The City of Bessemer was founded by Henry F. DeBardeleben in 1887. Like nearby Birmingham, Bessemer had the raw materials required for the production of iron within a very close proximity: iron ore, coal, and limestone. A network of railways had to be created to transport the raw materials in and out of the area. By 1900, Bessemer had four major railroads. Construction of Bessemer’s terminal was completed in March 1916 at a cost of $30,000, mostly by railroad personnel to save the cost of hiring an architect. The building, which still stands at 1905 Alabama Avenue, is 170 feet long and 50 feet wide. The exterior walls are made of pressed brown brick; the interior walls are coated with a wainscoting of terrazzo, which consists of marble chips randomly placed in cement. All of the woodwork is hand-finished heart pine and walnut. Glue was put on the windows and dried to create designs. The terminal had two waiting rooms: a waiting room for “colored” passengers on the left side and a waiting room for white passengers on the right. The depot also had a separate waiting room for white ladies. The segregated rest rooms contained a total of eleven toilets. The terminal was well-known for its state-of-the-art vapor heating system, the only one of its kind south of the Ohio River. In 1973, the terminal was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1985, the Bessemer Hall of History, which had been originally started by the Bessemer Junior Service League in the basement of the old Post Office, was moved to the old train terminal in 1985. Even though the old depot has been put to a different use, its appearance has changed very little since its construction 1916. Some of the patrons and museum personnel believe that the spirit of one of the exhibits is still there as well.
In the minds of many citizens of Bessemer, the Hall of History will be forever connected to Hazel Farris. At the turn of the century, she was an attractive young woman who was fully aware of the effect her beauty had on men. Dominga N. Toner, director of the Bessemer Hall of History, said that Hazel was “from the other side of the tracks, pretty rough and rowdy.” In 1905, twenty-five-year old Hazel was married and living in Louisville, Kentucky. According to contemporary accounts, on August 6, 1905, Hazel strode into the living room and told her husband that she wanted to buy a new hat. He told her no, and Hazel and her husband began to beat each other with their fists. After a minute or so of fierce fighting, Hazel pushed herself away from her husband, pulled out a pistol, and shot him twice. Because both Hazel and her husband were known to drink heavily on occasion, the authorities who investigated the crime later on suspected that alcohol might have fueled their anger. Alerted by the sound of gunfire, Hazel’s neighbors notified the police. Three passing police who heard the gunfire ran inside Hazel’s house. Three more gunshots resonated through the neighborhood. When the smoke cleared, all three policemen were dead. A few minutes later, a deputy sheriff entered the house by the back door and grasped Hazel from behind. In the struggle, his gun discharged, taking off her ring finger from her right hand. Hazel spun around and fired her pistol, making the deputy sheriff the fifth victim of her uncontrollable rage. The mystery surrounding a young woman’s ability to shoot and kill five lawmen is heightened by the fact that the ODMP listing shows that no police officers were slain in Louisville on August 5, 1905.
Hazel immediately dashed out the door and made her way to Bessemer, Alabama, where she was originally from. A $500 reward was soon posted for her arrest in several states. Dominga N. Toner said that Hazel “ended up in the red light district, and there was a black lady who lived with her. The black lady was a lot younger than Hazel. She cleaned house and everything.” According to another variant of the story, Hazel became the sedate proprietor of a boarding house. In yet another version of the tale, Hazel became a schoolteacher who was a closet drinker. A year after fleeing from Louisville, Hazel made a drunken confession of her crime to a man who had professed his love for her. Sensing that he could profit from the woman’s secret, her lover betrayed her to the local police in exchange for money. When Hazel learned of his betrayal, she swallowed arsenic while drunk one night and died on December 20, 1906.
Hazel’s corpse was taken to the owner of Adams Vermillion Furniture store. Adams also sold caskets and performed funeral services. When it became apparent that no one was going to claim her remains, the store owner placed her body in storage. Within a few months, Hazel’s corpse began to mummify. Some people believe that the transformation occurred because of the alcohol and arsenic that Hazel had drunk. Others point to the fact that in 1906, undertakers frequently made their own embalming fluid using arsenic. After a year, Hazel was nothing more than a red-headed skeleton covered with a thin layer of brown, leathery skin. She looked more like a century-old hag than a gorgeous twenty-five-year-old woman. The owner of the store decided to charge people $.10 to view the unusual corpse until her relatives picked up her body.
Some time later, Hazel’s corpse was loaned out to various exhibitors, including Adams’ brother in Tuscaloosa and Captain Harvey Lee Boswell. Then in 1907, a carny named O.C. Brooks bought her for $25 and exhibited her mummy in fairs and carnivals for the next thirty-two years. His flyers proclaimed, “Moral exhibit for benefit of science.” He offered a reward of $500 to anyone who could prove that her mummy was not real. It is said that Brooks was so concerned that Hazel’s corpse might be stolen that he slept on top of the pine box where her body was kept. Hazel’s profits made O.C. Brooks a wealthy man. In fact, during the Great Depression, the grisly exhibit earned him between $150 and $200 a week. When Brooks died, he left Hazel’s mummy to his nephew, Luther, on the condition that all profits made from exhibiting her corpse be turned over to charity.
When Luther Brooks was thirteen-years-old, he and his father traveled to Coushatta, Louisiana, to retrieve Hazel Farris from the old barn where her body was stored. When Luther graduated from high school in 1958, he began showing Hazel in a small carnival he had created. The story goes that Luther used the money he made from exhibiting Hazel to build churches in Tennessee. Luther sold the carnival in 1965, and Hazel was placed in a Nashville-are home, where mortuary students from Vanderbilt University dropped by to study her mummy.
