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Archive for Sunday, August 29, 2010

Garden City folks remember tale of ‘Old Bill’

August 29, 2010

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— Folks came far and wide to see him, the man they called “Old Bill.”

They would travel the roads to the Finney County town of Garden City, where he lived in a business that always welcomed people inside.

Not that Old Bill did much of anything to entertain them. Sometimes spectators found him lying down. Other times he would be leaning against the wall. And, of course, he didn’t mind the gawks and stares of the more than 50,000 visitors over the course of 25-plus years.

For, Old Bill, alas, was dead.

This tale starts the evening of April 29, 1911, when the 6:30 train left Dodge City, heading toward Garden City. Most of the passengers who sat in the Santa Fe’s smoking car didn’t give a second thought to a quiet Italian immigrant sitting nearby, nor did they know that in his pocket, carefully wrapped in a white handkerchief, was a sharp, straightedge razor.

They did take notice, however, when, according to the reports of the passengers, the man stepped up on his seat and said, in broken English, “Here goes, boys. Here goes,” then slashed his throat from ear to ear.

The man behind ‘Old Bill’

His name was Pedro Rugiero, who, at around 55 years of age, concluded there was nothing left for him in this life, so he ended it. He was well-dressed at the time, but only had $13.10 in his pocket. His suitcase had six cans of tobacco, seven boxes of matches, a loaf of rye bread, some lunchmeat and an empty wine bottle, according to a Garden City Telegram story from 1937.

Yet, after death, Rugiero, who may have felt down on his luck and lonely as he tried to make a living in America, found fame, at least for a while, in the heartland of Kansas.

“It’s just crazy. He was the No. 1 tourist attraction in Garden City for more than 20 years,” said Darin Bradstreet, a funeral director and partner at Garnand Funeral Home in Garden City, where Bill spent nearly 30 years of his afterlife on display during the early 20th century.

Rugiero’s first name was possibly Pietro since he was Italian, not Spanish, said Laurie Oshel, the Finney County Museum’s assistant director and research librarian.

He killed himself near Charleston, about 19 miles from Garden City, and was taken to A.R. Clark funeral home, where Bryant Garnand worked, according to a story written by The News’ managing editor, Mary Rintoul.

Rintoul’s father, the late David E. Rintoul, who worked at and later owned a professional photography studio in Garden City in the 1950s and through most of the 1970s, recorded the stories he was told about the event.

He wrote that Garnand, knowing the body would have to be kept for some time for identification in case it was to be shipped back to Italy, mixed a special embalming fluid. It contained a metal compound. That may have helped preserve the body better, and, mixed with the exposure to air, the corpse essentially mummified.

Bradstreet said embalming firms the body’s tissues, and, as the body is exposed to air, it dehydrates.

Of course, Old Bill wasn’t buried.

A Garden City attraction

According to the Garden City Telegram story, Garnand learned that Rugiero had come to the United States around 1890 and that 20 years later he returned to Italy to see his wife and children he had left behind.

Garnand discovered a brother in San Francisco had sent Rugiero money for the return trip. The brother even filed a claim for the unused ticket fare — but didn’t want his brother’s body.

Therefore, Garnand, who eventually purchased the funeral home in 1918, kept Old Bill around.

Bob Garnand, who owned the funeral home for a time after his father’s tenure, said when his father bought the funeral home, Old Bill was appraised at $20.

Old Bill sported different suits over the years, and Bryant Garnand even constructed him a special mahogany box — which helped with the confusion when clients called.

“People from the country would go into town on a Saturday night and would want to see him,” said Bob Garnand, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M.

“He’d be wearing a suit of clothes and have a golf club in his hand.”

Garnand said about once a year, his father would freshen the suit and shellac the body — probably to keep it from molding.

In essence, the dehydrated state of Old Bill had lost weight with age, his skin darker and more like leather.

It was a different era, Bradstreet admits, noting one wouldn’t get away with such an act these days.

Early form of cremation

Old Bill stayed on display for 27 years, with Bryant Garnand even taking him to funeral directors’ conventions. Garden City residents brought family and friends to see him, and various fictional stories arose from these visits, according to Rintoul’s research.

“One such story is a man, not knowing what was in the box, opened it, and jumped completely out of his shoes,” she wrote.

Around 1930, Bryant Garnand had the corpse’s picture taken by F.D. “Pop” Conard, owner of the Conard Studio in Garden City. The photo, taken in the studio, shows Bill upright against a wall.

Rintoul’s father purchased the store from Conard in 1963 and came into possession of the negative.

Old Bill’s fate, however, didn’t necessarily turn out well. On April 23, 1938, a fire that threatened the whole downtown business section of Garden City destroyed Garnand’s funeral home and furniture store — “putting ’Old Bill’ to rest at last,” Rintoul said.

Museum researcher Oshel said Old Bill basically was one of America’s early cremations.

Ironically, however, it was 27 years from the night of the fire, give or take a few days, that the man named Pedro Rugiero decided he’d end his life — not ever knowing that, in the afterlife, he’d be a regional attraction.

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