Railway repair workers found him on Feb. 3, 1922, neatly dressed and hanging inside a sidetracked boxcar at the Atlantic Coast Line yards near Clopton, then in Chesterfield County. A bundle beneath his dangling feet indicated him as a "traveler," the newspapers reported. He was in his 50s, gray-haired, 5 feet 10 inches tall, and he weighed about 150 pounds.
The only clue to his identity was the set of initials — "P.H." — sewn inside his gray suit coat. He wore a blue woolen shirt and a gray felt hat. Photos of the deceased man, as well as his fingerprints, were sent to the Bureau of Identification (a predecessor of the FBI) in Washington, D.C., and to military authorities in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Reports of missing persons were scoured for any matching details.
Coroner T. J. Pretlow was quoted as saying that the time of death was impossible to calculate because of the cold and inclement weather. The man could've been dead a week.
The body was embalmed at the Morrisett Funeral Home, 17 W. 17th St., in Manchester, while authorities awaited identification.
It never came.
"As the weeks went by, mummification set in," went a newspaper explanation of what happened next.
Next, as it happened, went on for 36 years. This "John Doe" suicide turned into one of those curious elements of Richmond lore. And along the way, the unidentified body picked up a nickname — "Smoky Joe." Other than references over the years to the body's mummification, no explanation for the moniker seems to have survived.
When the Morrisett company later moved to 318 Cowardin Ave., Smoky Joe went along for the ride.
Over the years, a few articles about the unidentified body accumulated in the Richmond Public Library archives, with labels referring to the "stone man," the "petrified man" or the "mummy."
At the funeral home, Smoky Joe was placed in a simple wooden coffin and stored in the garage while waiting for someone to walk in and identify him. Reports periodically surfaced about the "Clopton mummy," and this would attract visitors saying they wanted to see if it was Uncle So-and-So. At that point, however, by far the biggest reason for visitors to see Smoky Joe was basic curiosity.
An August 1958 story in the Times-Dispatch at last prompted the state medical examiner to demand the body. Morrisett worker J. Rufus Dotson told the newspaper that Smoky Joe was likely to be cremated.
Dotson estimated that "thousands" of people trooped by Smoky Joe through the years. The medical examiner told him that if nobody had recognized the individual by now, it was unlikely anybody would "at this late date."
Morrisett's current director, Richard Booker, joined the business in 1969, and he's familiar with the Smoky Joe lore. People of a certain age remember him and will ask, jokingly, if he's still there.
"It was kind of a weird South Side thing," he says. "People who went to Bainbridge Middle [School] know more about him than anybody. They'd come out of curiosity, ‘Let's scare my sister,' kind of thing. Regulations were just different then."
Back in 1958, Virginia State Medical Examiner Dr. Geoffrey Mann wanted to know why the body hadn't been delivered to his care long ago. A 1948 law required all unclaimed bodies to be handed over.
Dotson told him "that since Joe was around here a long time before the law was passed, that we should be able to keep him. But he said he wanted him anyway."
Mann requested Smoky Joe's delivery to his offices "promptly" at 2 p.m., on Wednesday, Aug. 13.
Dotson was philosophic: "Maybe it's a good thing. Somehow, though, it seems a shame to cremate him after he's been around here all this time."