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 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.
What led to the macabre discovery?
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.
Looking back now, people talk about how strange it was that this particular 1880s Art Deco house had been shuttered for so long. One could easily see from the street that the curtains were torn and that the place was in a state of decay. 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 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.
When did he die?
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.
How did he die?
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.
What is known about him?
French social security records show that he was born in Santander, a city on the northern coast of Spain; however, officials there cannot provide a birth certificate or any other document about him due to the fact that the pertinent city records were destroyed in a fire in 1948. Thanks to official documents found in France, however, we also know that his full name was Alberto Rodríguez Martínez, that his surely long deceased parents were Salustiano Rodriguez and Concepcion Martinez, and that in 1948, the same year fire destroyed his birth records, he obtained a French work permit as a house painter and moved to Lille. French documents also revealed one other detail: Alberto was rich.
To start with, his three-story townhouse, located in a popular neighborhood in the center of this historic French city, is a valuable piece of real estate. In addition, this immigrant laborer who, like so many others during the Franco dictatorship, left Spain for democratic France, had somehow managed to accumulate quite a financial portfolio: he owned three buildings in Lille and had a large sum of money spread over several bank accounts.
Did he have no friends or relations?
A former neighbor who no longer lives in the area told the local paper, La Voix du Nord, that he remembered Alberto working for his father as a mason and plasterer.
"He worked for different businesses in the area. When he had drunk a bit, everything went well, and he had plenty of dealings with people. At that point, I doubt that the house at number 9 belonged to him. It served as a rendezvous spot for couples" in an area that was, at that time, a hotbed of prostitution.
In the late 1960s the Spaniard got involved with Lucie Chanat, a childless French widow 40 years his senior. Married at age 18, Lucie was widowed at 73. Alberto was 33 years old then. Exactly what relationship existed between these two people no one seems to know. A May-December romance? A woman of means with no children who, in a manner of speaking, 'adopted' a foreign refugee? Two lonely people who became friends and simply kept each other company?
After she passed away on November 11, 1971 the 90-year old woman was laid to rest in the family grave, where the pink marble reads: Lucie Chanat, 1881-19__. Although no one saw fit to record the year of her death on her tomb, before she died Lucie had taken the trouble to name an heir to her significant wealth: Alberto Rodriguez.
How did he end up so alone?
Among the descriptions of Alberto by neighbors who can recall him, the word handsome has been used. It seems after Lucie's death he was also quite well to do. And then there is the former neighbor who recollected him as a jovial man -- at least when drinking. So, how did a nice looking, wealthy man who was obviously not completely without social skills end up being so very alone that no one noticed his passing? Did he fall into a state of depression after Lucie's death? Did he stop drinking? Did he withdraw from social life?
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. She also shared one unpleasant memory of him.
"A little man coming in and out of the place who used his keys to scratch the doors of cars parked in front of the house."
She said she believed he did not actually live in the house.
Another mystery: could he have died more than 15 years ago?
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. The prospective buyer, a German woman named Mrs. Lejeune-Wermer, who had obtained a loan for the purchase, waited in vain.
No one knows what became of Mrs. Lejeune-Wermer, a teacher born in 1943 who lived on the Rue du Pont-Neuf. A detective has tried to find her on the other side of the Rhine, in the hopes that she could explain why the sale was stopped in 1991. On the day of the missed appointment, was Alberto in his gray-striped pajamas dying, or already lying dead, alone in his bed?
Who will inherit?
The French police, Spanish consular services, journalists from both countries and even genealogists have been trying to locate the heirs to the small fortune. In Santander, the place of his birth where no trace of him remains, a few newspaper articles have run, including one under the tastefully questionable headline, Mummy Seeks Heir, but no one in Spain or France has come forward to claim Alberto's earthly remains - a skeleton, some valuable pieces of property, and millions of euros.
How could this have happened?
"Probably no one noticed his death because he had no social relations in the neighborhood," explained Didier Perroudon, the director of the Public Safety Department of Lille.
After the discovery of the remains, many in the neighborhood were plunged into remorse. People asked each other questions. How could Ms. Chavanne's complaints to the city go unanswered for so many years? How could bureaucrats be so inhumane as to let unpaid property taxes accumulate without sending an agent to see if the home was actually inhabited? How had no one noticed that the water had been cut off in 1996, the lights in 1997, and one of his bank accounts closed in 1999 due to lack of activity? How blind can a society be to forget someone for so many years in the middle of a thriving city?
The day after Alberto was found was a Saturday, but a local junior high school teacher gathered a group of 12 and 13 year-old students in their classroom to help them to express their reactions to the incident.
"This man, he was forgotten for at least fifteen years," sighed Luke 13. "He was sent mail, but no one went to see him."
"I pass this house every day," added Lou, also 13. "Before this discovery, I often wondered about the place. The biggest shock for me is not that a skeleton was found, but that the gentleman died alone."
And what about Ms. Chavanne, the only neighbor who seemed to have noticed something was amiss?
"I am so sorry for the man; that I could not have done more," she reflected during a local television news report.
"We can say that this house was a tomb. We can say we were not vigilant enough. But this speaks to the lonely state that many people live in."
On the night of October 19, perhaps in an attempt to make amends of some sort for the oblivion into which one of their neighbors had sunk, passersby placed lit candles on the doorstep of the dark and empty home of the late Alberto Rodriguez Martinez.
Update: Relatives have been found in Spain, but they are having difficulty claiming the inheritance, which it turns out is quite large.
According to an August 2013 French media report, Alberto is survived by nephews he never met. One of them, Miguel Rodriguez, was quoted as saying, "It is an extraordinary story, but for us, it is mainly a sad story. When I think about what happened to him in this house, it's a really sad story. Yes, because he died alone, without anyone knowing anything about him."
In March 2014 the Spanish newspaper El Confidencial published a story on professionals who work to track down heirs which quoted a lawyer working on the case. The attorney, Pedro Fernandez, stated, "Right now the most striking case is that of 'The Mummy of Lille,' a Spaniard living in France who had been dead for more than 18 years. The fortune he left is estimated at between 40 and 50 million, because this man, Alberto Rodriguez, had in turn received an inheritance which in principle there was no record of."
According to Fernandez, the case remains open because the French authorities are trying to find a legal way of, "getting them the money."
[Click here for a series of ID card pictures of Alberto at different stages in his life, as well as photos authorities took of the conditions inside of the house.]
This story was originally published on Sat Jan 5, 2013 1:05 PM EST