Last year I interviewed a guy who found a mummy in his bed. Meet the guy who put it there.
A little more than a year ago, I posted an interview with a guy who returned to his Nics dorm room one night in early 1990 to find a rotting, 3,000-year-old mummy occupying his bed. Both the victim, Tim Abel ’93, and the perpetrator went on to champion the incident as the “funniest prank ever.” But what happened after the prank unexpectedly revealed quite a bit about Wesleyan in the early 1990s, the interconnected campus community, disciplinary confusion, mass media, the stranger side of alumni gift-giving, and perhaps even Egyptology. (Okay, maybe not that.)
For months I’ve wanted to talk with the perpetrators of the prank, who remain unnamed in news accounts and faceless in a TV interview. When one of them posted a comment (since deleted) on the post, I managed to get in touch. Let’s call him Craig Smith ’93. Smith (not his real name) is now a professional musician and a dad. But he’s not sure he’ll ever top the prank he pulled in the Nics 23 years ago this month.
As I wrote in 2012, the Middletown Mummy Mystery was more than just a good prank. I was an intergenerational legend that has “solidified its place in the lore of early 1990s 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.”
And here’s the other side of it.
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What I did in college, my book report. [laughs] I lived in Foss 7—I guess that’s Nicolson. It was the third floor, it was an all-guys hall. And most of the guys who lived on the hall were athletes, football players. But there were a couple of us who were your normal “freaky Wesleyan people.”
This was your freshman year?
Yes. And my best friend on the hall, who we’ll just call “Andrew,” he and I were mind-trippers. We were fun-loving guys. Just to give you a background of what Wesleyan was like in that era, you could go to the basement of Foss 6 and buy an eighth of grass for, like, 20 dollars and smoke it in the dorm room of the guy who sold it, a guy named Juan who had a six-foot bong and listened to King Crimson and Yes. It was a totally free-spirited time and nobody cared if you did that.
I think that culture still exists on campus to some extent. It’s just more discrete.
It was very out in the open. And I think even Tim [Abel ’93] said that when you talked to him. We were party guys.
Anyway, one night my friend comes back and he says, “I went to the sixth floor of the science center, there’s a disused attic.” It was locked, but on the weekends people would break the lock off and use that area to climb up to the roof of the science center and look at the stars and make out and stuff. Whatever Wesleyan students do every weekend on top of an academic building. The sixth floor was empty and full of garbage, basically. But someone took him up there to see a dead body. He said, “I went up to the sixth floor of the science center and I saw a dead body.” I said, “Do go on.” He said, “It was just up there, wrapped in a shower curtain.” He said, “I want to take it.” I said, “What would you do with it?” He said, “I would just keep it in my room.” I said, “You know what would be really funny—to take it and put it in someone’s bed. We could take a picture of it and be like, ‘Haha, there was a dead body in your bed.'”
I was a goody two-shoes up to that point. Andrew was the kind of guy who would do something like that.
He went up there a bunch of times and it was locked. We’d kind of given up, but one night we were at the Science Center and we were watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s; I think it was Valentine’s Day, 1990. We were with these three girls from the hall below us. He was like, “Should we go up and look?” I was like, “It’ll never be open.” And he was like, “Let’s look one more time and see if it’s there.” We had crushes on two of the girls and the third was just their friend. But I would describe them as cutesy. Like, we knew if we took the thing out and showed it to them, they’d probably freak out. I think we thought that was kinda funny.
We went up to the sixth floor and it was open and they were like, “Where are you taking us?” and we were like “We have a surprise, come with us.” It was there and he took it out, and I have to say he gets the lion’s share of the credit because he was the one who carried it. He carried it from the sixth floor attic across the street through the tunnels under WestCo all the way up under Nicolson and then back again. He got it out, the girls screamed, everybody starts running, and this was the days before cell phone cameras.
So we didn’t have a camera because it was very spontaneous, but I’ll never forget the image of him running across Church Street with the body in the shower curtain clutched to him. Nobody was really out or paying attention.
This was on a weekend night?
