Prescott History – Old Mike

This closeup of the man known as “Old Mike” comes from a newspaper clipping kept in the Nevada County Depot Museum.

At a time when most of southwest Arkansas was still considered “the West” (though perhaps not so “wild” anymore) by a good portion of the country, the rural town of Prescott had existed about 35 years when the peddler known only as “Old Mike” began his work of selling stationary, pens, thread, and other easily portable items in a circuit stretching from Prescott to Little Rock.

At the time, his travels between the State Capitol, Hot Springs, Prescott, Texarkana, and Benton took days to accomplish by rail line, which was Old Mike’s primary means of transportation. As was his custom, Mike would come in on the southbound line of railroad in Prescott at 3:00 p.m. every three or four weeks.

Standing at around five and a half feet tall (5’5” at the time of his burial much later), and weighing about 120 lbs., Mike would make his way off the train and, hoisting a pack made of canvas and leather which held his wares, he would work his way over to Black’s Hotel on West Main Street in Prescott. Black’s later became O’Hollaran’s Hotel. There, Mike would spend the night and awake the following morning to peddle pencils, shoestrings, combs, and whatever else he happened to have to the homes and businesses near the Prescott station. That afternoon, Mike would reboard the southbound train and be on his way.

From accounts of residents at the time, Mike spoke perfect English (though perhaps with the slight tinge of a Southern European accent). This, along with County Coroner A.M. Ellsworth’s post-mortem report, marked Mike of possibly being of Italian descent, though most likely not a recent immigrant. Mike was middle-aged, and may have been anywhere from his late 40s to early 60s in age. An extreme range, but with his lifestyle and possible health issues (Mike apparently walked on crutches and may have previously suffered a stroke or had an injury to his right arm and leg), his exact age was hard to determine.

In August of 1911, when Mike made his final trip to Prescott, an outdoor tent revival was held at the city park. Community members and church-goers from all over the area were in attendance, and Mike was no exception. Accounts from the time claimed that, while Mike didn’t interact with the crowd, he at least attended from the sidelines, settling down at some point in the evening under an oak tree with his pack next to him and never moved again.

The next morning, he was either found by a woman named O’Hollaran (perhaps the same family that ran the hotel in which Mike stayed) or a local milk man, still seated beneath the oak tree. The authorities were called when Mike was discovered to be dead, with A.M. Ellsworth declaring that he most likely died of a heart attack or stroke, as there was no sign of foul play. Given his apparently crippled right side, Mike may have suffered a left-brain stroke previously (right-brain strokes are more common, and typically affect the left side of the body), adding credence to Ellsworth’s analysis.

The authorities combed over Mike’s meager possessions, finding nothing in the way of identification. All he had on him at the time was a small amount of cash money in an unmarked envelope and a train ticket to Texarkana, the next stop on his circuit. As a transient, Mike’s body was given to Cornish Mortuary in Prescott, where he was embalmed by J.D. Cornish. Cornish, apparently, embalmed Mike’s body more strongly than normal, possibly on the assumption that it might take any family he had a long time to discover his whereabouts.

As was the custom of the day in 1911, Mike’s body was put on display at the funeral home so that it could possibly be identified and claimed by loved ones. Oddly, while Mike’s peddling lifestyle had taken him to Arkadelphia, Gurdon, Benton, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Texarkana, and Prescott, no one in the towns and cities he had frequented could identify him.

However, one witness at the coroner’s jury before Mike was embalmed claimed to have seen him in a police court in Little Rock with a man named Pat McFarland a few days earlier. The witness, named McElrath, claimed that the police had charged both Mike and McFarland with drunkenness and ordered the pair to leave Little Rock. McElrath apparently had heard that Mike had a brother living in Chicago, but didn’t know the brother’s name. According to a police docket printed in the Arkansas Gazette on August 12, 1911, the police in Little Rock did bring up a Pat McFarland on charges of disturbing the peace. On the same day, only one man was charged with drunkenness. The man’s name was J.M. Estes, which may be the best lead to Mike’s real name.

Another identifying feature that stood out were Mike’s teeth. He had had expensive, sophisticated dentistry performed at some point in his life. Gold teeth inside his mouth spoke to Mike perhaps having been someone of means at some point in his life. Local experts at the time surmised that such dentistry was most likely carried out in New York or Boston, or possibly even in Europe. Photographs of Mike’s teeth were sent to New York and Boston, but the work could not be identified. Mike also had a variety of scars on his body, as well as a tattoo of an unknown woman on his arm.

While Mike was displayed at the funeral home, people from all over the area came to see if they could identify him as a missing family member. However, as weeks and months went by, Cornish eventually moved Mike into a closet in the mortuary. He was placed in a padded cabinet, propped up on crutches, and put behind a curtain, where he could be viewed upon request.

Mike would remain mostly in the closet at the funeral home for over six decades. Cornish and the staff took Mike out for publicity photographs from time to time, posing him next to a new hearse in one famous photograph. The funeral home also dressed him in a new suit each year, and, as the formaldehyde used to embalm him made slow changes to his body over time, they maintained him as best they could. His muscles dried out, causing his eyes and mouth to open. Since his eyes had deteriorated back into the sockets, his lids were sewn shut and fake eyes painted on. His skin darkened over time as well.

Over the years, Mike became something of a local “right of passage” for many teens living in Prescott. The funeral home allowed groups to go back and view him, and many a new-comer to the area was pressured to go see “Old Mike” in the mortuary closet. While hundreds of people over the years from as far away as Hawaii and Rhode Island came to try to identify him over the decades, Mike’s minor celebrity status in the community grew.

However, some teens were not the kindest to the deceased. In the mid-1960s, funeral home employee Henry Shackleford found himself bothered by the display of the body, stating his belief that Mike deserved “a decent, Christian burial.” Shackleford recalled some local teens coming into the mortuary and pulling Mike’s pants down, tying ribbons to him, unbuttoning his shirt, and even putting things in his mouth.

Shackleford contacted the State Health Department and the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Home Directors to see what could be done before finally turning to the State Attorney General’s office. While the State Health Department didn’t find Mike to be a health hazard and the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Home Directors were concerned about the “bad publicity” of publicly displaying a body, a letter arrived from the Attorney General’s office in May of 1975 that finally got Cornish to agree to bury Mike.

On May 12, 1975, 64 years after quietly dying beneath an oak tree in Prescott’s city park, Old Mike was laid to rest in De Ann Cemetery in Prescott. Shackleford arranged the funeral and had pastor Jerry Westmoreland officiate. Shackleford donated the suit in which Mike was buried. A simple headstone was put in with the name “Mike” and a year of death. Years later, someone anonymously placed a newer, more elaborate headstone that included an engraving of a pencil, which Mike was known to sell.

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