“The Funniest Prank Ever”: The Middletown Mummy Mystery, 22 Years Later

 “I looked at my bed and there were all these skin chips and little chips in it. It was pretty disgusting.”

Twenty-two years ago next month, a good-humored, mullet-haired Wesleyan student returned to his Nics dorm room late on a Saturday night and found his bed already occupied by a rotting, fleshy stranger. The student was Tim Abel ’93, a freshman from Wilmington, Delaware. The uninvited guest in question was a 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy. And the bizarre incident, which Abel has happily proclaimed “the funniest prank ever,” has since solidified its place in the lore of early ’90s Wesleyan history, providing some semblance of levity during a turbulent academic year characterized by generally unprecedented campus unrest, including a firebombing, a week-long hunger strike, racist graffiti in Malcolm X House, and the fatal shooting of Nicholas Haddad ’92.

It’s also just a damn good story, with or without its retroactive Keep Wes Weird significance. It’s a story about President Chace and P-Safe and loyalty among campus pranksters, about MoCon and O’Rourke’s and frosh life and pretty much every Wesleyan institution of the ’90s, about how campus news spread before cell phones and Twitter and this here blog, about how some kid transformed literally overnight from a random freshman into a minor celebrity of sorts. The mummy incident received local press coverage in 1990 (much to Abel’s delight), and it remains a subject of conversation and folklore among his friends and strangers two decades later.

I tracked down Abel over break (he’s now a facial plastic surgeon in Delaware) and ended up speaking to him at length about the mummy, the unnamed perpetrators, and just what made Wesleyan so batshit nuts in the early ’90s (and an alumnus perspective on how it has changed since). Scroll on for the full interview; click here for original 1990 news coverage of the so-called Middletown Mummy.

Tell me about your involvement with the 1990 mummy incident.

We lived on Foss 7, and we played a lot of pranks and messed with each other. There were these two guys on my hall, and—well, I never really messed with them. But we had an interesting hall: we had a bunch of athletes on one side of the hall, and then a bunch of other guys on the other side of the hall.

It was the weekend of the Final Four, and it was late, a Saturday night. We’re down at somebody else’s dorm, and a couple of guys from my hall came down and said, “You gotta come up to your room. Someone put a dead body in your bed.” It’s Saturday night, we’ve been out, obviously had a couple cocktails. And we’re like, “Come on. Dead body in the bed?”

But we go running over, and there’s this whole crowd of people outside my room. I pushed my way through there, and there was this—I don’t even know how to describe it. It looked like a shrunken, shriveled up dead body in my bed. No idea who put it in there. I just see this thing—I mean, it was pretty short. It was all shriveled up. It looked like a shriveled up monkey or something like that.

Did you know what it was when you first saw it?

No idea. I thought it was, like, some body. It looked like some old, rotted body. Obviously it wasn’t an animal. I’m sitting there looking at it, and I didn’t really know what to think. Everyone’s going, “Holy shit, what is this, what’s going on?” And I go and grab the hand, and part of the hand comes off like tree bark in my fingers. I was assuming at the time that it was some dug up dead corpse. At that time, I didn’t even think if it was funny or not funny. I was just sort of freaked out.

There were probably like 25 people jammed in there, and everybody’s going: “What is it? What is it? What is it?”

And then before I can do anything, these two guys from my hall come running in and try to grab it. They had it sort of in the sheets of my bed, playing Tug of War with the thing, going back and forth. I’m like: “You’re not taking this thing. I’m gonna figure out what this is.” Everybody’s moving around, and they basically grabbed the thing and took off. They never came back, probably must have slept somewhere else.

So what happened?

We sat up for a while, and everybody’s like, “Dude, that’s freaked out.” I’m like, “I’m not sleeping in this room, man!” I slept somewhere else. Obviously the thing wasn’t new, it didn’t smell. But everybody pretty much assumed they found this dead body or corpse or something and put it in my bed. I wake up the next morning, go down to—is MoCon still there?

Nope. MoCon’s gone.

Well, we went down to go get breakfast, and everybody’s talking about it. Everybody’s asking me, “Oh my god, there was a dead body in your bed!”

Late that morning, Public Safety came with two Middletown police officers. They knocked on my door. They said, “Come with us. We think we can identify the body that was put in your bed.” So I get in the car, I think I’m going to a morgue or something like that. They take me into the science building, right across from the street from the library. We go up to the Archeology department. We get off the elevator, I’m asking all these questions, and they’re not answering anything. They take me into this back room and laying in a crate is that thing—the body. They’re like, “Is that it?” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s it.” P-Safe and the cops start snickering. I’m like, “What’s the joke?” They’re like, “Old mummy.”

