Bessemer's Mummy

June 7, 2023 quintan Blog

Bessemer’s Mummy

By Jim Langley, Research Historian

Billy the Kid and the James Gang all come to mind when we think of notorious outlaws in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In Alabama, we had Rube Burrow, who would rob trains in Texas and Oklahoma and then skedaddle back to Lamar County, Alabama, for sanctuary. I don’t remember knowing about an honest-to-goodness female outlaw.

But when the Hoover Historical Society toured Bessemer Hall of History, we discovered a doozy. Her name was Hazel Farris. She was a bright, attractive woman from Kentucky who got into the outlaw business with her husband and friends. They terrorized states in the Southeast for several years. After one big job, the gang was celebrating a little too much. Hazel’s husband said something she didn’t like, “You can’t buy that hat”— so she shot him dead where he stood. Three policemen responded and she fatally shot them too. A deputy arrived and tried to wrestle her to the ground. She also shot him, but not before he shot off her ring finger. She fled to Alabama as the law and her husband’s friends were on her tail. A $500 bounty, dead or alive, was put on her head. After quietly settling in Bessemer, she took up with a man who had been a local lawman. After a few days of partying and carousing, Hazel let it slip that she had shot down her lying, cheating husband. The lawman figured out her secret and discovered the $500 reward. It didn’t take him long to decide to turn her into the sheriff for the money. 

Hazel had sworn she would never be caught, so she made herself a strong drink of whiskey, gasoline, and arsenic and drank it down with one big gulp. It didn’t take long until she lay dead on the floor. They took her to Adams Vermillion’s furniture store and funeral parlor. and there she stayed for a long, long time because no one claimed the body. Because of the arsenic-laced cocktail she drank, her body never decomposed. Hazel Farris became the Mummy of Bessemer.

Recognizing the potential attraction of the mummified body, a new business venture was formed. Her body was displayed, and $.10 was charged for each viewing. She was then sold to the Adams brothers of Tuscaloosa who, in turn, sold her to O. C. Brooks. Brooks strapped the corpse to the sideboard of his Model T and traveled the country for 40 years as a traveling sideshow. He claimed it was all for science even though he raised additional money claiming that rubbing money on Hazel’s hand brought luck. Hazel was even taken to Europe and displayed in the presence of Royals. 

As a child, I remember when the mummy came to the courthouse square in Vernon, and we all went in the trailer to see it. When Brooks died, he willed the body to his nephew who used Farris’s corpse to raise money to build churches in Tennessee before bringing her back to Bessemer, where she became an infamous attraction at the newly formed Hall of History.  She remained in that location from 1974-2002. At that point, Hazel had been ‘touring’ the country for 67 years. She was even featured in National Geographic in 2002. An autopsy determined she had died of pneumonia and not by arsenic. They determined that her body had probably been immersed in arsenic. Examiners also found that there were two missing fingers—one of which could have been shot off about a year before she died. Examiners concluded that much of the Legend of Hazel Farris was probably concocted to fit the situation. However, though there are no documents to verify the event, people still believed that the mummy was that of outlaw Hazel Farris. After the examination, her remains were cremated.

There have been reports of lights going on and off in the building of “Hall of History” and strange whistling noises. Visitors have also reported feeling ill at ease at this building. Even though Hazel’s corpse was finally laid to rest, her spirit walks on giving visitors a new nightmare to keep them up at night.