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The Sultana: Titanic of the Mississippi

Sultana Explosion

When the “Grand Arsonist of the Republic,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, addressed a room full of cadets at Michigan Military Academy in 1879, he coined a famous anti-war quote. There are different versions of Sherman’s speech, where he chides young soldiers eager to find “glory” in carnage.  One goes like this:

I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.  Suppress it!  You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars [the Mexican and the Civil] and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes.  I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies.  I tell you, war is Hell!

Like Hoosier writers Ambrose Bierce, who survived Shiloh, and Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the Dresden firebombing as a POW and helped pile civilian corpses onto crematory pyres in its aftermath, Sherman despised romantic images of war — written, he knew, by fools.  With his Catholic religious faith destroyed by what he’d seen in the Civil War, the general would have relished such anti-war movie classics as Cold MountainApocalypse Now, The English Patient and even (yes!) Jaws.  (Spielberg’s first major hit came out in June 1975, just two months after the Fall of Saigon brought the Vietnam War to a close, and carried a subtle anti-war message.)

History repeats itself in strange ways.  Take the famous, eerie monologue of Quint, the professional shark-hunter played by Robert Shaw in Jaws and partly modeled on the obsessed Captain Ahab. Quint’s chilling monologue, sometimes called “The Indianapolis Speech,” tells of how he sailed aboard the doomed USS Indianapolis in the last days of World War II.  On July 30, 1945, just after the vessel delivered the components of Little Boy — the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima — a Japanese torpedo sent the Indianapolis to the blue depths.  Out of 880 sailors who went into the water, over 500 died of hypothermia, starvation, dehydration and the scariest death of all: shark attacks.  World War II came to an end just two weeks later.


USS Indianapolis Survivor
A USS Indianapolis survivor covered in oil and burns.

Horrible as the loss of the Indianapolis was, it wasn’t the worst tragedy in American maritime history.  That event happened after a war was over, at 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the wooden steamboat Sultana — loaded with exhausted, traumatized ex-POWs, many of them headed home to Indiana — exploded on the Mississippi River seven miles north of Memphis.  Most investigators and historians blame overheated boilers for the blast, but one intriguing theory has it that the real culprit was a Confederate terrorist.  Other strange parallels evoke the loss of both the ill-fated Titanic and the Indianapolis.

The Sultana, built at John Litherbury’s boatyard in Cincinnati and launched on January 3, 1863, plied the Ohio and Mississippi during the worst days of the Civil War.  At a time when steamboats carried cargo and passengers faster and more comfortably than slow-moving trains, the Daily Evansville Journal kept track of riverboat passages.  Though midwestern river towns feel abandoned today, in the 1860s they were teeming with life and activity.


Daily Evansville Journal, March 19, 1863
Daily Evansville Journal, Evansville, Indiana, March 19, 1863.

The Sultana mostly transported passengers and agricultural wares. Yet travel on the Mississippi River past Memphis had been cut off by the Civil War. Only when U.S. Navy gunboats helped capture that city in June 1862 did river travel start up again, finally brought back to life by the fall of Vicksburg on the Fourth of July, 1863, after an epic siege. That August, the Sultana carried furloughed soldiers north from Vicksburg.  But the wartime dangers of river travel weren’t over yet.  Nocturnal Confederate guerrillas shot at the steamboat near Waterproof, Louisiana, in December 1863.  Another boat traveling alongside it was hit with artillery shells and musket fire, provoking a Federal gunboat to fire indiscriminately into the dark woods.

On April 15, 1865, just days after the Civil War ended, the Sultana was docked in Cairo, Illinois.  Telegraph wires that morning were shooting out news from Washington, D.C. — Abraham Lincoln had died from a gunman’s wound at 7:22 a.m.  The Sultana’s captain, J. Cass Mason of St. Louis, knew that since wires had been cut all over the South, Southerners wouldn’t get the news of the assassination quickly, so he grabbed an armload of newspapers and headed for Vicksburg, arriving downstream a few days later.