One of the old Archeology professors gave me the background story on it: it’s like 25 hundred years old. It had been unwrapped in the ’70s, it was put back here, and somebody stole it and put it in my bed.

At that point, I knew what had happened and I’m thinking to myself, “That could be the funniest joke ever.” These guys just found this old mummy and put it in my bed! When I was first thinking it was a dead body, I was pretty pissed. Like, someone put a dead body in my bed? That’s pretty creepy. But once I found out it’s a mummy, I’m like, that’s one of the funniest pranks.

Did you know who had put it in your bed?

Oh, I knew exactly who it was!

It was someone from your hall?

Yeah, two guys from my hall. One guy lived right across the hall from me.

They were the ones who ran into your room and took it back?

Yeah, that’s how I knew it was them. I basically confronted them and I’m like, “Guys, I’m not pissed, how did you pull this off? And why me?” And they said, “You’re the one who fucks with people all the time. So we figured you were the only one who would actually tolerate it. And if we put it in someone else’s bed, they might kick our ass. We figured you might actually think it was funny.”

I’m like, “Dude, that’s pretty damn funny.”

But the next morning, which is Monday, I get a call like 7 in the morning—it wakes me up, and it’s a radio station. So between 7 and 9 in the morning, I had radio stations all over the country calling me and interviewing me. This had sort of gotten out at this point.

How did the press find out about it?

I know a couple people from The Argus came by and asked me about it. And I definitely recall a bunch of radio stations interviewing me. I did a bunch of interviews, and then I started getting interviews with local TV stations. There were no cell phones, that’s how old I am. They called the room and said, “Hey, can we come by for an interview?” At this point I’m thinking, “This is pretty damn cool.” I got interviewed by the local TV stations, which you can see on YouTube. Well, luckily I don’t have that mullet anymore. But they all came to interview me, and—well, you know how people always talk about how the media bends stories? Well, I was never that pissed off about [the mummy]. They talked about it as if it was a horrible thing.

And then it continued. For a couple of days I would get calls from different radio stations. Probably late Monday afternoon Public Safety came into my room and said, “Come with us and President Chace. President Chace would like to see you and talk about this.” You know how the TV station did that Tony the Tiger interview with the guys’ faces blacked out? The whole time, the press is asking me if I knew who did it, and I’m like “Yeah, but I’m not gonna give you the names.”

So Public Safety took me to the president’s office. He took me down—is O’Rourke’s Diner still there?

Yeah, of course!

President Chace was like, “You wanna eat lunch?” I’m like, “Sure, on you? No prob!” He takes me down to O’Rourke’s. At first he’s like, “Are you ok? How are you handling this?” thinking this was a traumatic episode for me. I’m like, “Seriously, I’m quite fine. It was a prank, and I’m cool with is.” And he’s like, “I need to know who did it.” And I’m like, “Why?” And he’s like, “Because, you know, they committed a crime.” And I’m like, “Well, I sort of disagree.” I basically said, you have this 2500-year-old mummy, you throw it in a box, and these guys came in—they didn’t break in anywhere—and they put it in my bed. That, to me, is a prank. If you thought this thing was so important, you would’ve put it somewhere it could be protected.

So I refused to give him the names. And he was pretty cool. Public Safety gave me a hard time, like, “You’re gonna be an accomplice, yadda yadda yadda.” I’m like, “Accomplice to what? They put it in my bed.” But I was honest with them: I know who they are, but I’m not going to tell you.

Interestingly enough, [Chace] actually became my advisor after that. Bottom line was, he was actually really cool. He was like, “Look, we won’t bother you anymore, but Public Safety has to do an investigation. If they find them, they might call on you again.” The whole thing was pretty much dropped in terms of criminal activity.

But then I came home for spring break—I live in Delaware, which isn’t that close to Connecticut—and everybody knew the story. That was sort of a cool thing. I have buddies of mine who still tell the story.

How did the two guys get the idea?

I asked these guys, I said “How did you find it? What made you steal it?” And they said they were baked one night, sort of messing around… These guys were interesting characters. They were messing around, and they happened to come across this thing. I don’t know about you, but on a weekend would you be walking around the Archeology department? It’s a little creepy.

But they said they saw it and thought, “Oh my god, this will be the best prank.” And after they grabbed it from my bedroom, they went back and put it back.

Basically, they were like, “Hey, we saw this, we just thought it would be the funniest prank ever.” That’s just how it went. You know, my brother is five years younger than me, so when I had already graduated, my brother becomes a freshman and he calls me saying, “I’m still hearing this mummy stuff all the time.” It became lore for a while.

What did your parents think of the story?

