Category Archives: Presidents in the news

Erich Muenter, Pro-German “Peace Crank,” Dynamites the U.S. Senate

Thomas and Lois Marshall

Thomas R. Marshall is not a household name anymore, even in his native Indiana.  But a hundred years ago, from 1913 to 1921, this former Hoosier governor served as Vice President of the United States. If Woodrow Wilson had ever died in office, Marshall would have become Indiana’s second native son to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

As fate had it, though, the Vice President himself had to contend with threats from “cranks” and would-be assassins.  Most were probably hoaxes.  But the man who actually dynamited Marshall’s office in 1915 turned out to be a strange “crank” indeed.

Anti-government and anti-capitalist terrorism in the U.S. has been around for generations — and its earliest practitioners weren’t Muslim. During the early 1900s, numerous bomb plots originating with the American labor movement targeted both high government officials and Wall Street.  Union men carried out a deadly plot on the Los Angeles Times building in 1910.  A Polish-American anarchist from the Midwest assassinated William McKinley in 1901. Anarchists also targeted industrialists, the occasional high churchman, and came close to blowing up St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 1915.  (This week, in fact, marks the 100th anniversary of the anarchist “soup plot” that would have been Chicago’s worst mass murder.)

In July 1915, just a few days after an explosion rocked the U.S. Senate outside his private office there, the V.P. told the press that he had been getting death-threats in the mail for at least six weeks. Marshall considered himself “more or less a fatalist” and ignored these threats from “cranks.”  He threw the letters in the trash and never even informed the Secret Service.


Indianapolis Star, July 5, 1915

(Indianapolis Star, July 5, 1915.)


Because those letters went straight to the waste bin, it’s hard to say if there was any connection to the man who dynamited the Senate just outside his private office door a few minutes before midnight on July 2, 1915.

If John Schrank and John Hinckley’s motivation behind their attempts to shoot Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan seemed far-fetched — Schrank was told to do it by the ghost of William McKinley in a dream, and Hinckley wanted to impress actress Jodi Foster — the story behind Erich Muenter’s attack on the U.S. Capitol is even weirder.

At a time when nativists wanted to shut off immigration to the poor, Muenter — an immigrant — had taught at Harvard and Cornell.  He was also a wife-murderer, an Ivy League scholar, and lived an incredible double-life.  Maybe the expert on German literature knew a bizarre tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, told when a printer accidentally spliced together an artist’s autobiography and the views of an opinionated tomcat.


Erich Münter 3

(The bomber Muenter, left, first came to notoriety in 1906, when he poisoned his wife Leona just days after she gave birth to their daughter.)


Erich Muenter was born in Germany and immigrated to Chicago with his parents at age eighteen.  He studied languages at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1899, then taught at the University of Kansas for a year before moving to Harvard in 1904, where he was a star doctoral student.  In Chicago in 1901, he had married Leone Krembs, daughter of a rich Milwaukee druggist. Friends in Kansas considered Muenter brilliant and thought that he knew virtually “every living language.”  The Muenters were hugely popular with students and faculty both at Kansas and Harvard.

The couple, it is thought, were “mystics” and Christian Scientists, rejecting medication in favor of faith healing.  When Leone died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in April 1906, a few days after giving birth to a daughter, Muenter — who had been slowly poisoning her with arsenic — thought that Christian Science gave him the perfect cover-up, but hastily tried to ship the body to Leona’s parents in Chicago for burial.  A Massachusetts doctor, however, performed a secret autopsy and uncovered traces of poison in her stomach.

Now dubbed the “Harvard wife murder,” Muenter fled from the law. In spring 1906, he became a national news sensation, with some papers touting spectacular, tabloid-like theories about why he had killed his wife.  One theory had it that Muenter, like Goethe’s Faust, was a “slave to science” and had taken the hunt for knowledge too far.


The Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1906

The Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1906 (2)

(The Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1906.)


Guilty or not, the fugitive eventually slipped over the border to Mexico, where he hid out for a few years, working as a bookkeeper at a mining operation outside Mexico City.

Some time before 1912, under the alias “Frank Holt,” he came back to the U.S. and re-invented himself — as another version of Erich Muenter.  Holt, incredibly, even enrolled at Texas Tech as an undergrad in the German department.  The former Harvard instructor naturally shone as a star student in College Station. And Muenter/Holt must have had a thing for women named Leona, since he married a fellow language student, Leona Sensabaugh, daughter of a prominent Methodist minister in Dallas.  The Holts had three children together.  Leona Holt went on to teach Latin American literature at Southern Methodist University and eventually became its dean of women.

After teaching at SMU himself, Frank Holt returned to the Ivy League, landing positions at Vanderbilt and Cornell.  So it was that less than a decade after he killed his first wife, he returned to academia… by another route and as another man.


The Fort Wayne News, July 8, 1915

(The Fort Wayne News, July 8, 1915.)


Muenter/Holt had also become a German nationalist.  Though President Wilson was trying hard to keep America out of the bloodbath of World War I, many Americans thought the U.S. should enter on the side of Britain.  Others favored Germany.  Socialists almost universally opposed any American involvement at all, arguing that the war only played into the interests of Wall Street. Anarchists agreed.

