The Life and Dark Secrets of Dorian Corey, Drag Queen Who Died With Mummified Body in Her Closet
In the weeks after "Paris Is Burning" star Dorian Corey's death, a mummy was discovered in a trunk in her home. How did the remains of the man get there and what happened, remains a mystery. But cops and friends have theories on what occurred.
In 1993, a mummified body was found inside a trunk in the Harlem apartment of a well-known drag queen. Dorian Corey was believed to have kept the remains of an unidentified man in her apartment for more than 25 years, only to be discovered after she died from AIDS.
The NYPD sprang into action to try to determine how the person wound up in Corey's trunk and who they were as the New York City underground buzzed with speculation. Since those who knew the truth were no longer alive to tell it, police had to set out to get answers to a mystery still talked about to this day.
A Life Less Ordinary: Dorian Corey's Rise to Fame
“I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you've made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you've left a mark. You don't have to bend the whole world. I think it's better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you,” Dorian Corey says in “Paris is Burning.”
Dorian Corey was born in 1937 in Buffalo, New York, and arrived in New York City in the late 1950s to attend college at Parsons School of Design. While studying, she became embedded in the then-underground culture of "the ballroom" and appeared in drag queen beauty pageants.
“The ballroom culture evolved when disenfranchised Black and Hispanic, drag, gay, trans, queer people, would put on these ritualistic, exhibitionistic competitions, where they could pretend to be super models or macho men or butch queens, femme queens,” columnist Michael Musto told Inside Edition Digital.
The balls started in the 1950s in Harlem and would then move across the City and eventually Long Island and New Jersey.
“It was a competition, but it was full of a lot of love and acceptance, and a lot of fantasy because these people didn't get a lot of breaks in everyday life. But at those voguing balls, they were truly stars,” Musto said.
Inside the culture of the balls, families and cliques were created.
“It was a way to escape because these kids didn't have money. Many of them had no parental support, but they had each other. They created these families, and they belonged to houses,” Musto added. “The House of Domination and the House of Extravaganza, and each house would have a house mother that became almost like their real mother. They became a figure, whether male or female, who anchored them and mentored them and taught them and brought them into this voguing world.”
Corey appeared in the groundbreaking documentary, “The Queen,” which was released in 1968, a year before the Stonewall Riots, which would be a watershed moment for LGBTQIA+ rights. “The Queen” chronicled a night in the life of drag queen contestants as they competed in a beauty pageant in New York City and featured cameos from Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, according to Indie Wire.
“She later went on to work for the Pearl Box Revue, which was a touring show. She used to talk about it quite a bit. I take it that she was very proud of it and that it really was a seminal moment in her life when she was doing all the touring down to Florida and various other states. And she did an act with a snake,” Corey's friend Brian Lantelme told Inside Edition Digital.
Lantelme, a photographer who became close friends with Corey after meeting in 1987, said she introduced him to the balls and the scene. Corey was even more captivating in person than on the big screen, he said.
“I was hooked and I went to every single ball that there was, which they were only in New York, really New York and New Jersey at that time. But they would have a ball maybe every month or every six weeks. I went to every single ball and started to photograph them. And then, so I ended up doing that on my own and that's thanks to Dorian,” he said.
But as Corey was making a name for herself, the rising drag queen was also holding onto a deep secret that wouldn’t be found out until over 25 years later.
Burning Down Paris: Dorian Corey Gains Mainstream Attention
Corey gained infamy in the early 1990s after appearing in another game-changing documentary: “Paris Is Burning.”
The documentary, directed by Jennie Livingston, spotlighted the underground ballroom and drag culture, especially Corey.
“’Paris Is Burning’ was a sensation, the best reviewed documentary of many years, a phenomenon. For many people, it was the first glimpse into this whole world. And it was a fascinating glimpse because you came to love every one of those people and love the cat fights, love the support. Every aspect of it was so captivating,” Musto said.
“Paris Is Burning” captivated a mainstream audience as well. Underground balls became popular with the likes of Madonna, who paid homage to the culture with her single, “Vogue.” It also inspired the hit FX series, “Pose,” which ran from 2018 to 2021.
“I suspect overall people would be happy to know that there's representation of the ball world that's respectful and energetic, and that elevates their struggles and dreams to the level of television,” “Paris Is Burning” director Jennie Livingston told Inside Edition Digital in 2021.
“In the mid-80s no one could have imagined a series like 'Pose,' or, in general, the kinds of stories and characters we take for granted in the golden age of television,” Livingston added.
Following the acclaim of “Paris is Burning,” Corey's star rose even higher. She appeared on talk shows like “The Joan Rivers Show” to discuss the documentary as well as ball culture itself
“You get to get together with your peers and you are able to perform in front of those who understand exactly your lifestyle,” Corey told the host.
The spotlight suited Corey.
“She was very witty. She had incredible timing. She had a tongue like a rapier. She could cut you to pieces. I would say she had a little bit of a temper. But underneath, I'll tell you, knowing her and I spent time with her… she was really a romantic under it all,” Lantelme recalled.