[laughs] I was never one to really tell my parents a lot of things, but they were a little freaked out cuz my little brother who was in eight grade—what was he, 13? 14?—was there. They were sort of pissed at me. And they knew me well enough that I was probably not an innocent bystander during the situation, I probably did something to deserve it.

Again, this was the age before internet and cell phones. My parents weren’t really privy to how much press this was getting. So no—not really overly concerned, but sort of felt that I deserved it.

How did the incident generally affect your freshman year at Wesleyan?

Definitely made me more popular. [laughs] It was a weird year. That year had a firebombing of the president’s office, there was a flag-burning, there was a hunger strike… I think, in all honesty, that was some levity for the year for everybody. Things were so intense.

I’m not an incredibly experimental person, but I’m pretty accepting. But when you come to a school your freshman year like, “I’m going to college, I’m gonna have fun,” and people are burning flags and throwing a firebomb at the president’s office, you’re thinking, “What did I get myself into here?” For me personally, it was funny. And it actually elevated the status of practical jokes on our hall. We knew we could never beat that one. I think after that someone put a dead crow in somebody’s bed, which once again is a little bit creepy. But the practical jokes continued. I think it just provided levity for people during a pretty serious, disturbing year.

How do you think Wesleyan has changed since then?

Well, my father went there, my brother went there, I went there. I try to get up there every couple of years. I was in a fraternity—I was in Psi U. Fraternities were a place to have a party. From my understanding, it seems that the school has become more conservative. I dunno if that’s a sign of the times. I mean, our freshman year, it was legal to smoke pot, there were no drinking laws . . . I mean the drinking age was still 21—you couldn’t go down to Middletown and get a beer at a bar. But there was no issue about getting a keg or drinking in your room. You ever hear of Duke Day?

Yeah, that still exists!

Niiice, that’s good to hear. Duke Day my freshman year—I mean, basically you had these guys walking around handing out joints left and right. We went down to the cafeteria, people smoked up, and Public Safety was there. And there was never an issue. I can’t remember anyone getting in trouble for drinking or smoking or anything like that.

Zonker Day was definitely—well, I was never a hallucinogenics fan. But there’s nothing like watching a bunch of people running around tripping. It’s probably become more conservative, but maybe our society has become more conservative.

The firebombing—that was ridiculous! In this day and age, if someone firebombed the presidents’ office, the FBI would be involved. It wasn’t really treated that seriously. A couple of these kids went ten days without eating or drinking [during the hunger strike]. There’s no way that’s gonna go on these days. You could get away with way more things back then that you couldn’t get away with now.

And you know what? Our parents never got our grades. Back in that day, Wesleyan was very—I’m assuming the honor code is still enforced—but back in that day, I don’t think our parents ever got a copy of grades. Liability wasn’t there. Back in that day, if someone was drinking on campus and something bad happened, was anyone gonna sue anybody? Now someone with a cell phone takes a picture, and someone’s responsible for it.

Now there’s always Big Brother watching, and Big Brother is the internet and your wireless connection.

What do you do now?

I’m a facial plastic surgeon. Right after Wesleyan I went to medical school, pretty much just went straight through to my career. I live in Wilmington, Delaware, opened up my own practice about 8 ½ years ago. I do everything from facial reconstruction to skin surgery to cosmetic surgery.

I probably keep in contact with about six guys on my hall. I don’t keep in contact with those two guys.

I was up at Wesleyan for a wedding over the summer, and I usually go to homecomings, and I’ve never seen either of those two guys there.

Do people still talk abut the mummy story?

It’s funny—I’m going to a buddy of mine’s wedding next week, and I can guarantee you that the mummy story will come up at least a few times.

There were so many stories from our freshman year, and that was probably the most enjoyable memory. That’s just sort of my impression of it. I have a buddy of mine here who married a woman who’s from San Fransisco and she was the girlfriend of a buddy of mine the year below me. She and I get to know each other, and within a year of us knowing each other, she says, “Oh my god, you went to school with Jason. Did you hear abut the mummy story?”

It’s one of the stories I will continue to hear in the most random environments.

  • Guest

    I dated one of the guys who stole the mummy. He was a weird dude.

  • Monsieur Le Voleur

    Ah, Tim.  We made you famous.   Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy :-)

    One correction:  The mummy incident didn’t receive just local coverage – it made the International Herald Tribune and was sent over the AP wire.  Tim was interviewed by a bunch of radio stations all over the country. 

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  • Student

    Good job, Zach.  This is the type of feature-style content that Wesleying needs more of.  Better and dramatically more digestible than the Argus.

  • fofang

    Terrific story and interview, Zach!

  • Student

    Great interview! Love hearing how campus has changed.