Some pro-British Americans were already turning a profit from the war by shipping munitions to the Allies, often secretly.  A load of illegal explosives allegedly sent aboard the passenger liner Lusitania led a German U-Boat to torpedo it just two months before Erich Muenter dynamited the Senate.  Germany and its U.S. sympathizers considered this version of “neutrality” a sham.   Some went to extremes to protest it.

In 1915, “Frank Holt,” Cornell University professor, read a book by a former Harvard colleague of his — from back when Holt was Erich Muenter.  The book was The War and America by Hugo Münsterberg, a well-known pioneer in forensic psychology and a German sympathizer. (In 1918, Münsterberg’s book showed up on a list of pro-German works banned from Indiana libraries.)  Convinced by Münsterberg’s argument and angered by American financiers’ profiting off the war, Frank Holt offered his services to the American branch of the German intelligence unit Abteilung IIIB. Founded in 1889, this was a long-standing military spy unit, but during World War I it worked to sabotage arms-carrying vessels departing from U.S. ports.  The unit also allegedly supported Erich Muenter’s attack on the Capitol Building — then on J.P. Morgan, Jr., Wall Street mogul.


Aftermath of bombing of Senate Reception Room, July 1915


On the night of July 2, 1915, Muenter broke into the Capitol with three sticks of concealed dynamite.  The Senate was actually out of session and few people were in the building other than a nightwatchman.  Finding the door to the Senate chamber locked, Muenter set the package under a telephone switchboard next to Vice President Marshall’s office.  Reports differ, but the attacker then either set the timer for just before midnight “to minimize casualties” or the timer went off eight hours early.  He then boarded a train from Union Station bound for New York City.

The blast that ensued at 11:23 PM rocked the Capitol. The watchman and other witnesses thought the great dome was collapsing.  In reality, damage spread little farther than the Senate Reception Room and Thomas Marshall’s office.  No one was injured.

Using a pseudonym, Muenter mailed a letter to The Washington Evening Star, expressing anger at American financiers.  The dynamiter argued that he didn’t want to kill anybody, even posing as a friend to America who wanted to save lives and “make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war.  This explosion is an exclamation point in my appeal for peace.”  Some papers later called him a “Christian” and a “peace crank.”  The anti-war American Socialist press even appears to have sympathized with Holt.


The Fool-Killer, Moravian Falls, North Carolina, July 1915 (2)

(Socialists — like James Larkin Pearson, editor of North Carolina’s satirical The Fool-Killer, were almost always against the war.  Indiana Socialist and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs went to prison for speaking out against it.)


Indiana’s Thomas Marshall confessed that “he naturally was startled when he heard of the explosion at the Capitol,” but didn’t think there was any “special significance” in the fact that the dynamite had been placed “within a few feet of his desk.”  Muenter, in fact, was probably bluffing when he told the police that he’d sought to blow up the Vice President.  Marshall was headed to St. Louis and Hot Springs, Arkansas, for Fourth of July festivities.


The Topeka Daily Capital, July 5, 1915

(The Topeka Daily Capital, July 5, 1915.)


Marshall in his Senate office

(Marshall, former Hoosier governor, at his office in the Senate.  The blast occurred a few feet from where this photo was taken.)


J.P. Morgan, Jr., son of the great financier John Pierpont Morgan, was less fortunate than Marshall.  If Americans in 2016 are outraged by the actions of “banksters” and the “1%,” so too was Erich Muenter/Frank Holt a century ago — alongside many Americans less prone to engage in political assassination.

The morning after the Senate bombing, Muenter broke into Morgan’s estate on Long Island.  An epitome of Wall Street, “Jack” Morgan was already reeling in millions of dollars from war loans to the Allies. He also arranged for ammunition from American manufacturers to be shipped on vessels to Britain.  Regardless of what side was right or wrong in that war (probably neither was), Morgan’s profiteering jeopardized “neutral” shipping and American lives on the high seas.

Angry at the millionaire, the strange language instructor — who had committed murder once before — took a gun and broke into Morgan’s mansion, where the Wall Street tycoon was having breakfast with the British ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring Rice. Muenter shot Morgan twice before servants subdued him with a lump of coal.  Press headlines announced that the “war-crazed crank” had also planned to take Morgan’s wife and children hostage until he and other tycoons agreed to stop financing the Allies.

The banker survived. Muenter was hauled off for interrogation by the NYPD’s Bomb Squad, which normally tried to protect New Yorkers from attacks by anarchists.


Erich Münter

(Muenter in police custody.)


The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, July 4, 1915

(The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, July 4, 1915.)


Early reports on the events in Washington and New York came just in time for the Fourth of July.  Newspapers were full of hasty rumors. The Indianapolis Star told its readers that the would-be assassin, now identified as Frank Holt from Ithaca, was a “crack-brained teacher, believing himself the agent of God to stop the flow of munitions to Europe” — and that he had also targeted President Wilson, which was not true.  Much of the news flashed through the press came from a confession Holt gave to a New York bomb detective.  That confession made him seem like a pacifist, bent not on extinguishing but saving human lives.


Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915 (4)

(Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915.)


Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915 (5)

(Indianapolis Star, July 4, 1915.)