Sultana at Helena, Arkansas, April 26, 1865
English photographer T.W. Bankes took this photo of the overloaded Sultana when it docked near his portrait studio at Helena, Arkansas, on April 26, 1865.

Vicksburg’s corrupt Union quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, wanted to make Captain Mason a deal.  With the war over, the Federal government was offering steamboat captains $5 for each enlisted man and $10 per officer they agreed to take back north. With the South in ruins, even former Confederate soldiers from Kentucky and Tennessee found it easier to get home by going up the Mississippi to the Cumberland River, which flows into the Ohio across from southern Illinois.  Hatch and Mason agreed on a deal, whereby over 2,000 soldiers — mostly former Union POWs staying at a Vicksburg parole camp — would be carried back to their homes in the Midwest.  About two-thirds of them were from Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, though others had served in Union regiments from Kentucky.  Captain Mason would have netted about $10,000, a small fortune.  Mason agreed to give Quartermaster Hatch a kickback.

The freed POWs waiting to go home had already experienced some of the worst conditions war can offer.  Most had been incarcerated at the notoriously cruel and unsanitary Confederate camps at Andersonville, Georgia, and Cahaba, Alabama, where Union POWs regularly suffered and died from diarrhea, exposure, scurvy, frostbite, dysentery, hookworm, and had to contend with abuse by prison guards and even dog attacks.  By the time they made it west to Vicksburg and onto the Sultana, many ex-POWs were still recovering from hunger, disease, PTSD, and physical exhaustion — and surely excruciating homesickness, as well.  Yet the worst was still to come.


Jackson Broshears, 65th Indiana Infanty
Private Jackson Broshears, 65th Indiana Mounted Infantry, was the son of a French immigrant father and a mother from Tennessee. Imprisoned at Belle Isle POW camp in Richmond, Virginia, 20-year-old Private Broshears was nearly dead of starvation at his release in 1864. He died that October and was buried at Newtonville in Spencer County.

The Sultana had paddled down to New Orleans before returning to Vicksburg on April 24.  When it backed out of port, it carried about 2,100 ex-soldiers and civilians, alongside a few women and children traveling on the river.  Some of the women were serving with the United States Christian Commission, a medical relief organization that also provided religious literature to Union troops and helped army chaplains.

Passengers were crammed into virtually every open space on the boat, whose legal carrying capacity was just 376. Decks sagging under the weight even of emaciated men had to be supported with emergency beams.  Yet if Captain Mason could get his boat upriver safely, he was bound to strike it rich.

As the over-burdened boat chugged desperately north, it had to fight a huge spring flood on the Mississippi, which had burst the levees and spilled out for as much as five or six miles in some spots. The river, always treacherous to steamboats, had reached the canopy of trees along the banks and ran icy cold with snowmelt.  The weight  of the passengers caused the Sultana to roll from side to side, which probably caused hot spots in its boilers, as the water that produced steam to power the paddles and keep the boilers from exploding under heat and pressure sloshed back and forth and spilled out. Sudden pressure surges were probably the culprit of the explosion that came at 2:00 a.m. on April 27.


Lexington
Steamboat fires and boiler explosions were the plane crashes of the 19th century. The Lexington caught fire while crossing Long Island Sound in 1840, killing all but four of 143 people on board. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow missed the boat in New York.

The steamboat had just passed Memphis that night, where it unloaded a cargo of sugar.  Seven miles farther upriver, still fighting the massive current, the enormous blast occurred, followed by a fire that hit the coal and wood furnace boxes and rapidly turned the wooden Sultana into a blazing inferno.  Some thought lightning had struck the boat.

Passengers who weren’t thrown into the river were faced with a horrible choice:  burn to death, or fight for their lives in the frigid, raging Mississippi.

