A True Tale of Grave-Robbing Horror, Part II

John Harrison, still in shock, recovered his wits as best he could and sent for Cincinnati undertakers Estep & Meyer to remove his father’s body and keep it in ice until reburial could be arranged. That very evening, John Scott Harrison would be temporarily reinterred at the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati in the family vault of the Harrisons’ close friend Jacob Strader. John and George Eaton set out for North Bend to tell their family the dreadful news.

Meanwhile, relatives visiting John Scott Harrison’s grave that morning found that it had been robbed. The stones at the foot of the coffin had been shifted onto their side, the foot of the coffin drilled into, the lid pried up and its glass cover broken, the body roped around the feet and pulled through the broken glass out of the grave. Usually resurrectionists broke into the top the coffin because it was easier to pull a body out by the arms, so it seems the ghouls must have been present at the burial or learned of the additional security measures taken by the Harrisons after they discovered Augustus Devin’s body had been snatched and therefore knew that their best chance was at the foot of the coffin where the smaller stones had been placed. Benjamin Harrison later recalled having been jostled by an unknown man at the burial site who got right up to the edge of the grave and looked inside with interest.

The watchman hired to guard the grave was considered a prime suspect, as were other characters in North Bend who were suspected of association with grave robbers. The guard claimed he had not in fact watched the grave, that he was spooked by being in a cemetery at night and had stayed home instead. He did see a buggy rumbling by in the middle of the night, though, perhaps the very buggy that was later seen behind the Ohio Medical College making its gruesome delivery.

George’s brother Arch Eaton and Carter Harrison went to Cincinnati to notify their brothers of this latest outrage. When they met at the train depot, Carter told John that their father’s body had been snatched and John told Carter that he already knew because he had found it. They sent a dispatch to their brother Benjamin in Indianapolis informing him of the theft and recovery of their father’s body. Benjamin immediately telegraphed famed detective agency head Allan Pinkerton telling him to come in person or send his best detectives to Cincinnati stat, then got on the first train reaching Cincinnati at 10:00 PM.

The Harrisons already in Cincinnati wasted no time either. Carter Harrison went to a justice of the peace and swore an affidavit against the janitor for receiving and concealing the unlawfully disinterred body of their father. Based on the affidavit, an arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Marshall and he was thrown in jail. Within a week he was out on $5,000 bond paid for by faculty of the medical college.

Although the family attempted to keep the horror secret, it was front page news by the next day. William Henry Harrison was the first president from Ohio and he was revered in the state. The desecration of his son’s grave was an affront to the beloved late president as well as to the body and memory of the popular two-term Congressman himself. The Ohio Medical College was pilloried in the media. There was rampant speculation that the college had actually commissioned the resurrection of John Scott Harrison because his death was so sudden and unexplained that he would make an excellent subject for anatomical exploration.

Members of the college faculty denied that charge strenuously and expressed dismay that they had been caught with the body of so illustrious a personage instead of the typical friendless paupers who didn’t have anybody looking out for them, but they had to have cadavers for dissection or else their graduates would be barraged with malpractice lawsuits for being terrible at basic anatomy and surgery. Dr. William Wallace Seely, professor and Secretary of the Medical College, told the Cincinnati Enquirer “had we known whose body it was that was suspended on that rope, we would have returned it to its grave and said nothing about it. It is true we must have bodies to work on, but it is not politic to run such risks, and we are not in favor of such desecration as that practiced in this instance.” As for the resurrectionist responsible, Seeley claimed they had no idea who it was because they were usually paid the day after the surreptitious nighttime deliveries, and the huge outcry after the discovery of John Scott Harrison’s body must have kept the body-snatcher from claiming his price.

On Saturday, June 1st, Dr. Roberts Bartholow, Dean of the Faculty of the Medical College of Ohio, who was intimately familiar with medical malpractice (having killed a poor “feeble-minded” Irish servant named Mary Rafferty in 1874 by inserting electrodes an inch and a half through her dura mater to study involuntary responses to electrical stimulation of the brain), published a statement in the Cincinnati Times. He opened with a masterwork of passive voice non-apology: “The Faculty of the Medical College of Ohio, in common with the rest of the community, heard with deep regret that the grave of the Hon. J. Scott Harrison had been violated, and that the body of this eminent and respected citizen had been found in the Medical College building.” Lukewarm sympathies expressed, he moved on to the justifications.

“A very great misconception seems to exist as regards the part taken by the Faculty and their assistants in procuring the material for dissection. The men engaged in the business of procuring subjects are, of course, unknown to the Faculty; they bring the material to the college, receive the stipulated price, and disappear as mysteriously as they came. In the case of the body of the Hon. J. Scott Harrison, it seems to have been brought by the resurrectionist on his own responsibility, and the poor janitor, whom it is sought to punish, had no part in, or knowledge of, the transaction.”