It was a Friday night. It was probably midnight, 12:30. So he takes it, he runs, I’m right behind him. We go up to the dorm. We had planned that the person on our hall who would not hate us and be angry with us would be Tim. Tim was the kind of guy who could take a joke. You see him in those TV clips—he had that giant purple gorilla that was in his room. Tim was that kind of guy.
Were you guys friends with Tim?
Tim was the first guy I met at Wesleyan. He lived right across the hall from me. We were a pretty tight crew. We were all buds, there were kegs on the hall pretty much every weekend. I met up with a friend of mine from the hall about a year ago and he said, “You know, the mummy thing isn’t the craziest thing that happened that year.” We were friends, and Tim was a good guy. He always left his room open, too.
So we tucked it in, took a couple pictures, then closed the door, and we were like, “Hee hee hee.” Then one of our hallmates comes up and he’s like, “What are you guys up to?” We take him into the room and he flips out. He just runs away. The next thing, all hell broke loose. All of a sudden it seems like everybody in the dorm was on our hall. It all happened very quickly. It was the only time in my life I ever got a sense of what Beatlemania must’ve been like, because things just went completely ape shit. All of a sudden there were a million people on our hall.
Tim comes in. Tim is completely drunk. He’d heard at a party across campus that there was a dead body on his hall. Word spread like wildfire. This was like 15 minutes later. Everybody’s yelling at us, “You gotta take it back.” So we took it back. I have to mention it smelled worse than anything I’ve smelled to date.
Did you know that it was a mummy at this point?
I wasn’t sure what it was. I thought it was some sort of cadavar. But we took it back. Andrew threw out all his clothes. Tim figured out Andrew was involved and threw his bed and chair off the roof of the dorm. You could open this hatch and climb out onto the roof from the hall. At this point everybody kind of suspected Andrew because he had a sort of serial-killer-crazy vibe about him. If something crazy happened, everybody suspected him, but nobody suspected it was my idea. He took the heat from Tim, but then Tim found out it was me. He didn’t throw my furniture out the window.
Anyway, we took it back, and then I got a phone call from a friend of mine I went to high school with from The Argus, saying, “Can you comment on a 3,000-year-old mummy being put in the bed of one of your hallmates?” That was the first that we knew it was a mummy. We just thought it was a dead body. We had no idea it was a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy.
Who identified it?
It was a reporter from The Argus. Somehow he knew what it was. I don’t know if this was him or somebody else at The Argus, but they called the Middletown Police and told them there was a homicide on our hall. So P-Safe and Detective Columbo of Middletown show up on our hall. They’re like, “We’re here about the dead body.” When the MPD found out it was just a prank and it was a mummy, they were really pissed at The Argus. They were like, “Fuck you, this is a prank.” This P-Safe officer went around wagging his finger in all our faces, like, “I don’t know who did this, but I’m gonna find out and you’re gonna pay.”
About a day or so later, everything died down. Our RA is freaking out, he’s like, “They don’t tell you in RA class that things like this are going to happen.”
How did the story spread?
About a day later a reporter from the Hartford Courant showed up and interviewed a bunch of us. He ran a story and that’s when the TV stations came.
Also, the thing we didn’t count on was his little brother was visiting and the smell made him sick and gave him a headache. We’re college kids, what the hell do we know? That was the only downside to it. All three of the local TV networks. Then it went out over the AP wire. Then Tim started to get phone calls from radio stations all across the country, like, “We’re on the phone with the guy who had the mummy in his bed!” Tim kind of liked the attention, but he really became this celerity for a few minutes and it was stressful and I know it wore on him.
We’d hear back from people. And people’s parents would read it in the paper in, like, Houston and call them up being like, “What is this!” So people’s parents from all across the country would call.
We found out it had gotten in the International Herald Tribune, and students studying abroad were calling people saying, “What the hell is this?” We thought maybe we’d get, like, a little blurb in The Argus. We had no concept of the impact. We were all pretty freaked out. We kind of hid in our rooms for the next week. We thought we’d be kicked out of school.
