Tag Archives: Camp Morton

Fletcher’s Swamp and Bacon’s Swamp

ethel miller

Spring is here, which means it’s getting muddy.  Check out these stories from the soggier part of town:

You might never guess that several parts of Indianapolis lying well inside the city limits are built on old swamp lands.  Turn back the clock to the 1940s and new homes and roads in southeast Broad Ripple are literally sinking into the earth.  Turn it back another century still, and the hoot-owls and swamp creatures who easily outnumber humans in Marion County are living practically downtown.  (In fact, the whole county was named for Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary South Carolina.)

Two old wetlands, sometimes called bogs or sloughs, played a fascinating part in the capitol city’s history.

Fletcher’s Swamp is long gone but used to sit just east of the Old North Side, between Cottage Home and Martindale-Brightwood.  A couple of hundred acres in size, the swamp occupied an area more or less centered around the future I-65/I-70 interchange.  Pogue’s Run flowed just to the south.

An article in the Indianapolis Journal on December 15, 1889, describes the setting.  The author, probably the young journalist and historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, writes about an area northeast of Ninth Street and College Avenue:

To the boys of twenty-five years ago [circa 1864] this area was known as Fletcher’s swamp, and was a famous place for black and red haws, fox grapes and other wild fruits that only a youngster would think of eating.  Fifty years ago [the 1830’s] this place was a verible dismal swamp, impenetrable even to the hunter except in the coldest winter, for it was a rare thing for the frost to penetrate the thick layer of moss and fallen leaves that covered the accumulated mass of centuries, and which was constantly warmed by the living springs beneath.

Today the old swamp area is within easy walking distance of Massachusetts Avenue, but you won’t find a trace of it.  “About on a line with Twelfth Street” near the center of the swamp “was an acre, more or less, of high land,” a spot “lifted about the surrounding morass.”  The writer — again, probably J.P. Dunn — thought that this high, dry spot had once been a “sanctuary” for “desperadoes and thieves who preyed upon the early settlers.”  (Northern Indiana swamps, like the one around Bogus Island in Newton County, were notorious hideouts for counterfeiters and horse thieves.  Elaborate hidden causeways were said to give entrance to remote islands on the edge of the vast Kankakee Swamp, the “Everglades of the North.”)

In the 1830s, Fletcher’s Swamp became one of the slushier stops on the Underground Railroad. Calvin Fletcher, a Vermont-born lawyer and farmer whose 1,600-acre farm once included most of the Near East Side, was an active lawbreaker during the days of the Fugitive Slave Act.  For several decades, many Hoosier opponents of slavery, primarily Quakers, funneled hundreds if not thousands of African American fugitives toward Westfield in neighboring Hamilton County.  (Westfield was a major Quaker settlement before the Civil War, and other “stations” around Indianapolis focused on getting fugitives there.)  Wetlands, usually hard to penetrate, were an ideal hideout, since the bloodhounds that bounty-hunters used to track fugitives lost their scent here.  And like the counterfeiters on Bogus Island, refugees from slavery used retractable wooden “steps” across the swamp to help avoid detection.

Although not Quakers themselves, Fletcher and his family helped many African Americans flee north to Michigan and Canada.


calvin and sara fletcher
Calvin and Sara Fletcher. This daguerreotype was made at Weeks’ Daguerran Gallery at College Hall downtown, January 1856. Joan Hostettler tells the story here.

Fletcher also owned the swamp the fugitives hid in.  In the language of 1889, the writer for the Journal recalled one story about the place:

Calvin Fletcher, Sr., became the owner of this swamp, or the greater part of it.  Spring, summer, and autumn he was in the habit of riding horseback all around it. . .  Mr. Fletcher delighted in the study of nature, especially in birds (and in the quiet of this swamp was bird life in sufficient variety for an Audubon or a Wilson), and he knew every flier and nest on its borders.

A tenant of a cabin near this swamp told the story that his attention was often attracted to Mr. Fletcher, for the reason that he rode out that way so early, and usually with a sack thrown over the horse’s neck.  The curiosity of the dweller in the cabin was excited to that degree that, one morning, he furtively followed the solitary horseman.  It was about sunrise, and he saw Mr. Fletcher hitch his nag to a sapling, take off the sack (which for some reason the narrator supposed to contain corn-bread and bacon), walk a little way into the covert, and then give a call, as if calling cattle.  There was, in answer, a waving of elders, flags and swamp-grass, with an occasional plash in the water, and finally appeared the form of a tall, muscular negro, with shirt and breeches of coffee-sacking.  He came silently out to the dry land, took the sack from the visitor’s hand, spoke a few words inaudible to the straining ears of the listener and hastily disappeared in the recesses of the swamps.  So, after all, Mr. Fletcher’s favorite bird, and a very unpopular one in that day, too, was the blackbird.

The swamp might have had strange bedfellows during the Civil War.  The dense thickets and morasses here were an ideal hideout for Confederate POW’s who escaped from the Union Army’s Camp Morton, which sat just west of here, near the future intersection of 19th Street and Central Avenue.  Calvin Fletcher’s son, Stephen Keyes Fletcher, claimed in 1892:  “During the war the swamp was this great hiding place for escaped prisoners from Camp Morton.”