Bartholow did not say how the body came to be hoisted up the chute and then hidden there during the search of the college, nor why it had even occurred to them to hide it if they had no idea it wasn’t harvested from an unclaimed pauper’s grave, as allowed by law (with conditions). The janitor denied hoisting the body. None of the faculty copped to it. And they all insisted that they had no idea who the resurrectionist was.

Unimpressed by an explanation in which somehow nobody at the school had anything to do with the body found hanging in its cadaver elevator shaft or the slightest notion of who sold it to them, Benjamin Harrison came in like a wrecking ball. He printed the family’s anguished and furious rebuttal in an open letter to the citizens of Cincinnati that afternoon. He started with a heartfelt expression of thanks for their support and a wish that “God keep your precious dead from the barbarous touch of the grave robber, and you from that taste of hell which comes with the discovery of a father’s grave robbed and the body hanging by the neck like that of a dog, in the pit of a medical college.”

“We have been offered through the press the sympathy of the distinguished men who constitute the faculty of the Ohio Medical College. I have no satisfactory evidence that any of them knew whose body they had, but I have the most convincing evidence that they are covering the guilty scoundrel. While they consent to occupy this position, their abhorrence is a pretense, and their sympathy is cant and hypocrisy.

Who can doubt that if the officers of that institution had desired to secure the arrest of the guilty party, it would have been accomplished before night on Thursday? The bodies brought there are purchased and paid for by an officer of the college. The body snatcher stands before him and takes from his hand the fee for his hellish work. He is not an occasional visitant. He is often there, and it is silly to say that he is an unknown. After being tumbled like dung into that chute by the thief, some one inside promptly elevates the body by a windlass to the dissecting room. Who did it, gentlemen of the faculty?

Your janitor denied that it laid upon your tables, but the clean incision into the carotid artery, the thread with which it was ligatured, the injected veins, prove him a liar. Who made that incision and injected that body, gentlemen of the faculty? The surgeons who examined his work say that he was no bungler. While he lay upon your table, the long white beard, which the hands of infant grandchildren had often stroked in love, was rudely shorn from his face. Have you so little care of your college that an unseen and an unknown man may do all this? Who took him from that table and hung him by the neck in the pit?”

As for the claim that the resurrectionist was entirely unknown to the faculty, Harrison knew that was false because he had been told by a sympathetic faculty member that despite his direct denials in the press, Dr. Seely knew the name of the likely grave-robber and was willing to relay that information to Harrison. When Benjamin Harrison and the unnamed faculty member went to see Dr. Seely, however, he refused to speak the name, afraid that he’d get in trouble since he had no conclusive proof that this person had actually committed the crime. Seely had the balls to ask Harrison for legal advice on what his rights and responsibilities were in this situation, and Benjamin, while declining to act as a legal advisor, to his credit told the doctor that if he was criminally complicit in any aspect of the case, he should not say anything about it to him, but that if he wasn’t involved, he should tell all. Seely chose silence.

This only heightened Benjamin’s suspicions of the faculty. He was sure they had gotten to Seely before he had and convinced him to be quiet or risk criminal charges. On June 3rd, Benjamin and John Harrison and Bernard Devin, Augustus’ older brother, returned to the Medical College for an even more in-depth search. This time they brought the Pinkerton detective and a reporter as well as Col. Snelbaker and multiple police officers. Again, they found no trace of Augustus Devin’s body, but they did find the clothes John Scott Harrison had been buried in jammed between the rafters of the ceiling.

Benjamin Harrison told the press: “This is an emphatic denial of the janitor’s story that the body was not taken out of the shaft by attaches of the College. It was taken out and stripped and then, when we put upon the track, it was placed in the shaft to avoid detection.”

The discovery of the clothes confirmed Benjamin’s belief that the Medical College officers were in this up to their necks. He was convinced they had specifically ordered the robbing of his father’s grave and was resolved to see the guilty parties on the faculty charged with the crime instead of just their patsy janitor. While he got his lawyer on and took it to the grand jury, other Harrisons, Devins, the Pinkerton detective and Col. Snelbaker would continue the search for Augustus Devin and for the elusive resurrectionist who had dug up the body of John Scott Harrison.



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Comment by Audrey Burtrum-Stanley
2016-11-01 01:00:24


Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-01 07:45:28

Right?! I’m so glad I’m not alone in being riveted by the labyrinthine details of this case.

Comment by Ewa
2016-11-01 02:40:12

Ouch. But for some reason I was extra disgusted by the Mary Rafferty story.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-01 07:46:51

For good reason. What Bartholow did to her was brutal and inexcusable. And all he got for it was a little lecture for the AMA. As far as I’m concerned, it was straight-up murder.

Comment by Vera Narishkin
2016-11-01 06:30:51

Oh my!


Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-01 07:48:31

A highly apposite gif. :yes:

Comment by Karlsdottir
2016-11-01 07:32:28

GREAT stuff. Thank goodness we don’t have to wait for the stagecoach to arrive with the next thrilling installment.

