AP NEWS
Related topics

Famous Corpse for 66 Years Finally Laid to Rest

August 5, 1994

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) _ For a dead man, Henry ″Speedy″ Atkins gave people a lot of joy.

For 66 years, his well-preserved corpse - used in an embalming experiment - was a tourist attraction at a funeral home in this Ohio River town.

Townsfolk and the occasional bus load of out-of-towners gawked at his mummified body, which was stored propped against a closet wall and carefully washed and dressed three times a year to keep mold off.

On Friday, the people who cared for Speedy at Hamock-Bowles Services decided it was finally time for him to be laid to rest.

About 200 people, some of whom posed for pictures beside his open coffin, bade him a rousing farewell with spirituals and sermons at the Washington Street Baptist Church.

A bouquet of red carnations was placed atop the coffin in which Speedy lay dressed in a black tuxedo and bow tie.

″He came to Paducah a pauper, poor, homeless, a nobody,″ said the Rev. H. Joseph Franklin. ″Today, he’s going to be laid to rest at last, as a celebrity.″

Little is known about Speedy’s life except that he got his nickname by being a fast worker at a local tobacco factory and was in his 50s when he drowned in 1928 while fishing in the Ohio River. No family came forward to claim the body.

Funeral director A.Z. Hamock, who was fascinated by how the Egyptians mummified bodies, used his own experimental embalming fluid on Speedy to preserve the body and keep smells away. The mixture turned Speedy’s body a rusty color, his yellowed teeth visible through drawn-back lips in his gaunt face.

Hamock never revealed the secret formula. He died in 1949, leaving the business to his wife, Velma Hamock.

During the summer, Mrs. Hamock would dutifully take Speedy out of the closet for sightseers, free of charge. He also appeared on national television three times.

″I never saw a dead man bring so much happiness to people,″ she said.

Speedy became the pride of the community around the funeral home. Some of those at his funeral wondered why scientists hadn’t expressed more interest in Hamock’s embalming technique.

After Speedy’s 66 years of glory, Mrs. Hamock decided, for no particular reason, enough was enough, and he ought to be buried.

″It’s just time,″ she said.

Though no one at the service knew Speedy while he was alive, one woman from Baltimore sent a letter recalling him as a kind, gentle man who loved kids.

″He always had pennies for my sister and me,″ wrote Ella L. Simmons, who was about 5 when she knew Speedy.

Gladman Humbles, who grew up in the 1940s and knew Hamock, said museums and carnivals constantly tried to buy Speedy, but the undertaker refused.

″He said slavery was over and they didn’t sell bodies at the Hamock funeral home,″ Humbles said.

Speedy’s funeral, coffin and burial plot were all donated by businesses in the neighborhood where he once lived.

As Speedy’s coffin was lowered into a hole at Maplelawn Cemetery, Clifton Bowles Jr. fought back tears. Bowles started working at the funeral home in 1947, and it was his job to bathe Speedy’s body. Bowles called himself Speedy’s baby sitter.

″It kind of hurts,″ Bowles said. ″He’s been with us so long.″