On Friday October 19, 2012 the skeletal remains of an elderly male were found by authorities in a bed on the second floor of a nearly empty dilapidated townhouse at number 9 Rue Saint-Jacques in the city of Lille, in Northern France.
Among the uncertainties on that day were who the deceased was, when he had died and what the cause of death was. Since then more questions have arisen in what the French press is calling le mystère de la momie du Vieux-Lille - the mystery of the mummy of Old Lille.
Lille is a city of about 300,000 located near Belgium. The largest city in a region known as French Flanders, it has many historical sites, including the Basilique-cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille located in the vicinity of Rue Saint-Jacques, a formerly bohemian, now gentrified, street in the old quarter of town. Lille is full of residences like the one at number 9: red brick 2 and 3 story attached houses all lined up in a row, and each having a small garden in the back.
No one can recall the last time a person was seen entering or leaving the building, but for years pigeons flew freely in and out of the broken dormer windows on the third floor.
"This summer, on my terrace, I became afraid," Elisabeth Chevanne, an attorney who lives and works at number 7, told the Paris newspaper Le Monde.
"I said to myself, 'Those birds are bad. They look like something from Hitchcock.' "
In fact, Ms. Chevanne had been complaining to the city for over 10 years about water seepage problems from the building next door. She had initially written her neighbor about this, but never received a reply.
"I contacted the city, the land registry, hospitals, a fellow lawyer who specializes in property law, the Spanish consulate. I did that for ten years. But each time, there was nothing done and I was told that it did not concern me."
Then last autumn she decided to focus her complaints on the risk to public safety caused by the seepage and the poor state of the building. When city officials finally took action and entered the house forcibly they came across a dark interior covered in cobwebs with hardly any furnishings: a folding table, a hot plate, a few pieces of clothes here and there, and a pair of slippers still quietly waiting at the foot of a small narrow bed in the an upstairs bedroom. Inside lay a mummy-like figure in gray-striped pajamas, his head on the pillow and arms at either side. No one could be sure that this was the owner of the house, a man whose details appeared on an identification card nearby: "Alberto Rodriguez, born August 7, 1921, Santander, Spain."
In December, two months after the gruesome discovery, the coroners office announced that "some peculiarities in the nose" had allowed them to determine "with 99.9% certainty" that the remains were indeed those of the building's owner. According to an official "the shape of the sinus cavity" was compared to an old x-ray of Mr. Rodriguez's skull that was found in the house. They believe he was in his early to mid-70s at the time of his death. DNA samples had also been taken from his bones, but no family members could be found to compare the results with.
Although it is not certain exactly when the unfortunate man died, it is thought to have been at least 15 years ago. The reason for this is that among the unopened letters found inside his door the oldest was a notice sent from the Social Security office on January 15, 1997. Also discovered in the untouched mail were an electric bill from February 6 that same year and correspondence from his pension fund dated four days later. Apparently, that was the only sort of post that was found. No chatty updates from friends; no Christmas cards from family in Spain; not even a note expressing concern about his absence from a curious neighbor.
Natural causes is all the coroner could say. According to the police report there was no evidence of a struggle or forced entry. No weapons or suicide note were found. Initially some wondered whether or not sediment in a white bowl found near the bed would prove to be a poison of some kind, but that turned out to be nothing but the residue of vomit. Those details, along with the the fact that he was found wearing pajamas, led to the conclusion that Alberto must have simply taken to his bed sick and died.
Words and expressions used to describe him in his later years include quiet, not very friendly, hermit, and grumpy. A few people in a local business told a reporter they recalled a former cabinetmaker from the neighborhood describing a wild man with a big nose who had lived in the house. Ms. Chevanne, the lawyer-neighbor, who moved into the area in 1986, said she never saw him with anyone and that he obviously wanted to be left alone.
The Metro Lille newspaper reported
that Ms. Cheyanne thought the last time she saw Alberto was in the early 90s. In addition, an investigator has found a curious document: a deed of sale for the house on the Rue Saint-Jacques prepared by a notary for April 30, 1991. Alberto was about to receive 350,000 francs for number 9, but, at 11am on the day of the closing, the retired house painter did not appear to sign the documents.