Victorians were more intimately familiar with the dead than we are. The child’s coffin with windows (shudder)…I have a daguerreotype, a memorial photograph, of a great-great aunt who died in childhood. She’s posed to look alive, but it’s obvious she’s not right. Disturbing.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-01 07:57:10

Fair warning: the next installment is CRAZY.

It’s true, the Victorians were not at all squeamish about interacting with their dead. Nobody could say, as many can today, that they’d never seen a dead body, not even the youngest child. The other side of that coin is that they were extremely protective and reverent of loved ones who had died. The posthumous photography, eerie as it is to our eyes, is an expression of that.

Medical school students, on the other hand, made a point of treating cadavers with flippancy, to put it mildly. I think it was a means to detach the “materiel” from their personhood. Check out the amazing book Dissection by John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson to see the kind of pictures they took with their anatomical subjects.

Comment by A
2016-11-01 09:22:17

I don’t know if I have the strength of heart to go on to the next chapter.
This is crazy stuff!

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 15:10:14

Hmm… I can’t help but notice you haven’t commented since. I hope you made it!

Comment by Magical
2016-11-01 09:39:08

This is riveting reading – thanks!

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 15:11:00

I’m so glad you think so too. I was concerned that my fascination with the minute details of this case might not be universally shared.

Comment by Albertus Minimus
2016-11-01 10:22:41

Fascinating! I would think the grave-robbers had to fortify themselves with a stiff drink or two before undertaking their gruesome assignment…

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 15:12:22

Some undoubtedly did, but others loved their notoriety. One Rufus Cantrell boasted constantly about his exploits.

Comment by Audrey Burtrum-Stanley
2016-11-01 12:03:19

There are also a number of books that are collections of photographs of the dead. The most outstanding is called: ‘SLEEPING BEAUTIES.’ I have several of these photos –
where individuals are posed sitting upright with the family for a final ‘group picture’ – others showing a flower strewn, open coffin, etc… For some, it is a last chance to preserve a likeness to a beloved / deceased individual.

Today, in Latin America and in parts of Southeastern Asia, elaborate scenes are prepared for final photographs. One that circulated on the Internet was of a popular boxing star who died young. They had his corpse dressed in sporting apparel, boxing gloves, etc… and wearing sunglasses. It is – in their culture – all very serious and intended as a final, loving tribute.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 15:14:16

I’ve seen exerpts of the book Sleeping Beauties, although I don’t own it. Humans have a very long and storied tradition of being comfortable with their dead. If anything, the modern First World aversion to it is the aberration.

Comment by Cheryl
2016-11-01 13:55:27

A part three?!?! The suspense is killing me! I am thoroughly enjoying this story! 🙂

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 15:14:57

I wasn’t sure how many parts there’d be when I began, but when I started pushing 2000 words on Part II, I knew there’d have to be another. 😀

Comment by Herbie
2016-11-01 18:28:02

Argh! The suspense!
Thanks for the work you put into this.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 15:15:22

You’re very welcome. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. :thanks:

Comment by Magical
2016-11-05 15:54:17

Oh goodness no you aren’t the only one!

It’s the minute details that helps make it so riveting to read! Even the gory details, which did set off my over-active imagination but in a directed way which is good, were not skimmed over even though I do occasionally have to as it’s often done in a sensationalist way and you didn’t do that here which is what also makes it a good read.

I seriously enjoyed every part of this little series and hope that one day you will find something else that gets you fascinated in the same way, and judging by the many comments -more than usual from what I’ve seen- many people think the same 🙂

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 19:02:26

I actually wrote a very, very abridged version of this story for an online magazine last year, but I was so bummed at all I had to leave out. I told myself one day I would write the obsessively detailed version on my blog, and now finally I have. It’s almost five times longer! The wonderful comments have definitely inspired me to try an in-depth serial like this again. :yes:

Comment by Annie Delyth
2016-11-05 20:59:06


Comment by Audrey Burtrum-Stanley
2016-11-05 21:12:59

It might be wise to check the County Court Records rather than historians to secure the info on how this tale ends LEGALLY! I am untutored if the medical schools mentioned still exist but it would be curious to know if they have retained any papers, documents, letters, etc… relating to this era.

The story had been lost in time — and the idea it envolved such a prominent family is astounding!

As for the story, it has elements of SWEENY TODD and HAMILTON too! (Perhaps other STORIES OF THE CRYPT too!) I suggest this tale go from a blog to a book form and (before anyone can snatch your idea) directly to a stage production and then a movie. Squeeze this for all its worth — and Honey, this is worth alot! I bet your readership agrees – this is HOT STUFF (ABOUT COLD STIFFS!)

Comment by Magical
2016-11-05 21:22:42

I can imagine you were bummed out if you had to leave any part of all of this out, or condense it so it fits in a magazine article. I’m so very glad you did keep your promise to yourself! Excellent! I shall patiently await your next one, while happily reading all your other posts as I find them all interesting.

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