The Arizona desert might not be the first place you would think a mummified body would be found. In fact, on several occasions throughout history a carcass was discovered buried or lying on the desert floor in a dried up condition. One such mummy was that of a cowboy found near the town of Gila Bend. It was in 1895 when a couple of rough-riders traveling on their horses across the desert came across an unusual site. It was a body of a man which appeared to have been lying there for a brief period and looked well preserved. The cowboy mummy was given the name, Sylvester, and was thought to have once been a 19th century rancher or perhaps a gambler. Hypothetical stories started circulating about how Sylvester was probably caught cheating, then shot, and bleed to death trying to escape. They go on to say that while fleeing, he fell off his horse, landed on the desert dirt, and was covered with blowing sands. The sands dried his body overnight preserving the corpse resulting in the mummified state he was found in.
Although that story might be a bit far-fetched, another more believable account was being told as well. The claims are he was found shortly after death and preserved in a high level of arsenic. Arsenic was used to stop the physical manifestation of a corpse rotting by killing bacteria and insects that invaded it. This custom of using arsenic was found to be poisonous by the 1900’s and never used again. No one knows who preserved his body in arsenic, but his mummified figure was put on exhibit in a sideshow for all to see. The Wild West outlaw mummy was acquired by the Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in Seattle, Washington in 1955 and put in a glass case for display. This has been Sylvester’s home ever since.
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop
1001 Alaskan Way (Pier 54)
Seattle, WA 98104
Phone: (206) 68211-5844
*More information on things to see while in Gila Bend can be found in Chapter 4, “Discarded Motel”.
What is “The Thing”? Driving along Interstate 10 from Tucson to El Paso, Texas, you cannot help but notice bizarre billboards scattered along the route. The first one will simply say, “The Thing” followed by another a few miles later with the words, “What is it?” Hum, your curiosity is now peaked as you drive by the next billboard with “Mystery of the Desert” advertised on the life-size poster.
Located on a summit between Benson and Wilcox on exit 322 from Interstate 10, is a large red, yellow, blue filling station and quirky little gift shop. Inside, you will find the typical southwest roadside gifts, jewelry, Native American items, books, antiques, and of course, “The Thing”. You will even find shirts, cups, shot glasses, and magnets advertising their mysterious conundrum. It is a cleaver promotional act to get people interested in visiting the shop by seeing what “The Thing” is.
Even though I have not seen “The Thing” in person, this is what I have been told. It will cost you one dollar at the register to walk through a tiny courtyard and enter the museum. Located in the courtyard is three prefabricated corrugated steel shed full of odd exhibits. You will note the unusual wood carvings, framed lithographs, saddles, rifles, a covered wagon, and some vintage automobiles. One of the autos is a 1937 Rolls-Royce they claimed was once owned by Adolf Hitler. After walking through a maze of bizarre stuff, you finally come upon the prize possession hidden in the back. “The Thing” is a mummified mother-and-child display encased in a glass-covered coffin. Is it real? Some will tell you it appears to be genuine, and some will say it is bogus. If this strange oddity peaks your interest and you want to see it for yourself, it will cost you a buck, but well worth the visit.
There isn’t much information on how the mummies and their coffin ended up in the shop. The story is told that in 1965 a man named Thomas Brinkley Prince relocated his wacky retail business from California to Arizona, east of Benson. It is not clear how Prince acquired the extraordinary “Thing”, but he publicly announced it as his main attraction for the shop. This advertisement is still found down Highway 10 on the mystifying billboards alongside the road.
2631 N. Johnson Road
Phone: (520) 586-2581
Hours: 6:30 am to dark (call to verify) Daily
*Directions – I-10 to exit 322, south side
*The above websites will provide you with all the information needed when you visit Benson, Arizona.
Near the city of Prescott in the mountains near the Verde River, a mummy of a prehistoric cliff dweller was discovered by John McCarty. He was recognized as an avid hunter and would often be found tracking in the northern section of Arizona. In March of 1896, he was hiking around cliffs near the Verde River, over 10 miles north from the entrance of the East Verde. He tossed a piece of metal at the side of the rock cliffs and notice when it made contact it sounded as if there was an empty space in the wall. He examined the area and noticed an underground chamber with a mummified body inside. The body appeared to be sitting against the side of the cavity as if to be put there as a means of retribution. He was sealed in this tomb and probably met his demise by lack of food, water or oxygen. McCarty found pottery shards, a stone axe, and arrowheads made from black glass and flint next to the torso. It looks as if this ancient man kept himself busy while serving out his punishment.
McCarty removed the twenty-one pound mummy and placed it on bedding. A donkey pulled the body behind it through the dirt desert floors until arriving at the main road. From there, it was taken to the nearby city of Prescott and examined. The mummy was a male and very well preserved. Various locations on the body had holes where the bone was exposed. The bones looked like rawhide but the skin was smooth. The mummy’s head was a bit of puzzlement. The forehead receded from the nose, while the back of skull was large, a feature usually found in the early Aztec people. Skulls which were found in the Verde River location usually had a more Caucasian shape. The examiners could not explain why his cranium was shaped so odd. He had a full set of teeth which were in amazing condition. Any dentist would have been proud. As time went by, the mummy started crumbling a little at a time. To preserve it, McCarty coated it with varnish and place it in a hermetically sealed glass covered box.
I am not sure where the mummy can be found today. Some say he lies in his glass box somewhere in the city of Prescott.
*For more information on the City of Prescott, please refer to Chapter 3, Big Nose Kate
These are only a few of the stories about mummified bodies found in Arizona along with the location where the tales originated.