The original Butler University, which sat at 13th and College until 1875, was another neighbor of Fletcher’s Swamp.  When a fugitive, aided by local abolitionists, escaped from jail downtown and fled on horseback, trying to get to the swamp, he ended up at Northwestern Christian University, as Butler was called, and was arrested on campus.  “The capture of the negro brought on a heated battle among the students of the university, some of whom were from the South,” the anonymous Journal writer claimed.  “A pitched battle followed between them and the black Republican students, which resulted in nothing more serious than some blackened eyes and ensanguined noses.  The scene of this battle is now the playground for the children of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum.”

What happened to Fletcher’s Swamp?  Stephen Fletcher, who apparently inherited the property after Calvin’s death in 1866 — he ran a nursery nearby — told some of the story using terminology not employed today.

About this same time the negroes began flocking over from Kentucky and other Southern states.  My father, being a great friend of the colored man, was inclined to provide them with homes and work as far as possible.  After filling up everything in the shape of a house, I then let them build cabins at the edge of the swamp, on high ground, just north of the Belt railroad, and about where Baltimore Avenue now runs.  I soon had quite a settlement, which was named by my brother, Dr. W.B. Fletcher, “Monkey Jungle,” and the location is known to this day [1892] by that name by those familiar with it then.

The 1889 writer for the News concurred:

The clearing of the swamp was an accident of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation.  Hundreds of colored men, with their families, came from the South to this city.  It was a class of labor new to Indianapolis, and for a time there was a disinclination to employ them.  Mr. Fletcher, however, gave every man with a family the privilege of taking enough timber to build a cabin, and of having ground for a “truck patch,” besides paying so much a cord for wood delivered on the edge of the swamp.  Quite a number of the negroes availed themselves of this offer of work and opportunity for shelter…

Calvin Fletcher, Jr., drained what was left of his father’s swamp in the 1870s by dredging it and connecting it to the “Old State Ditch.”  Thus it shared the fate of thousands of acres of Hoosier wetlands sacrificed to agriculture and turned into conventional cropland.


bacons swamp - butler herbarium
Fern collected in Bacon’s Swamp, August 1922. Friesner Herbarium Collection, Indiana Memory.

An 1891 Journal article on the “State Ditch” calls Fletcher’s Swamp one of two “bayous” that threatened valuable property on the then-outskirts of Indianapolis.

The other “bayou” was the fascinating Bacon’s Swamp. Today, the area that used to be covered by this large Marion County bog is part of Broad Ripple.  Although Google Maps still shows a lake there called Bacon’s Swamp, this is really just a pond, re-engineered out of what used to be a genuine freshwater wetland.

Like its neighbor a little to the south, Bacon’s Swamp was created by the melting Wisconsin Glacier.  About 20,000 years ago, the ice left an indent on the land that filled with water.  As limnologists (freshwater scientists) describe, the process of swamp formation, lakes age and die like living creatures, filling up with sediment and plant matter and gradually losing the oxygen in their depths.  Bacon’s Swamp evolved into a peat bog, one of the southernmost in the United States.

Like Fletcher’s Swamp, it took its name from a prominent local farmer active as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.  A native of Williamstown, Massachusetts, Hiram Bacon moved to this remote spot with his wife Mary Blair in 1821.  (Bacon was 21 years old, had studied law at Williams College, but due to poor health joined a government surveying expedition to the Midwest at age 19.  He liked Indiana and stayed.)  Presbyterians, the Bacons became friends with Henry Ward Beecher, brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, when he served as minister of Second Presbyterian Church downtown.  Beecher often came out to Bacon’s Swamp in the 1840s, when this was a remote part of Marion County.


Henry_Ward_Beecher_daguerreotype
This daguerreotype of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher was probably taken in Indianapolis, where he served as a Presbyterian minister in the early 1840s. Beecher baptized Fanny Vandegrift, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, in the White River when she was a child growing up in the Hoosier State.

Hiram and Mary Bacon actively helped fugitive slaves escape through the area.  A 1931 article in the Indianapolis Star claimed that “The Bacon house stands on the east side of the road [now the paved Keystone Avenue], and the large barn was on the west side.  In it was a wheat bin, which could be entered only from outside by a ladder.  It was usually concealed by piles of hay.  Here and in the bin in the cider house, the fugitives were hidden and conveyed after dark to the next depot . . . The matter was never discussed in public.” At night, fugitives hid out in the peat bog across from the Bacon dairy farm.

The 400-acre family farm was located approximately where Glendale Mall sits today.  (Most of east Broad Ripple would have been deep in the morass back in the mid-1800s.)  Empty in the 1930s, the site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by The Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone.


hiram bacon house


donut shop - bacon's farm


Around 1900, this area, now considered part of Broad Ripple, was called Malott Park.  Not to be confused with today’s Marott Park, Malott Park was a small railroad town later annexed by Indianapolis.  Barely a century ago, it was one of the last stops on a railroad line that connected northern Marion County with the Circle downtown.  Until World War II, Glendale was a far-flung place out in the country.

