Having been an Alabama native my entire life, I know that it is a weird state. Alabama became even weirder when this past summer I learned the story of Hazel Farris, the mummy of Bessemer. Half urban legend and half-truth, I’m surprised I had not heard of her before now given my fascination with the macabre. Before I begin, please know that I have never seen Alabama’s infamous mummy and much of what I know has just been passed on to me via word of mouth.
With that out of the way, let’s begin the tragic, but wild, tale of Mrs. Hazel Farris.
By all accounts, Hazel Farris was one of the most well-known notorious female outlaws plaguing the southeast United States in the early 1900s. She was originally from Kentucky, but moved to Alabama after a night of drinking which resulted in her shooting her husband fatally. Once in Alabama, Hazel got together with a new beau, who learns of the $500 bounty on her head and turns her in to the police. Not wanting to be caught, Hazel drank a cocktail of arsenic and gasoline (and possibly whiskey).
Her body was taken to a local furniture store which also functioned as the town’s casket shop. No one claimed her body, but because of the cocktail she drank, her body never started to decompose. With this being 1906, a mummy seemed like a great business opportunity and Hazel was put on display and could be viewed for 10 cents at the time.
Following that, the Adams’ Brothers of Tuscaloosa owned her and then a man named O.C Brooks acquired her and took her around for 40 years as part of his traveling side show. Her corpse was merely strapped to the sideboard of a Model T as she traveled the country. The claim was that she was exhibited “for science” and not for entertainment, but I question that. Brooks began spreading a rumor that rubbing money on Hazel’s hand would bring you luck just so he could charge more! Hazel traveled all across America and even went to Europe and was on display in the presence of royals.
After Brooks passed, he willed her body to his nephew with the condition that the money he raised go to building churches in Tennessee. Where she ends up after is where things became more strange; she was displayed in Bessemer’s newly formed Hall of History, which was in the basement of the public library. She remained in that location from 1974-2002. Hazel had been traveling the country and displayed in open air for around 67 years.
After spending many years there, as well as being featured on National Geographic in 2002, Hazel’s remains were cremated and buried. Upon an autopsy, examiners learned she died of pneumonia and not apparent suicide and that her body had been immersed in arsenic rather than having ingested it. She had two missing fingers, one of which had been shot off about a year before she died. Without any substantial evidence, examiners determined that this elaborate story was concocted to fit her remains. Although there are no documents to support her story, every Alabamian believes the mummy to be Hazel Farris, the infamous outlaw from Kentucky who drank a fatal cocktail to avoid arrest, and there still remain many Alabamians who have seen her either in the Hall of History or on one of her many stops around the country.
Madeline Burkhardt recently received her Master of Arts in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University and currently is a museum educator and curator in the Deep South where she focuses on connecting art to social issues.