By July 6, investigators had begun to believe that Frank Holt was identical with the long-lost “Harvard Wife Murderer,” Erich Muenter, missing for nine years. As Muenter’s incredibly successful mask fell off, he tried to kill himself in jail, slashing his wrists with a lead pencil. The Cornell professor successfully committed suicide on July 6 at a jail in Mineola on Long Island by jumping to a concrete floor, though reports about his suicide varied, some saying that he cracked his skull and “dashed his brains out,” others claiming that he ate a percussion cap, since a loud explosion was heard in his cell.

“Frank Holt” wrote a death note to his wife back in Texas, which read: “Pray that the slaughter will stop,” a reference to the European war.  Newspapers reported that the dead man was slated to become head of Southern Methodist University’s French department that fall.  A large cache of explosives thought to belong to him had just been found on West 38th Street in New York.


Evansville Press, July 6, 1915

(Evansville Press, July 6, 1915.)


News readers must have been driven mad by the twists and turns of the thrilling tale, especially as the anti-war “agent of God” metamorphosed into a bizarre fugitive and “uxoricide” (wife-murderer), then an Ivy League professor, then… a ship bomber.

In his suicide note, Muenter told his wife that while en route from the U.S. Capitol to Long Island, he stopped in New York and put several half-pound sticks of dynamite on an oceangoing vessel bound for Europe. Holt didn’t say which vessel, but it was loaded with sailors and ammunition.  Wireless signals frantically fired the information out to sea, warning captains and crew to search their cargo holds for a bomb.  On July 9, 1915, two days after Muenter’s suicide and on the very day he predicted there would an explosion, the SS Minnehaha caught fire after a blast.  (The Minnehaha had been built by the same Belfast company that constructed the Titanic and was once sailed on by Mark Twain.)  The blast in the ship’s hold caused a dangerous fire but failed to ignite the high explosives on board.  The vessel scurried into Halifax harbor.  Ironically, two years later, in September 1917, the Minnehaha was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the southwest coast of Ireland, just a few miles from where the Lusitania went down with 1,200 innocent lives.


SS Minnehaha

(The SS Minnehaha carried weapons from the U.S. to Britain.  Bombs were also reported on several other steamers.)


Indianapolis News, July 7, 1915

(Indianapolis News, July 7, 1915.)


Handwriting experts connected some more dots, giving further evidence that Frank Holt and Erich Muenter were one and the same.

Back in Texas, Leona Holt was in shock.  Her family refused to believe that Frank was the “Harvard wife murderer” — ironically, Muenter’s family and Chicago in-laws had had the same reaction after his first wife’s death in 1906. Leona blamed her husband’s severe headaches, overwork, and the effects of skeletal tuberculosis.  She was also quick to urge that he “had no Socialist tendencies.”  His father-in-law, Dr. O.F. Sensabaugh, insisted that Frank was from Wisconsin and, though he may have been a German sympathizer, he could never have been the Harvard poisoner. Touchingly, Sensabaugh added that even “If Holt really was a man who had dropped to life’s bottom — and I can’t believe it — I take my hat off to him for the way he came back.  No man could have been a more lovable husband and father and a better friend than he was while I knew him.”  Friends and family were convinced this was all an incredible case of mistaken identity.

The U.S. Army, however, had to station a guard over Muenter’s gravesite at Dallas’ Grove Hill Cemetery to prevent desecration of the body.  The name on the tombstone still reads “Frank Holt.”

The press soon printed allegations that the fugitive Muenter, possibly a real psychopath after all, had sent a letter from New Orleans in 1906 threatening to “annihilate” Chicago and Cambridge for accusing him of poisoning his first wife — and that the real reason he fled Massachusetts was to escape the severe punishment that state inflicted on Christian Scientists whenever a death occurred after refusing medical treatment.


Indianapolis Star, July 8, 1915

(Indianapolis Star, July 8, 1915.  Muenter’s daughter Leona, born just days before her mother’s murder in 1906, lived in Chicago and was active in Democratic Party politics there into the days of Mayor Richard Daley.  She died as recently as 1996.)


The truth behind the tragic 1906 murder in New England — whose long shadow eventually spread over a Texas family, a powerful Wall Street tycoon, a U.S. vice-president, and others — may never be fully known.  But Erich Muenter’s subterfuge led to one of the oddest and most twisted news stories ever covered by the press.

Whether Germany’s sympathizers were right or not, the actions of its saboteurs and spies on American soil — which led to some fascinating rumors about the Kaiser’s cross-dressers in New York — did nothing to help “the Fatherland.”  By 1917, when America finally declared war on Germany, such actions and the press’ role in portraying “Hun barbarity” fueled the equally frightening anti-German hysteria that gripped the country.


Chronicling America has put together a list of related news articles on Erich Muenter’s “Reign of Terror.”

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

When Theodore Roosevelt Was Hospitalized at St. Vincent’s

Indianapolis Journal, September 23, 1902
Indianapolis Journal, September 23, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

This week marks the anniversary of two historic events, neither of them well-known.  The scene?  St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis.

The story actually begins on September 3, 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting Pittsfield in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.  While traveling through town in a horse-drawn carriage, the president and his entourage crossed a set of trolley car tracks.  To their horror, a speeding electric interurban car rushing to beat the president’s arrival downtown didn’t come to a stop and knocked the carriage about forty feet.

