Medical school enrollment was swelling to capacity in the United States and other countries in the early 1800’s. Anatomy classes required fresh cadavers for lectures and demonstrations. The only legally available bodies however were those of executed criminals. The number of executions wasn’t adequate to meet the needs of the medical schools so the practice of grave robbing began running rampant.
“These underworld characters can open a grave, remove a body and restore the gravesite between patrols of the night watchman,” Hugh Douglas wrote in that era. “Relatives of the subject may mourn by the grave the following day, unknowing that their love one was no longer therein but on a anatomy slab in a medical school.”
“There will be many dead bodies in the classes at various medical schools which just began for the winter term. The anatomical lecturers, articulators and those who procure bodies from the grave are beneficiaries of the practice,” an ad in Wollum’s British Gazette stated.
“The violation of the sanctity of the grave is said to be needed for the instruction of the medical students. Let each one who is about to bury a mother, husband, child or friend say …’shall I devote this dear one to such a purpose? If not, the only safe coffin is a Bridgman’s Patent wrought-iron one.
The Fisk Burial Case, marketed in the eastern United States in the 1850’s, was designed to discourage grave-robbers. The manufacturer claimed they offered optimum protection for “preserving in the most secure and appropriated manner, the remains of the dead from sudden decay, foul water, vermin and from the ravages of the dissecting knife.” Quite a pitch!
Certainly people in Ohio had similar concerns because their state had more medical schools and students than most any other state.”
The corpse of John Scott Harrison, the son of U.S. president William Henry Harrison, and father of U.S president Benjamin Harrison, was dug up and stolen from the Congress Green Cemetery in North Bend, Ohio. Family members later accidentally discovered his body at the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. Instead of returning it to its former resting place they had it reinterred in President William Henry Harrison’s tomb, near his parents, in what is now William Henry Harrison State Park, in North Bend.
There were other devices and inventions that were designed to prevent or deter grave robbers. Philip K. Cover of Columbus, Ohio developed and secured a patent on a device called “a coffin torpedo.” It was buried in the ground and, if disturbed, fire several lead balls into the thief attempting to rob the grave. Former Probate Jude Thomas N. Howell of Circleville, Ohio, invented and received a patent for his “exploding torpedo shells.” It was designed to be planted underground but above the coffin. If anyone attempted to dig up the coffin, the shell would explode, injuring or killing the thieves. It proved to be a very good deterrent during that era of wholesale body snatching.
In the late 1800’s several states including Ohio, enacted legislation that allowed individuals to donate their corpse to science. Medical school students or representatives often called on these criminals awaiting the hangman’s noose with a plea to help in the only way they could… by giving permission to have their corpse after life passes.
Harsher penalties for grave robbing and the increased danger because of deterrent devices, led to the decline in the practice of grave robbing. By the 1890’s very few cases of grave robbing were reported in Ohio and in other states.
One can still occasionally read about an isolated case of grave robbery. The theft of the body of John Scott Harrison brought outrage from citizens who “had enough of the illegal process of grave robbing.” When family members went to the graveyard for burial they learned that the grave of Devin Harrison’s recently buried nephew had been robbed and the body taken.
John, the son of the recently deceased John Scott Harrison went to the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati with a cousin and constable where they might learn someone about the disappearance. They found much more than they expected. With the help of a janitor they found a body wth shroud. After it was removed it wasn’t Devin Harrison. Surprisingly it wasn’t Devin Harrison. It was John Scott Harrison who had been laid to rest less than 24 hours before. The body snatchers had stolen the body, repaired the gravesite and delivered the body to the medical school in less than 24 hours.
The thieves were arrested and Devin Harrison’s body was found at a medical school In Michigan where it had been sent hopefully to keep it from being identified.
Charlie Chaplin, famed silent movie comedian was one of those. His corpse was stolen for purposes of ransom, on March 2, 1978. It was recovered May 17, 1978. Famed cave explorer Floyd Collins headlined newspapers across the country in 1925 when he was trapped in Sand Cave, near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, for nearly two weeks before being found dead. Later his body was exhibited in his coffin in nearby Crystal Cave where it was stolen on the night of March 18, 1929. It was found later in a burlap sack minus a leg. It was never found. There is an excellent book about Floyd Collins including excellent pictures.
As we think back on the 1800’s, the age of body snatching, it is impossible to tell how many of those graves in Ohio and other states are actually lying empty. copyright 2018 Jadon Gibson
*Jadon Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, Tn. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read periodically at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single posting!