American man in a roadside ditch along Highway 3C. The county coroner determined that he had probably died from natural causes and was over the age of 50, but not much else could be learned about the stranger. No personal belongings were found on or near the body. The man had carried no identification. A pocket yielded up just one clue: A scrap of paper on which someone had written an address. The address was 1118 Yale Avenue, Cincinnati.

This address turned out to be a vacant lot. When Cincinnati police questioned the neighbourhood resident who lived nearest to the lot, he gave his name as Eugene Johnson, so the police in Sabina latched onto the name and began calling the unidentified man “Eugene.” The name stuck.

Rather than photograph Eugene and bury him in a pauper’s grave, as most communities might have done, the people of Sabina made the odd decision to embalm Eugene and place his body on a platform in a small building adjacent to the local funeral home. The hope was that a visitor to Sabina would recognize him.

“Eugene” as he appeared on display (WKRC-TV)

Eugene became a minor roadside attraction for people passing through the area, and the corpse was stolen by pranksters on numerous occasions. For reasons known only to the people of Sabina, no one thought to inter the body until the mid-’60s, 35 years after its discovery. In all that time, no one had recognized Eugene. There were no theories as to his identity or his reason for being in Sabina, other than the speculation that he had been in search of work. His life, death and identity remain a complete mystery.

The story of the “mummy of Sabina” is retold in a number of books about weird Ohio history, but Eugene never attained the fame of other unidentified bodies, such as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” in Wisconsin or “Septic Tank Sam” in Alberta, probably because his death was natural and he appeared to be a drifter.

In 1964, Eugene was finally afforded some dignity. The funeral home purchased a proper cemetery plot for him, and he was interred beneath a gravestone that is still visited by the curious today.

In 2016, Cincinnati writer Paul Strickland premiered 13 Dead Dreams of “Eugene”, a play in which eerie songs, shadows and storytelling relate the (fictional) nightmares experienced by residents of Sabina after Eugene’s body was found. Strickland’s Theater Mobile will be presenting the show at the Victoria Fringe Festival (August 21 – September 1, 2019), so check it out if you’re on the Island. I caught the Edmonton performance and was mesmerized.

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