Then in 1974, the Bessemer Hall of History made a deal with Luther Brooks to display Hazel as part of the museum’s fund raising drive. When the mummy was first displayed in October 1974, thousands of people paid $.50 to view her body in an empty building in down Birmingham. Eventually, Hazel was moved to the Hall of History’s original location in the basement of the local library. The mummy was displayed three more times over the next seven years around Halloween. When Hazel was displayed for the last time in 1981, the fee had risen to $1 for adults and $.50 for children. Dr. Tina Jones, Dean of Educational Outreach at the University of West Alabama, still recalls viewing Hazel’s mummy when she was a chair: “She looked horrible. I couldn’t sleep for a week after looking at her.” Hazel’s last appearance in Bessemer was at the Hall of Fame’s new location in the old railroad terminal in 1994 during Halloween. By that time, Hazel’s corpse had lost two gold teeth and was beginning to smell bad. Volunteers had to clean mold from the mummy periodically.
Hazel Farris disappeared totally from public view until 2002, when the National Geographic Channel aired a program entitled The Mummy Roadshow: An Unwanted Mummy Special. Dominga Toner remembers when a film crew from National Geographic came to Bessemer: “I’ll tell you the spooky thing about this. I was waiting for them to come into the Hall of History. The funny thing was when they walked through the door, I walked up to the actress who was going to play Hazel and said, “You did a good job! You look just like Hazel!’And the girl looked at me like she was going to kill me. They had just seen pictures of Hazel when she was a mummy. They had never seen her portrait before, and the girl was just the spittin’ image of Hazel. She had the hazel eyes and the brown hair. When I showed her the picture, she really got a little undone.”
Hazel Farris’s autopsy took place at the Pellus-Owen and Wood Funeral Home in Nashville, Tennessee. It was conducted by Ron Beckett, an expert in respiratory therapy, and Jerry Conlogue, an expert in diagnostic imagery. The absence of arthritis and loss of bone density indicated that she was at least twenty years old when she died. An x-ray of her pelvis revealed a slightly irregular space between the pelvic bones, indicating that she might have had a child. Excited by the possibility that Hazel might have descendants, Beckett and Conlogue scoured the archives in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. Not only did they find no evidence of possible descendants, but they also found no mention of the five murders. The pair then turned their attention to her two missing fingers. One of them was clearly broken off after death; the other stub had a bone spur, suggesting that some growth had taken place over a few months or even a year. Their findings seemed to fit in with the legend.
After having done everything that was possible in the funeral home, Beckett and Cologue took Hazel to Vanderbilt Medical Center to get more data. A CP scan was used to provide clues as to how she died and became a mummy. The lack of serious decomposition of the internal organs supported the theory that she was embalmed soon after her death. Tissue samples were sent to the University of Western Ontario, where researchers scanned Hazel’s hair and skin with an electron microscope. The tests confirmed that high levels of arsenic were present. The researchers concluded that there was far too much arsenic in the leg, arm, and hair samples to have come from drinking it. Although the test results did not rule out suicide, they did show conclusively that embalming occurred soon after death.
The final stage of the investigation took place at the Valley View Hospital in Ada, Oklahoma. After removing Hazel’s rock-hard chest plate with a strike saw, the researchers found scar tissue in Hazel’s lungs, evidence that she might have had pneumonia. Amazingly, her lungs were still soft and spongy after almost one hundred years. The endoscope showed that Hazel’s trachea was totally obstructed. Beckett and Cologue speculated that Hazel could have vomited after swallowing arsenic and then swallowed the vomit. An examination of the intestines showed that Hazel probably had diarrhea shortly before she died.
Hazel’s mummy was never returned to the Bessemer Hall of History. However, Dominga Toner believes that her spirit might still be roaming the old museum: “We have things happen here. Lights go on and off in the man’s bathroom. It’s really pitch-black in there because there are no windows. I suppose it could just be faulty wiring because this building was constructed in 1916. But we have had lights pop that shouldn’t pop.” Dominga admits that the problems with the lights could have another cause: “This is a metal frame building. When a train passes, the building jars. The electricity goes up, and my computer screen starts going sideways at an angle.” Occasionally, though, visitors to the Hall of History report hearing strange sounds that most likely do not have their source in passing trains: “I’ve had people come in and say, ‘You whistle really pretty,’ and I say, ‘It can’t be me because I don’t whistle.’ I can’t explain the whistling.”
Dominga’s research into the history of the old train terminal reveals that more than ghost could be haunting the Hall of History: “This was a passenger station, and bodies were considered passengers up to a certain point in history. They were sent wherever the family requested. A lot of bodies came in here during World War I and World II, especially during World War II. These were bodies of soldiers who had died. There is a big box downstairs where the bodies were stored. It’s metal with a drain plug. They put big blocks of ice in it and put the caskets inside to keep them cool. This was long before the days of air conditioning.”
Despite the Hall of History’s somewhat grisly history, Dominga Toner has never really felt uncomfortable. When things happen that she can’t explain, she just shrugs them off. “It’s just fun, most of the time,” she said. The bodies that once occupied a place in the building are long gone, but the mummified corpse that was displayed in the Hall of History still generates nightmares in the minds of people who paid $1 or $.50 to view her body years before.