Weakened by incarceration, trauma and disease, many soldiers stood no chance.  They drowned or burned, or gave out to hypothermia while clinging to debris and fighting a brief struggle in the water.  The Tennessee and Arkansas riverbanks were hard to find, shrouded in darkness and high floodwaters. Survivors told of the stench of burning flesh coming off the boat.  Decomposing corpses would be found along more than a hundred miles of the river for months — including Captain Mason’s, who never made his fortune.  Bodies had to be picked out of trees as far south as Vicksburg.  Many victims were never found.


Evansville Daily Journal, May 11, 1865
Evansville Daily Journal, May 11, 1865.

When survivors and the dead began to float past Memphis, citizens and riverboat crews hurriedly paddled out in skiffs and recovered as many as they could.  (It is fascinating to reflect that labor activist Mother Jones, who lived in Memphis during the war, was probably a witness.)  The city hospitals filled up with men and the few women and children who were on board, victims of severe burns from steam and fire, exposure and hypothermia.  A large number of Hoosiers were among the wounded and dead.


Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (7)
The list of men admitted to Memphis’ Gayoso General Hospital included a long list of soldiers from Indiana and Kentucky. Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865.

Around 1,800 people died, a bigger toll than the Titanic. Yet newspaper accounts of the horrors on the river gave surprisingly few details.  Like another devastating blast — the Allegheny Arsenal explosion in Pittsburgh, which blew up 78 ammunition workers, mostly young women, on the day of the Battle of Antietam in 1862 –and like the USS Indianapolis sinking in 1945, which was overshadowed by the atomic bomb, the news got drowned out by bigger events:  the end of the Civil War, coverage of Lincoln’s funeral train, and the death of John Wilkes Booth, who was shot to death in a burning barn in Virginia the night before the Sultana exploded.

The St. Louis Republican — a river-town paper, like the Evansville Daily Journal — provided some of the scanty coverage that made it into the press. The stories are hair-raising and gloomy.


Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865

Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (2)

Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (3)

Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (4)

Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865 (5)
Evansville Daily Journal, May 5, 1865.

William D. Snow, U.S. Senator-elect from Arkansas, had been awakened by the boiler explosion.  Opening his door, he was confronted by “a large volume of steam” careening through the cabin and many scalded passengers.  Snow said that as he prepared to jump ship and swim almost a mile to the Arkansas shore, the river presented itself as “a sea of heads, so close together that it was impossible to leap without killing one or more.”  Amazingly, in those days before government safety regulations, Snow saw “several husbands fasten life-preservers to their wives and children, and throw them overboard into the struggling mass below.”  The Senator washed up, alive, among “overflowed cottonwood lands” at about 4:00 in the morning.  He was rescued by a passing steamer.

One of the Hoosier survivors, Uriah J. Maverty, came from Lebanon, Indiana, west of Indianapolis.  Maverty, who survived incarceration at Andersonville and Cahaba, was an invalid in a wheelchair when he wrote a graphic account of the disaster before his death in 1910.  He remembered that “several times was I pulled under water by others drowning,” but a love of his mother in Indiana helped him hang on.  “If you ever longed to see your mother, even in the prison-pen or on the battlefield, you know the feelings which came over me were too deep to be described.”

Maverty watched an Irish soldier, whose face had been crushed by “flying missiles,” cry out in loud prayer, but he died just after they were dragged to shore.  Grown men were seen weeping profusely as they floated among dead comrades and severed body parts. Veterans of Gettysburg and Chickamauga thought the sight was worse than things they had seen on the battlefield.

A number of the victims and survivors came from Henry County, Indiana.  More than a century later, a monument to 55 victims from Delaware County was erected at Muncie’s Beech Grove Cemetery. Most victims, however, were buried in Memphis.

Though no one was ever prosecuted for the disaster and investigations pinned the explosion on carelessness, one theory sprouted up right away:  a coal torpedo or bomb planted by a disgruntled Confederate had destroyed the boat. The website Civil War St. Louis even presents a lengthy, detailed (though skeptical) case for-and-against the sabotage of the Sultana.


Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay
Irish-born Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, Confederate Secret Service Agent and bomb-maker.

Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, a native of Belfast, Ireland — where the Titanic was built and launched in 1912 — had immigrated to St. Louis in 1844, aged 22, and also lived around Vicksburg.  Ironically, Courtenay sold fire and marine insurance in St. Louis and even served as sheriff of St. Louis County in 1860.  The Irish immigrant’s loyalties were to the Confederacy, and early in the war he joined up with the Confederate Secret Service as a clandestine agent.

In 1863, Courtenay invented the coal torpedo, a hollow iron casting loaded with explosives and disguised inside a clump of hardened coal dust.  Hidden in Union coal piles by Confederate saboteurs, coal torpedoes were meant to be shoveled unsuspectingly into the boilers of vessels, where they would heat up, cause the boiler to burst and lead to a larger, catastrophic secondary explosion. Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved a plan to target Union gunboats with Courtenay’s secret bombs.  Several U.S. Navy vessels were actually blown up by coal torpedoes, including one in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1864.

After the war, Courtenay traveled overseas and tried to sell his deadly invention to foreign governments, with no success.  To protest the British occupation of Ireland, the Fenian Brotherhood, radical Irish nationalists based in the U.S. and Australia, reportedly considered putting coal torpedoes into furnaces in New York City hotels and aboard English transatlantic steamships.  Fenian coal bombs were blamed for the explosion of a British Navy vessel in Patagonia in 1880, which inspired a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes.


Coal torpedo, 1865
This model of a coal torpedo was found by Union General Edward Ripley at Jefferson Davis’ office in Richmond in April 1865, the month the Sultana blew up and after much of Richmond itself was incinerated.

As bodies started to float in, a mate aboard the Sultana told a writer for the Memphis Argus that he suspected a bomb.  And during a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1867, Robert Louden, a Confederate agent and “terrorist” who sank several Union vessels on the waterfront in St. Louis, claimed on his deathbed to have planted a bomb on the Sultana — probably while its crew were unloading sugar at Memphis.  Louden may have been bluffing, and the evidence is not totally convincing, especially since some of the passengers aboard the steamboat were ex-Confederates headed home to Kentucky and Tennessee.

The ruins of the Sultana floated downstream a few miles, burned to the waterline, and sank in a mud bank.  In 1982, archaeologists discovered what may be the steamboat’s remains — but they aren’t in the river.  The ever-meandering Mississippi has moved two miles east since 1865, placing the site of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history square in the middle of an Arkansas soybean field.

Survivors’ reunions were held well into the 20th century.  The last two survivors — one from the North, one from the South — were still alive in the 1930s.  Though the memory of many was consigned forever to the restless river, the lights finally went out on January 9, 1936, with the death of 94-year-old Albert Norris.  A private in the 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Norris, aged 23, had been lying directly above the boilers and fell down onto the hot furnace as men came raining down around him from the hurricane deck.  Though he was one of the closest to the blast, he lived the longest to tell the tale.


Albert Norris
Albert Norris of Ohio, last survivor of the Sultana, died in 1936.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

A Skeleton’s Odyssey: The Forensic Mystery of Watson Brown

John Brown gravestie

When the fiery abolitionist John Brown, “The Meteor” who tried to ignite a slave rebellion in the South, was hanged for treason, authorities turned the body over to his family.  In December 1859, Brown’s remains traveled north by train from the hanging grounds in Charles Town, Virginia, to the family farm in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Around Christmastime, he was laid to rest next to a huge chunk of Appalachian granite.

Twenty-three years later, a Hoosier geologist who studied such rocks for a living helped ensure that one of John Brown’s fellow raiders at Harper’s Ferry — his son Watson, who was gunned down during the raid — would finally be buried next to his father.  In the meantime, Watson’s bones went on a long odyssey out to the Midwest.