But still, the bills needed to be paid. She worked out of her apartment as a seamstress while also making her home a haven for those in need of a surrogate mother. Folks who left their own homes in search of direction, love and help found comfort in the "House of Corey."
“I think she was very loyal. She had a very small circle, but she was very well-meaning and gave me advice on how I should approach my job as a photographer," Lantelme said. "Those are the happiest years of my life, to be honest.”
“She wasn't Howdy Doody, throwing confetti everywhere, but she had a reputation for being extremely welcoming and giving to other oppressed people. Her apartment in Harlem was like a home for wayward people,” said Musto, who also knew Corey. “She would take in all the strays and she would mentor them and give them a place and give them a future. So, I saw behind that rough exterior, which I understood, because she had been oppressed a lot herself. So she developed this tough facade, but there was a harder gold under there.”
Corey was a fixture at Midtown Manhattan clubs like Sally’s Hideaway and Sally’s II in Times Square. At Sally’s II, she hosted many events and Lantelme, who photographed and chronicled the scene and the club, would capture the action inside. The club became her home away from home. It was also a premiere destination for people looking for sex. Lantelme referred to them as “clients” of the club.
“So the clients would go there. And it was very interesting and they did drag shows and that was what Dorian, she was one of the emcees. They had events planned all the time. On Wednesday nights, they had the Go-Go Boy contest,” he recalled. “Everybody was just doing their thing. They were so nonjudgmental. And it was something that I hadn't really seen that closely before, which was people not worrying about the future, just staying in the present and surviving.”
On Aug. 29, 1993, Dorian Corey died of AIDS. She was 56. Days later, her obituary appeared in The New York Times.
“She knew that her days were numbered and she was very, I would say, very depressed. In fact, she really couldn't even speak on it. And I was in touch with the people at the hospital, the doctors and stuff. And so they would call me and I went in when she was in coma,” Lantelme added.
At the time of her death, Corey was working with Pepper LaBeija to plan one last ball at Webster Hall. The ball never took place.
“The '80s were particularly horrendous with AIDS. There were no treatments. If you got AIDS back then, you were surely to die of grizzly death pretty quickly," Musto said. "In the '90s, we were hoping for improvements and there were, but not enough when Dorian Corey died."
Skeleton in the Closet: Unearthing Dorian Corey's Secrets
After Corey died, her friend Lois Taylor brought someone interesting in creating a Halloween costume to Corey's apartment to look at her gowns and dresses. Taylor, who helped look after Corey in the final years, had begun selling the gowns her late friend left behind, according to New York Magazine.
It was during one of those business excursions to Corey's apartment, in October 1993, that Taylor discovered what she described as extremely heavy suitcase in Corey's closet. When she and one of her customers managed to open it, they were met a foul odor. Police were called immediately, according to reports.
Police were very familiar with the area in which Corey lived. Corey’s apartment was near City College in the Harlem section of Manhattan, an area at the time known for being rough and filled with crime. In fact, for protection, Corey was known to have kept a small pistol in her apartment, according to New York Magazine.
“New York City, in the early 1990s, we were coming out of the crack epidemic," retired NYPD Sgt. Mark Giffen told Inside Edition Digital. "The homicide rate was very high in the city. There was a lot of violent crimes still occurring in New York City, and we had a pretty busy job. It was probably close to 80,000 deaths reported a year to the medical examiner's office that had to be sorted through."
But the call made from Corey's apartment to police was one they would never forget.
"It was probably the only case I ever heard of that had a mummified body," Detective Joe Roe, believed to be the longest-serving member of the NYPD ever, having spent 44 years on the force, told Inside Edition Digital. "I worked a lot of cases.”
Roe arrived after uniform police had arrived on the scene. “They didn't know what was in the trunk at the time but it had a foul odor, which was very common to a DOA [Dead on Arrival]…It's an odor you'll never forget," he said.
"There was something dead inside but it was wrapped where we couldn't actually have access to it to pull it out or anything like that," he said. "So, I had no idea what it was and I figured the only way we could figure this out is to get it down to the medical examiner and pull the whole thing out and see... whatever was wrapped up in the trunk there.”
The container was transported to the medical examiner’s office, and an anthropologist was also called in. Once the wrappings were undone, it was evident that inside the container were the remains of a human, but the person's identity and how they wound up there were unknown.
The body was tightly wrapped in thick fabrics and sewn closed with precision, leaving no air to enter, Roe said.
“Some of the challenges that we faced were there was no form of identification on the remains. We had no idea who it was. Contacting domestic person squad, there were no missing persons reports of anybody. The age was approximated, and because we had no possible identifiers available to us, such as dental records or x-rays, because we didn't know who it was, the only thing that we could do was possibly obtain fingerprints from the mummy,” Giffen said.