Roosevelt was jettisoned onto the pavement, landing on his face. The Governor of Massachusetts, Winthrop Crane, escaped with only a few bruises.  But a Secret Service agent, William Craig, died a horrible death, “ground under the heavy machinery of the car into an unrecognizable mass.”  (Craig, a Scottish immigrant and former British soldier, was the first U.S. Secret Service agent ever killed in the line of duty.)  The trolley car’s motorman, Euclid Madden, spent six months in jail for his recklessness that almost cost the Commander in Chief his life.


Roosevelt Car, Pittsfield, Mass., 1902
The stricken presidential carriage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 1902. Courtesy Harvard University Library.

While the press toned down the extent of Roosevelt’s injuries, the president developed a worrisome abscess on his leg, an infection that caused him no small amount of pain.  He even spent a short time in a wheelchair.

The burly and athletic Roosevelt, however, continued with his itinerary, stumping for Republican candidates during a national speaking tour slated to take him as far west as Nebraska.  He did, in fact, make it out to the Midwest, stopping in Detroit, Logansport, Kokomo, Tipton and Noblesville.  Twenty days after his narrow scrape with death in New England, however, the leg injury he sustained required an emergency surgery — in Indianapolis.


Roosevelt in Tipton, 1902
Roosevelt speaks to a crowd in Tipton, Indiana, September 1902.

On September 23, after giving a speech “in intense pain” at the Columbia Club on Monument Circle, Teddy Roosevelt, who was limping noticeably and wincing with pain at almost every step, had to have his infected leg lanced and drained at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

At that time, St. Vincent’s was still located downtown at the corner of South and Delaware Streets, just a short distance from the club. Surgeon Dr. John H. Oliver performed the operation, which kept Roosevelt clear of the threat of blood poisoning.  (Blood poisoning was serious business in those days and usually ended in death.  Tragically, its specter returned to presidential history in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year-old son, Cal, Jr., developed a blister on his toe while playing tennis on the White House lawn.  Young Coolidge died of the resulting infection within a week.)

image

Doctors examined Roosevelt’s leg wound by natural light coming through a south window of the hospital.  “He took only a local anesthetic,” the Journal reported, “which was applied to the leg.  He seemed to feel that an unnecessary amount of fuss was being made over him. . .”  Yet as the surgery proceeded, the president’s “arms were thrown behind his head with his hands clasped.  Occasionally the pain became so severe that his elbows bent close to the sides of his head as if to ease the pain.  His eyes were closed and his teeth pressed close together.”

Accompanying Roosevelt to St. Vincent’s that day was U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root.  (In spite of his bellicose job title, Root went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for promoting goodwill between the U.S. and Latin America.)  Root was one of the few government officials allowed inside the building.  An anxious crowd of several hundred Hoosiers gathered outside “and never removed their gaze from the hospital.”  Even Hoosier senators Charles Fairbanks and Albert Beveridge and Governor Winfield Durbin “were challenged by the guard and not permitted to enter.”  Militiamen and Secret Service agents were stationed outside St. Vincent’s.  All was silent, only the clip-clop of the occasional soldier’s horse passing on the street.


Indianapolis Journal, September 24, 1902
Indianapolis Journal, September 24, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, September 24, 1902 (2)
Indianapolis News, September 24, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Roosevelt’s Midwest tour was called off after the Indianapolis surgery, and his own doctors ordered him sent back to Washington.  Guarded by the Secret Service (his successor, William McKinley, had been assassinated by an anarchist almost exactly a year earlier), Pullman porters carried Roosevelt on a stretcher about one block to the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks on South Street.  As the stretcher left St. Vincent’s, lit only by new electric street lamps, “there was a death-like stillness as people craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the president. . . He lay flat on his back and the covers were pulled up under his chin. . . Many men in the crowd removed their hats, believing that the president’s condition was very serious.”

Men might have taken their hats off out of respect for the president.  But the women who cared for Roosevelt at St. Vincent’s that day were justly famous not only for their dedication to the sick and needy but for their very hats.


Daughters of Charity 5


During Roosevelt’s hospitalization in Indy, he was cared for by Roman Catholic nuns.  The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, pioneers of American nursing and primarily devoted to the field of medicine, had taken charge of Indianapolis’ second city hospital back in 1881.  While recuperating, Teddy Roosevelt must have noticed the sisters’ distinctive and fascinating headgear — known as the cornette — as he lay in bed after the agonizing surgery.

Sister Mary Joseph attended to him alongside Dr. Oliver in the operating ward.  Assigned to his private room was Sister Regina, whom Roosevelt remembered from his Rough Rider days, when she was stationed at the U.S. Army’s Camp Wickoff at Montauk Point on Long Island, New York, at the end of the Spanish-American War.

We should doff our hats to them, too.

This week’s second unheralded anniversary?  Cornettes, which earned this order of dedicated women the epithet “Butterfly Nuns” or “Flying Nuns,” were abandoned on September 20, 1964. Designed to reflect 17th-century French peasants’ outfits, the nuns’ habits, in spite of the fact that they wore them out onto the carnage of Gettysburg Battlefield in 1863, were considered “impractical for modern use.”  A photo from the Greencastle Daily Banner announces the change in 1964.