Tim told me that he was pressured, but he refused to rat you guys out.
Chase interviewed him and he thought it was funny. And the story I heard is that the alumnus who was involved in donating money to have the mummy sent over in the first place got angry at the school, like, “What the hell is it doing wrapped in a shower curtain in a disused part of the Science Center?” So what I heard is that they moved it to a climate-controlled environment. I think maybe we did a good thing by getting it moved to a climate-controlled environment or some place it wasn’t thrown in the corner somewhere. We thought it was a randomly lying around dead body.
Oh, no. We thought it was probably some sort of anatomical cadaver or autopsy. It was in the Science Center, so we thought it was something used for biology or something.
That’s pretty disgusting that it was just lying there.
Before everything went down, people would say, “Oh yeah, we went up and looked at the body.” It was this thing people were doing. In the immortal words of my friend, “We took it, we had our fun with it, and we put it back.”
In retrospect, it was a great story. My friend gets the lion’s share of credit because he carried it. He was the motivation to actually get it done. But I was sort of the brains behind the operation.
And you never got caught.
No. President Chace told Tim that he thought it was funny. God bless Tim; we picked the right guy. He knew it was funny and he took the joke and he spent the rest of college trying to get into frat parties for free by saying, “I’m the guy who had the mummy in his bed.”
You said that wasn’t the craziest thing that happened on your hall that year. What was the craziest?
Oh gosh. There’s always a few people who are kind of off, with mental health issues. This one kid pulled out a diving knife and jumped at some guy. That was pretty crazy. Number one, where did he get the diving knife? And number two, he tried to stab somebody.
Somebody saran-wrapped the toilet. And, oh gosh, someone after a midterm drank an entire bottle of gin and urinated on the speakers and stereo in some other kid’s room and then passed out on the floor. My parents had a little dachshund at the time. He came to visit, and they wouldn’t let the dachshund walk on the floor of the hall.
A friend of mine was dating a grad student at Johns Hopkins, and apparently the funny thing at Johns Hopkins for a while was the mummy prank. Little things come back to you and people talk and it travels the collegiate circuit, like a college legend. Chevy Chase, when he was at Haverford, he brought a cow to his third-floor dorm room. But our story ended better, because they had to kill the cow.
Whereas the mummy was already dead.
Right! No harm, no foul.
How do you think Wesleyan has changed since the mummy incident?
In 2009 I went to a seminar on film. The new campus center is gorgeous. Our campus center was, like, obscenely vertical. Wesleyan is different. Back in the early 1990s, for example, I was involved heavily in the radio station. And the radio station was all student-run at the time. There was no faculty advisor. Literally, the students ran the station. We were kind of these renegade underground rock people. And it was free-form radio, playing all sorts of crazy stuff all hours of the night. It’s sad that that changed; I don’t know if that’s the school changing or the times changed. I know that music radio is not the same.
I had a show for a good two years. Starting my sophomore year and pretty much to the end, I was every Friday afternoon. And I loved it. I had a lot of people who would listen at that time. That was one of the best experiences in the school.
I think the Johns Hopkins thing—that was the funniest. An old friend from school, I hadn’t talked to her in years and years, she calls me up and says, “Oh my god, I was just at Johns Hopkins this weekend and all they talked about was the mummy.” It’s nice that it has made some sort of impact on Wesleyan history. Definitely something out of the ordinary.
Here’s a funny story. A woman that I ended up dating—she was my serious girlfriend through college but we weren’t dating at the time—she and her boyfriend had gone up to the attic to look at the mummy and then went on the roof to make out. And she was all freaked out, so they went up on the roof, and he was like, “Do you want to look at it again?” So they came back down, and it was gone.
Are you still in touch with your co-conspirator?
Vaguely. He’s not the kind of person who keeps in touch with anyone. He has no Internet presence whatsoever. But I saw him in 2000. He lived in upstate New York, up near Rochester, and I was gonna get in touch with him because it’s the twentieth reunion. I doubt he would go. He’s not the kind of person who really keeps in touch.
But when I saw him in person, it was like no time had passed.