Authorities used the flip tops from beer cans left inside the trunk as an indicator of approximately how long the person's remains had been concealed there. The style of flip tops found had not been used since the mid-1970s, leaving police to speculate that the body could have been in there between 15 and 25 years.
They then focused on identifying the remains, now referred to as "Joe Doe."
“The common, the typical ways of identifying human remains is all of those leads are exhausted first. But if there are no other leads and the finger is mummified, sometimes it's the only tool that we could use to make the identification,” Giffen said.
Detective Raul Figueroa, the officer responsible for identifying Joe Doe, worked in the Medical Examiner's Unit of the Missing Persons Squad.
The body was so perfectly preserved that it hardly rotted, but still it was difficult for authorities to lift a fingerprint. With permission from his superiors, Figueroa removed the body's fingers placed them in 10 separate specimen bottles.
“I [had] to be careful that I do one at a time and put it in the precise bottle so we don't make any mistakes, fingerprint the wrong one, in the wrong box on the fingerprint card,” he told Inside Edition Digital. “If we had some of the machines they have today, it would have saved me a lot of work.”
Figueroa injected the fingers with acetone to plump them up so they could put ink on them and then roll them onto a fingerprint card to send to another unit in hopes that they could identify the body.
“All of a sudden, the finger starts turning into a finger, from looking like nothing, a skeleton, into a finger,” he said. “I got beautiful prints out of it!”
Police identified Joe Doe as Robert Worley also known as Bobby Wells. He had been convicted of raping and assaulting a woman in 1963 and served only three years in Sing Sing prison in Upstate New York. Police traced his last residence to a home in Washington Heights and spoke to his brother, Fred Worley, who Roe said was not surprised his brother was dead.
After he was released from prison, Worley lived with his brother and his family, whose Washington Heights address police had listed as Worley's last residence. He wasn’t home for long before left sometime between 1966 and 1967, never to return again, his brother said.
“He was just a boyfriend of Dorian Corey, from what the brother had told me. He said [over] 20 years prior he hadn't seen his brother, but he said at the time, when he did know him, he was dating some drag queen,” Roe said.
Friends of Dorian Corey told Roe that the couple would get drunk and violent.
“[Worley] drank heavily, and so did Dorian Corey from what I understand. And whenever they drank heavily, they ended up arguing and fighting. So basically, they thought that it was one of these violent crimes of passion, and she just shot him in the head,” Roe said.
Worley hadn’t been in touch with his family for over 25 years and was in his early- to mid-50s when he died.
Dorian Corey's Legacy, Darkened and Contextualized
While police were busy putting together the pieces of the proverbial puzzle that was the body in Corey's closet, word of what was going on began spreading amongst those involved in Corey's scene.
“I thought it was just a rumor,” Lantelme recalled. “Somebody told me about it in Sally's... I thought, ‘this is crazy. What are they talking about?’ And then about a week later I got a call from the detective [Roe]. That is when I knew it was real.”
Lantelme, who had been to Corey’s messy apartment countless times, never smelled a foul odor aside from a musty stench he said was common in older New York City buildings.
“Those old buildings do have that kind of moldy, musty smell,” he said.
Musto rolled his eyes when he first heard the story, also chalking it up to the rumor mill.
“When the revelation was unearthed, after Dorian died, it really did add a dark side to her legacy. Like, ‘oh my gosh, she killed somebody.’ But I think a lot of people are sort of like thinking, ‘go girl. He was a horrible creep.’ No, he didn't deserve murder. No, he didn't deserve to be mummified without any investigation. That's for sure, and that will forever taint Dorian's legacy,” Musto said. “But there is a part of the crowd going, Robert Worley represents a lot of the hateful people that tried to keep these voguers down and exploit them and use them manipulate them. He was manipulative. He wasn't a nice guy, but somehow, Dorian was drawn to him more than once.”
News in the 1990s didn’t travel as fast as it did today, by the end of the year, the New York Post’s Page Six, the Associated Press and the New York Daily News was covering the case.
But Musto spoke of the importance of viewing the alleged crime in the context of when it occurred.
“If this crime happened in the '60s, Dorian would've had even less of a chance of getting any sympathy from the cops if she killed Worley in self-defense. In the '60s, gay was a mental illness. It was illegal to even hold hands down the street with someone of the same gender,” he said. “Stonewall in 1969 was raided for the umpteenth time, which caused the riot and the protest and founded the movement. But before that, no, you didn't get a lot of respect from the cops. The cops were constantly going after you and beating you up and harassing you.
“She was out of the closet in every way except for Robert Worley,” Musto added.
Worley's body was buried on Hart Island off the coast of the Bronx in November 1993 in an area called “Potters Field.” No family member claimed him. Corey’s ashes were spread off City Island. No funeral was held.
The case of who killed Worley, technically, remains unsolved.
“The speculation would be that Dorian Corey got away with murder,” Geffen said.
“Technically, she was not convicted of any crime basically because she's dead," Roe said. "Obviously you can't lock up somebody that's dead,” Roe added.
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