The new garb marked a major change  in the visual spectacle of medical care in many major American cities, including Indianapolis. Amazingly, the nuns’ new outfit was planned by world-renowned French designer Christian Dior before he died in 1957.  The rumor in France at the time of Dior’s death — allegedly after he choked on a fish bone — was that he was “called back by God to re-outfit the angels.”

The Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives maintains a small exhibit about Roosevelt’s short time under the care of “God’s geese” in Indiana.


Daughters of Charity 2
Sister Justina Morgan, second from left, revolutionized health care in Evansville in the 1950s. Her predecessors took care of President Roosevelt in Indianapolis in late September 1902. Courtesy Evansville Courier Press.

Daughters of Charity 3
Hospital radium ward, New Orleans, 1963.

Daughters of Charity 1918
(Three wounded Canadian soldiers with a girl and a nurse from the Daughters of Charity, Paris, France, World War I. Founder Saint Vincent de Paul once told the sisters, “Men go to war to kill one another, and you, sisters, you go to repair the harm they have done. . . Men kill the body and very often the soul, and you go to restore life, or at least by your care to assist in preserving it.”)

Daughters of Charity 4
Reading with children, 1950s.

Daughters of Charity 1
The “Butterfly Nuns” drink 7-UP, circa 1960.

Kokomo Morning Times, September 1, 1964
The old “seagull’s wings” were swept away by contemporary design. Kokomo Morning Times, Kokomo, Indiana, September 1, 1964.

Ghoul Busters: Indianapolis Guards its Dead (or Does It?)

From the late 1800’s into the early years of the 20th century, Indiana’s capital city had a body problem.  How to protect people who were already dead?

Around 1900, even supernatural visitors to the city’s cemeteries would not have been surprised to find “the quick” prowling among the dead.  For decades, grave robbers and vandals regularly stalked Indianapolis’ burial grounds – until the city took bold steps to stop them.

An early description of how big the “body-snatcher” problem was comes from an article in the Indianapolis Journal, published just before Halloween on October 27, 1899. The story concerns a shocking discovery at the Greenlawn Cemetery.

You’d be hard pressed to find any trace of Greenlawn today, but for most of the nineteenth century, this was one of the major city cemeteries.  Founded in 1821, while Indianapolis was first being laid out, Greenlawn was the original city burying grounds. Situated along the White River just north of what became Kentucky Ave., the cemetery is thought to have been the oldest in Indianapolis.  (Tiny family cemeteries may have existed in the area before then, but no trace of them has been found.) Today, the once hallowed 25-acre spot is occupied by the Diamond Chain Company, just west of Lucas Oil Stadium and just north of where I-70 crosses the river.  (The company once manufactured about 60% of the bicycle chains in America.)


Greenlawn Cemetery map


Diamond Chain Company


Over 1100 Hoosier pioneers were interred at Greenlawn.  Vermont-born Indiana governor James Whitcomb (1795-1852) lay there until his daughter ordered his body moved to massive, prestigious Crown Hill Cemetery in 1898.  Among those who also found their first, but not final, resting place by the White River were 1200 Union soldiers and over 1600 Confederate POW’s who died of illnesses and battle wounds at the U.S. Army’s Camp Morton or in city hospitals nearby.

Greenlawn, however, shared the fate of all those who came to call it home in the nineteenth century.  The cemetery, too, died. Indianapolis’ downtown burying grounds faced all the normal cemetery problems, such as vandalism of tombstones by youth and overcrowding, especially after the numerous Civil War interments.  Spring and winter floods on the White River were also a major factor behind its closure to new burials in 1890.

But another cause also drove the city to declare Greenlawn itself “defunct”, and was far more disturbing in nature.  As Indianapolis newspapers reminded their readers in 1899, the problem had been around for decades.

While performing some of the earliest removals out to Crown Hill, families and city officials unearthed the grisly fact that “in reality, few if any bodies” buried at Greenlawn prior to the 1890’s were still in their graves.

Robbing a grave for jewels and other valuables is a tale as old as time.  Preventative measures against the desecration of graves and theft of items meant to stay with the dead had actually led to the creation of some of the greatest mortuary art, including Egypt’s pyramids. Even daring archaeologists were technically glorified grave robbers.  The plot of William Faulkner’s great novel Intruder in the Dust (1948) centers around a spinster and a teenager trying to clandestinely remove a body from a fictional cemetery in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to prove a man innocent.

Outright theft of bodies themselves, however, was something that really only emerged after the 1500’s, when the more accurate study of human anatomy initiated the emergence of modern medical science.  In the early days of modern medicine, however, the primary provider of bodies for anatomical study was the public hangman, not the grave robber. Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp shows doctors-in-training gathered around the body of a Dutch thief, Aris Kindt, who had been strung up on a rope just a few hours before he went to the dissecting table.

Before many centuries were out, though, doctors began to find that live thieves were also useful. In the 1800’s, medical faculties often had trouble finding enough bodies for their students to dissect in classrooms.  Families were reluctant to donate their loved ones to science.  Tragically, the bodies that medical instructors typically got hold of came from the most victimized and outcast members of society.  When available, corpses for the dissecting room were found at poorhouses, jails, and mental asylums, for the simple reason that those who died there had often been abandoned by their families.

While many vocal opponents tried to stop the dissection of the poor, if none came to claim a body as a “friend,” medical faculties were legally allowed to use such corpses for the education of future doctors.  Most states passed so-called “Anatomy Acts,” modeled on Britain’s of 1832.