Walter C. Kiplinger, a chemistry teacher and tree doctor for Indianapolis public schools, wrote a fascinating article about the peat bog for the Indianapolis News in 1916.  The part of the bog he described was about a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, near 50th Street and Arsenal Park.  Now a major residential neighborhood, a hundred years ago it sounds like GPS coordinates were the only thing we’d recognize about the place:

You can reach it very easily if you have a machine [car] by taking the White River road to Malott Park, but when the spring rambling fever comes it is much more easy to go cross-country.  It is just a pleasant afternoon’s hike there and back. . . If common courtesy is observed in closing gates and keeping off fields where the crops might be injured, the owners of the farm lands usually do not enforce their trespass notices. . .

How much peat there is in Bacon’s slough or how thick the bed is, no one seems to know. . . Whatever the average depth, it is as truly a peat bog as any in Ireland.

Serious proposals to harvest peat in Indianapolis were mentioned in the press from 1905 until the 1920’s, when the idea was apparently dropped.  Other parts of Indiana, especially up north, also explored the possibility of using peat as a substitute for coal.  During World War I, the U.S. and Canada exported sphagnum moss from North American peat bogs to Europe, where a cotton shortage had led army doctors to experiment with peat bandages on the Western Front.  The moss served as a kind of natural antibiotic and was a success when used to dress wounds.  (The story made it into the South Bend News-Times in 1918.)


peat - south bend news times 1918


Use of peat has always been widespread in Europe.  Not a fossil fuel, it emits an odorless, smokeless heat and an “incredible ambiance.”  For millennia, it has served as a cheap heat source in rural Ireland and Britain (where it also gives the “smoky” flavor to Scotch whisky.)  The Indianapolis News ran an article about “inexhaustible” Irish peat in 1916, informing Hoosiers that “Mixed with crude molasses from sugar mills it is also used as a forage for cattle, while semi-successful efforts have been made to convert the vegetable fibers into a cheap grade of paper.”  In 1929, a massive 40% of the Soviet Union’s energy came from peat, but today, large-scale industrial harvesting is only common in Ireland and Finland.


Peat stacks and cutting Yorkshire 1905
Peat stacks and cutting, Yorkshire, England, 1905. Alexander Eric Hasse, photographer.

peat indianapolis 1905 2


As an alternative fuel source, peat nearly became a reality in central Indiana in the early 1900s.  E.H. Collins, a “scientific” farmer from Hamilton County, touted that the “earth that would burn” in the summer of 1905.

Collins owned a farm a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, in the vicinity of Bacon’s Swamp.  An article on August 19 in the Indianapolis News refers to the 30-acre peat bog he “discovered” as the “Collins Bog.”  The farmer estimated that it held about 400,000 tons of the fuzzy stuff.

The 1905 article is a strange flashback, envisioning a grand future that never really came about.

The announcement that a good fuel deposit has been found at the city limits and can be drawn on in case Indianapolis gets into a fuel pinch is of great importance to a city that, thus far, has been left out of practically every fuel belt in Indiana in recent years — in fact, since she was the very center of the stove wood belt.  Too far west to be in the gas belt, too far east to be in the coal fields and outside of the oil territory, Indianapolis, since the old cordwood days, has been a negative quantity in the state’s fuel supply. . .

The discovery of good peat deposits around Indianapolis calls attention to the fact that Indiana sooner or later is to come to the front as a peat-producing state.

Obviously, this never happened.  Peat was briefly harvested in Bacon’s Swamp in the mid-20th century, as it was in a few other spots throughout northern Indiana, but the resource was mostly used for gardening, not as a rival to coal.

As Indianapolis’ economic downturn and white flight led to the explosion of Broad Ripple as a suburb in the 1950s, the swamp was more and more threatened.  Conservationists were mostly ignored when they argued that the swamp protected creatures who keep insect populations in check and therefore help farmers and gardeners.  In February 1956, three children drowned trying to save a puppy who had fallen through the ice in one of the lakes here, prompting residents in the area to push for “condemning” and obliterating the “deadly swamp.”

While the squishy, “bottomless” ground was a constant problem for developers — devouring roads in 1914 and 1937 — gradually only a tiny remnant pond was left, just west of Keystone Ave and a block south of Bishop Chatard High School. Yet the tree doctor Walter Kiplinger did remember one man who kept himself warm with a satisfying peat fire in Indianapolis back in the day.

“There used to be one from the ‘ould sod’ [Ireland] who lived in a shack near the hog pens east of the slough,” Kiplinger remembered during World War I.

His name was Michael O’Something-or-other, I’m not certain what, but he was a gentleman in the highest sense of the word.  There was nothing hyphenated about his Americanism, but is a man any the worse American for having a bit of sentimental feeling for the old country in his makeup?  Surely when one has a bit of Ireland’s own bog land in his own back yard, you might say, he has a perfect right to dig and use the peat for fuel. . .

Bacon’s Slough will probably go the way of similar places;  but one should not be too pessimistic.  The Irish may mobilize some St. Patrick’s Day, and go out and save it just for the sake of that peat bog.  You can never tell.


peat scotland


Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com

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.