By Katie Moller de Silva

Two history buffs on the Anthracite History Internet message boards were talking about something they called “The Severed Head of Shamokin.”  They said a man’s preserved head had been stored since the turn of the 20th Century in the basement of the Farrow Funeral Home.  One guy recalled seeing the head himself as a child in the 1960s, because his father took him to Farrow’s to look at it.  This had me curious enough to visit Farrow’s in hopes of learning more. Malcolm Farrow IV said he no longer had the head, but was kind enough to give me a folder of newspaper clippings related to the story, which The News-Item ranked as the “top story of 1976.”  The following account is reconstructed from those articles, and reports from the Mt. Carmel Item, Bloomsburg Morning Press and Shamokin Dispatch from 1904-1932.

It was November 17, 1904.  On the seldom-used footpath over Hickory Ridge between Natalie and Marion Heights, a party of six hunters stumbled on a horrific find: a nude, headless body.  It belonged to a 30- or 40-year-old man with well-developed muscles, and besides being decapitated, it had three bullet wounds.  Newspapers circulated the sensational story for days, and area residents talked of little else.

The police investigation produced few leads, and despite numerous published pleas for information on who the victim might be, no one came forward to claim the body or report a missing loved one.  Nine days later, two teenaged hunters made a second discovery, about 200 yards away from where the body had been found.  Drawn by their dog’s barking at a hole beneath some rocks, they pulled out what appeared to be a bundle of bloody clothes bound with rope.  Untying it, they discovered the grisly object that, off and on for seven decades, would become a focus of attention and controversy, and the coal region’s most dramatic artifact of the notorious “Black Hand” era. It was the missing head.   Due to cold weather, it was in a good state of preservation, and the handsome face was recognizable despite a bullet wound near the right ear.

The fact that the victim was beheaded led authorities to suspect the killing was the work of members of the “Society of the Black Hand.” This loosely knit syndicate of Italian extortionists had branches all over the United States, and in the coal region they preyed upon the paychecks of the area’s growing workforce of Italian miners. The decapitation, along with a recent jump in violent crimes against other local Italians, convinced area constables that the Black Hand had arrived.

Now that the head had been found and police had a face to match the body, they were confident that someone would identify the murder victim.  For three days, they displayed the severed head in a picture window of the Higgins funeral parlor in Mt. Carmel Continue Reading. Hundreds of Italians passed by to stare, shake their heads, and say, “Non lo conosco.” [I don’t know him.] The head went next to Farrow’s in Shamokin, where it was embalmed and placed on public view for another six weeks.  Still, no one admitted knowing the man.  The body had been buried promptly in Mt. Carmel. The head remained at Farrow’s for possible future identification, and after a time was relegated to a basement shelf.  The clothing found with the head was expensive, and the label in the overcoat indicated it was made in Brooklyn. The victim’s hands had been soft and clean, proof that the man had not been a miner.  Police now proposed that he must have been an installment collector or traveling salesman, murdered for his money.  Over the years, the case went cold.

On December 28, 1932, the Shamokin Dispatch carried a report of a dying hospital patient in Brooklyn, New York, who had confessed to several Black Hand murders.  One of them had taken place in Marion Heights around 25 years before.  Brooklyn police contacted Pennsylvania State Trooper Cyril Edwards, whose investigation concluded that the still-preserved severed head lodged at Farrow Funeral Home belonged to that murder victim.  The confessor’s identity and that of the victim were not revealed in the newspapers, but the head gained new notoriety.  People began ringing the bell at Farrow’s, asking to have a look.  They were told, “come around back” and an employee would bring the head out.  By the 1960s, every bold Shamokin youth had seen it, since it had become a rite of passage for a child to dare to ask.  Once, someone took the head to a tavern at Halloween, rolling it down the bar to startle seated customers.  Recalled Clarence “Mooch” Kashner, “That’s when the ears got broken off.”  In June 1976, funeral director Malcolm Farrow III felt the head was becoming a nuisance and donated it to Shamokin’s newly created Anthracite Heritage Museum.  There it was kept in a glass terrarium covered by a velvet cloth, to be lifted if a visitor wished it.  The object was a tremendous draw for the little museum, which had a constant stream of visitors in the opening month.

In July 1976, Northumberland County Judge Peter Krehel visited, saw the head, and appalled at the impropriety of it all, wrote up a court order to have it cremated and buried.  Museum President David Donmoyer filed a protest, stating that the head was a major attraction, no different in fact from Egyptian mummies, skeletons in biology classes, or the relics of saints displayed for public consumption around the world.  When County Coroner Ernest Korten arrived at the museum in November to retrieve the head, he found it had vanished.  (Donmoyer recently confessed that he had secreted it inside a case of sanitary napkins in the basement of his pharmacy.)  Korten stated to a reporter “I’ve handled a plane crash that killed five and a train crash that killed four, but nothing ever raised so much of a fuss as this head has.”  In December, members of the Anthracite Heritage Committee voted to turn the head over to the District Attorney for safekeeping, in order to protect themselves from prosecution while they fought the court to retain possession. They lost the fight, and on February 25, 1977, the head was laid to rest.

The identity of its owner is still unknown.  The official explanation of 1905, that the man was murdered for money, is subject to question.  Why, in a simple robbery, would an assailant force a man to undress, shoot him four times, and then sever his head?  Surely it was a vengeance killing.  The name of the “dying hospital patient in Brooklyn” may have been intentionally kept out of the 1932 news reports.  Histories of Marion Heights published as recently as 1995 describe incidents of the Black Hand era without any mention of names, out of respect for the numerous honest descendants of the original suspects who have risen to prominence in business, professional and political pursuits.  One fact is certain: after June 1907, the area suffered no further beheadings. [[Need to talk about the other beheadings in the area.]]

State and local police records from the Black Hand era have been purged from storage due to age, and State Trooper Cyril Edward’s 1932 investigation report has been discarded. In 2001, on my behalf, Detective Sergeant Mullins of NYPD Brooklyn initiated a search of old Brooklyn police records, looking for any mention of a confession by a dying Black Hander in December 1932. [[Results?  Search interrupted by 9-11).]]  It may be too late ever to discover the identity of the Severed Head of Shamokin.

 

Author: Steve Bartos

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