It should come as no surprise that the largest number of bodies dissected by medical students from the 1800’s into the 1930’s were those of African Americans.  A high number of those paid or encouraged to do the grave-robbing were also black. African Americans often served as medical assistants to white students, as many turn-of-the-century photographs of dissections show, but rarely became doctors then.

Photography, whose own invention was fueled by a desire to accurately explore and record the human form — in a way, to cheat death — also came into the dissection room, as John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson show in Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine, 1880-1930.


2

(“A Student’s Dream”, R.A. Robinson photographer, 1906.)


Medical students and an African American assistant, University of North Carolina Medical Department, Raleigh, circa 1890. “The seated man is the janitor; the overturned bucket he’s sitting on was usually kept at the foot of the dissection table, and was used to collect waste.”

The clandestine pilfering of Indianapolis’ unguarded cemeteries stemmed from a constant need for fresh “instructional material” at central Indiana medical schools, including Indiana Medical College, the Physiomedrical College of Indiana, and Greencastle’s Asbury College (now DePauw).  Indiana University in Bloomington did not offer courses in anatomy or physiology until September 1903.

The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons, at 212 North Senate Avenue, was built in 1902 and immediately showed up in lurid news stories about illegal body snatching.  (The college was an early forerunner of IU Medical School.)  Readers of stories in the Indianapolis Journal could easily have formed an image of the college’s medical faculty scouring obituary notices and hiring thieves to steal fresh bodies as soon as the last family member left the cemetery after a funeral.  One such story was reported on September 22, 1902.  Mrs. Rosa Neidlinger, recently buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery between Traders Point and New Augusta, was recovered at Central College a few days later.  Investigators returned her to her husband, a miller, for a second burial.


Indianapolis Journal, June 28 1884
(The “self-locking” Boyd Grave Vault “keeps out Vermin as well as Burglars.” Indianapolis Journal, June 28, 1884. The Flanner in this ad is Frank W. Flanner, whose mortuary firm Flanner & Buchanan went on to become early promoters of cremation.)

Central College of Physicians and Surgeons - N Senate Ave Indianapolis
The Central College of Physicians and Surgeons was built in 1902 and sat at 212 North Senate Avenue in Indianapolis. It became affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1906.

The preferred word in newspapers for grave robbers was “ghouls” (a word that comes from Middle Eastern folklore.)  At least one story shows that ghouls and their employers were sometimes caught red-handed.

On February 26, 1890, the Journal reported that three prominent Louisville physicians had been apprehended and indicted for body-thievery at a New Albany, Indiana cemetery. Four “ghouls”, all African American, employed by the Kentucky doctors were involved.  One ghoul, George Brown, was shot through the heart by policemen in the cemetery.

The Journal article from October 1899 describes the bizarre dimensions of the problem at Greenlawn in Indianapolis. Families who ordered exhumations of their relatives at Greenlawn were discovering an astonishingly high rate of empty coffins — or to put it more accurately, coffins with only empty clothes left in them.  No bones, no hair.  Only shrouds and clothing.  Were robbers stripping the bodies at graveside?

A man presumably on trial in Marion County for grave-robbing explained this odd fact to the writer for the Journal, who reported:

At first it was customary to open a grave and take the body out, clothes and all, and either strip it naked on the ground or double it up in a sack and remove the clothes after taking it to a safe place.

This practice was discontinued when one day the city was thrown into an uproar over the finding of a girl’s slipper in the snow beside her newly made grave.  She had been buried one afternoon in winter when snow was falling and her relatives came back the following day to look at the grave.  Between visits the grave robbers got in their work, and, following the usual custom, did not remove the clothing from the body, but doubled it up and put it in a sack.  In doing so one of the dainty slippers fell from one of the feet, and, being white, was not noticed in the snow.  During the following morning the snow melted and the relatives, returning to the grave, saw the slipper, and, recognizing it, raised a hue and cry.  This made the grave robbers change their methods, and thereafter opening the boxes they stripped all bodies of their clothes and put the garments back in the caskets.

This when related to the authorities explained why in opening the graves within the last few months nothing was to be seen in the caskets but piles of discolored clothes thrown in heaps, with slippers where the head ought to have rested. . .

It has come to be generally understood by the city officials that while Greenlawn has all the outward signs of being a cemetery, there are in reality few, if any, bodies there, and that in view of this fact there should be no opposition to its being transformed into a park.

The Journal writer may not have been exaggerating.  Grave robbers and doctors were possibly reluctant to disturb the honored Union dead, who were removed to Crown Hill National Cemetery as early as 1866. Can the same be said of the Confederate dead? Greenlawn’s 1600 Confederate soldiers were the last bodies removed once the city decided to exhume every remaining coffin in Greenlawn for reburial at Crown Hill. This process began in 1912, and was sped up by the fact that the area around Greenlawn had become an unattractive industrial area, which it still is today. The Confederate soldiers were left here until 1931. Buried in a damp area by the river, few of their remains likely would have survived 70 years after the Civil War. Could some of them have been sent to medical schools just after burial?

Indianapolis Journal October 14 1902
Indianapolis Journal, October 14, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the most fascinating criminal cases in Indianapolis history is the story of Rufus Cantrell.  An African American who had moved north from Gallatin, Tennessee with his family and settled in Indianapolis, he was prosecuted for extensive grave-robbing in 1903.  When pressed, and perhaps enjoying the media attention, Cantrell came clean, taking investigators around cemeteries all over the city where he and his “gang” had removed corpses.  Lawyers tried to prove their client insane, even getting his mother to testify that he had preached and talked to God when he was a teenager.

Cantrell was found guilty and sent to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, where he “lay dying of typhoid fever” in June 1904. He survived and later was transferred to the Jeffersonville Reformatory near Louisville.  Though few if any white doctors who paid ghouls for their services ever got such sentences, Dr. Joseph C. Alexander, who allegedly worked with Cantrell, went on trial in Marion County in February 1903.  When the court failed to convict him, angry farmers in Hamilton County hanged and burned effigies of Dr. Alexander and the judge in the middle of a street in Fishers, shouting “Death to the grave robbers!”  When they inspected the graves in a rural cemetery on what became Indianapolis’ North Side, half of the coffins there were found empty.


Indianapolis News, April 23, 1903
Indianapolis News, April 23, 1903

Rufus Cantrell was even accused of plotting to steal the body of ex-President Benjamin Harrison, who died in 1901. The ghouls might not have been bluffing here.  The fear that struck Hoosiers in those years, and especially the Harrison family, was great and well-founded.

In 1878, there had occurred the well-publicized heist of Benjamin Harrison’s own father from the family cemetery in North Bend, Ohio.  Former Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of Indiana territorial governor and U.S. President William Henry Harrison, was found hanging naked from a rope in an air shaft at Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati, shortly after his son Benjamin came from Indianapolis to oversee his secure burial in a secret grave.  Amazingly, John Harrison, Jr., armed with a search warrant, had discovered his father’s body while investigating the disappearance of yet another corpse, that of Augustus Devin, a young tuberculosis victim who had been buried next to the Harrison plot just days earlier.  Devin’s body turned up in a vat of brine at the University of Michigan.


JSHarrison
John Scott Harrison, son and father of U.S. presidents, was snatched in 1878.

All this considered, a major factor driving the surge in burials at Crown Hill at the turn of the century was the increased security taken there to ward off robbers. Modeled on Louisville’s famous (and equally massive) Cave Hill Cemetery, Crown Hill was the resting place of most of Indianapolis’ elite.  It eventually became the third largest private burial ground in the country.

As a lengthy article in the the Journal reported on October 5, 1902, surveillance at Crown Hill was extensive. Security involved call boxes for quick communication. It also featured a curious system of “time stamps”.  Revolver-toting guards were forced to clock in at different corners of the cemetery every 20 minutes, thus ensuring they didn’t fall asleep or shirk their duties as they monitored every part of the park-like necropolis, which in 1902 housed over 32,000 graves. If they encountered prowlers, the guards were ordered to shoot to kill, and they patrolled the cemetery in all weather. The northwest section, near the future site of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was considered Crown Hill’s “most dangerous district.”


Crown Hill patrol


Body-thieving never totally disappeared. (The actor Charlie Chaplin was stolen from his grave in Switzerland in 1978.) The public also feared other reasons for desecration. When Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was buried with his family at Terre Haute’s Highland Lawn Cemetery in 1926, no individual headstone was placed there. Though Debs’ body had been cremated, the Debs family and his supporters feared that unfriendly vandals or “souvenir”-snatchers, perhaps funded by his political enemies, would try to steal the urn.

Such stories are troubling to read, but a vital part of the city’s history, involving race, science, and medicine. Ultimately, it is a strange fact, surely part of the terror and beauty of the human predicament, that many a grave robber, who almost certainly came from the margins of Indianapolis society, ultimately did help advance medicine and the public welfare.

The Secret Surgery of President Grover Cleveland: Indiana State Sentinel, July 5, 1893

President Grover Cleveland. Wiki Commons.

In the midst of the fight for repeal of Free Silver coinage in 1893, Cleveland sought the advice of the White House doctor, Dr. O’Reilly, about soreness on the roof of his mouth and a crater-like edge ulcer with a granulated surface on the left side of Cleveland’s hard palate. Samples of the tumor were sent anonymously to the army medical museum. The diagnosis was not a malignant cancer, but instead an epithelioma.

Indiana State Sentinel – July 5 1893 – Hoosier State Chronicles

Cleveland decided to have surgery secretly, to avoid further panic that might worsen the financial depression. The surgery occurred on July 1, to give Cleveland time to make a full recovery in time for the upcoming Congressional session. Under the guise of a vacation cruise, Cleveland and his surgeon, Dr. Joseph Bryant, left for New York. The surgeons operated aboard the Oneida, a yacht owned by Cleveland’s friend E. C. Benedict, as it sailed off Long Island. The surgery was conducted through the president’s mouth, to avoid any scars or other signs of surgery. The team, sedating Cleveland with nitrous oxide and ether, successfully removed parts of his upper left jaw and hard palate. The size of the tumor and the extent of the operation left Cleveland’s mouth disfigured. During another surgery, Cleveland was fitted with a hard rubber dental prosthesis that corrected his speech and restored his appearance. A cover story about the removal of two bad teeth kept the suspicious press placated. Even when a newspaper story appeared giving details of the actual operation, the participating surgeons discounted the severity of what transpired during Cleveland’s vacation. In 1917, one of the surgeons present on the Oneida, Dr. William W. Keen, wrote an article detailing the operation.

Cleveland enjoyed many years of life after the tumor was removed, and there was some debate as to whether it was actually malignant. Several doctors, including Dr. Keen, stated after Cleveland’s death that the tumor was a carcinoma. Other suggestions included ameloblastoma or a benign salivary mixed tumor (also known as a pleomorphic adenoma). In the 1980s, analysis of the specimen finally confirmed the tumor to be verrucous carcinoma, a low-grade epithelial cancer with a low potential for metastasis.

President Lincoln and Religion: The Evening Journal, September 6,1872

President Abraham Lincoln. Nathan Greene Studio.

“Mr. Lincoln’s Religious Views
The testimony of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomeroy of Newton, Mass.”

(Page one, third column, seventh title down.)

 

Indianapolis Journal, September 6, 1872. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Evening Journal (Tuesday June 4, 1872): “Our German Citizens” & “The Assassin of President Abraham Lincoln”

The Evening Journal, June 4, 1872. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The following front page of The Evening Journal, Tuesday June 4, 1872, contains an article detailing the testimony taken from farmer Richard H. Garrett who, unknowingly, harbored John Wilkes Booth in his barn the day the Union army arrived on his land, set his barn on fire and shot Mr. Booth to death. This article can be found at the top of the second column from the left.

The Evening Journal, June 4, 1872. Hoosier State Chronicles.

There is another article entitled, “Our German Citizens” contained within this newspaper image.   This is a very flattering article describing how no other immigrants in our country / state have offered so much to the very growth and development of our country/state than that of the German immigrants.  It goes on to describe how the German’s were able to successfully do all of this while maintaining their heritage and culture, unlike other immigrants that lost their traditional ways through cultural assimilation. This article can be found at the bottom of the first column from the left.

The Bates House in Indianapolis (1853)

Indiana State Sentinel, February 20, 1861. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Abraham Lincoln’s Whistle Stop Tour from Illinois to Washington D.C.

The president-elect, Abraham Lincoln, began his journey on February 11, 1861 from Springfield, IL to Washington D.C.  One of his first stops on his way to Washington D.C. was Indianapolis, where he made the following uncharacteristically candid speech from the second story balcony of the Bates House.

The Bates House
The Bates house, one of the first hotels in downtown Indianapolis, was established in 1853 and is famous for the first major policy statement given by President Abraham Lincoln to 45,000 on lookers from the hotel balcony. In 1903, The Bates House was turned into The Claypool, a bustling hotel famous for its lobby, which was reportedly the largest in the country, and its grand size of 450 guest rooms, each with its own private bath, a new phenomenon of the time. Many celebrities and presidents stayed at the Claypool, including William Howard Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The site of the former Bates House is now the Embassy Suites in Indianapolis.

“Fellow-Citizens of the State of Indiana: I am here to thank you much for this magnificent welcome, and still more for the very generous support given by your State to that political cause which I think is the true and just cause of the whole country and the whole world. Solomon says, “There is a time to keep silence;” and when men wrangle by the mouth with no certainty that they mean the same thing while using the same word, it perhaps were as well if they would keep silence.

The words “coercion” and “invasion ” are much used in these days, and often with some temper and hot blood. Let us make sure, if we can, that we do not misunderstand the meaning of those who use them. Let us get the exact definitions of these words, not from dictionaries, but from the men themselves, who certainly deprecate the things they would represent by the use of the words. What, then, is “coercion?” What is “invasion?”–Would the marching of an army into South Carolina, without the consent of her people, and with hostile intent towards them, be invasion? I certainly think it would be “coercion,” also, if the South Carolinians were forced to submit.

But if the United States should merely hold and retake its own forts and other property, and collect the duties on foreign importations, or even withhold the mails from places where they were habitually violated, would any or all these things be “invasion” or “coercion?” Do our professed lovers of the Union, but who spitefully resolve that they will resist coercion and invasion, understand that such things as these on the part of the United States would be coercion or invasion of a State? If so, their idea of means to preserve the object of their great affection would seem to be exceedingly thin and airy. If sick, the little pills of the homeopathist would be much too large for it to swallow.–In their view the Union, as a family relation, would seem to be no regular marriage, but rather a sort of “free love” arrangement, to be maintained on passional attraction.

By the way, in what consists the special sacredness of a State? I speak not of the position assigned to a State in the Union by the Constitution, for that by the bond we all recognize. That position, however, a State cannot carry out of the Union with it. I speak of that assumed primary right of a State to rule all which is less than itself. If a State and a county, in a given case, should be equal in extent of territory and equal in number of inhabitants, in what, as a matter of principle, is the State better than the county? Would an exchange of names be an exchange of rights? Upon principle, on what rightful principle may a State, being no more than one-fiftieth part of the nation in soil and population, break up the nation and then coerce a proportionably larger sub-division of itself in the most arbitrary way? What mysterious right to play tyrant is conferred on a district of country with its people by merely calling it a State?

Fellow-citizens, I am not asserting anything. I am merely asking questions for you to consider. And now allow me to bid you farewell.”