Watson Brown was born October 7, 1835, in Franklin Mills, Ohio. His father, the great abolitionist, moved back and forth between northern Ohio and his native New England several times.  After John Brown went out to “Bleeding Kansas” to fight the extension of slavery into the West, Watson left home, too, though he apparently didn’t join in the combat on the Plains.  His father and brothers, however — considered terrorists by some — waged war on pro-slavery factions with guns, fire and on one occasion, with broadswords used to hack their enemies to death.  A letter from Watson to his mother Mary, written in Iowa in 1856, mentions that on his own way west with a team of emigrants — armed with “Sharp’s rifles and cannon” — they met with ex-slave Frederick Douglass and the reformer Gerrit Smith.  Smith, a failed presidential candidate, secretly financed the later raid on Harper’s Ferry.  Watson himself may have helped carry caches of firearms out to the Great Plains, guns paid for by New England anti-slavery committees.


John Brown
John Brown in Springfield, Massachusetts, 1846.

Watson Brown 2
Watson Brown, circa 1859.

John Brown traversed the Midwest many times on trips back East to win the support of reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Henry David Thoreau.  In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers — sixteen white and five black — tried to pull off their most spectacular assault on slavery yet, an attack on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah flows into the Potomac.  The target: 100,000 muskets, to be handed over to slaves for use in a massive insurrection.


Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry, Virginia, now West Virginia.

Optimistic supporters in the U.S. and Canada originally planned for 4,500 men to participate in the raid.  Instead, just twenty-one attacked Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859.  After cutting telegraph wires and taking hostages on nearby farms, Brown’s band moved into town.  Local militia, farmers and shopkeepers, opening fire, quickly pinned down the abolitionists, driving them into a brick engine house.  Under siege, John Brown sent his son Watson and another man out with a white flag.  The crowd shot them.  Watson, aged twenty-four, with a bullet just below his stomach, struggled back to the engine house, fatally wounded.  He begged his father and comrades to “dash out his brains,” then tried to commit suicide.


The Liberator (Boston, Mass), November 18, 1859
The Liberator, Boston, Massachusetts, November 18, 1859.

John Brown raid
Brown’s son Oliver was also killed in the raid, while Watson lay in agony. “With one son dead by his side, and another dying, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other.” (James Redpath, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown, 1860)

The outbreak of the Civil War was still a year and a half away.  In fact, the raid was put down by Colonel Robert E. Lee — of the U.S. Army.  John Brown was hanged for treason in December.  Spectators at his execution included Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, and the poet Walt Whitman.

Ten of Brown’s men died in the raid, including two sons.  What became of their mortal remains is a fascinating and rarely told part of the tale.

Eight of the bodies were gathered up by townspeople of Harpers Ferry.  The locals, understandably, didn’t want the raiders buried in the town’s cemetery.  They gave a man named James Mansfield five dollars to take care of the corpses.

Packing eight men into two large wooden store boxes, Mansfield buried them along the Shenandoah River about a half-mile from town.  The grave, half forgotten, remained there until 1899, when Dr. Timothy Featherstonehaugh, Captain E.P. Hall, and Orin Grant Libby, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, exhumed the corpses for transfer to the Brown family farm in upstate New York.  Professor Libby took femur notes while examining the skeletal remains, comparing them for size against his own leg.  On August 30, 1899, the mingled raiders’ bones were re-interred at the Brown plot — in a single silver-handled casket.


New England Magazine, April 1901(New England Magazine, April 1901.)


This wasn’t the first time, however, that a box of old bones was brought to North Elba, New York, to lie next to John Brown’s. Two of his followers were never initially buried at all.  One of them was his son Watson.

Remarkably common in the nineteenth century, body-stealing was a feature of reality at a time when medical schools had trouble acquiring corpses for anatomy classes.  Rarely able to do so legally, they had to steal them, giving rise to the “resurrectionists” who nabbed the dead out of fresh graves.

Yet other examples of body-theft involved mere curiosity seekers and bogus scientists.  During the heyday of phrenology — the long-discredited study of bumps on the skull, which, it was believed, actually determined one’s personality, creative genius, or propensity to crime — “cranioklepty” (the theft of skulls) was far from rare.

The more famous the head, the better.  When the composer Joseph Haydn died in Vienna in 1809, wealthy robbers paid a cemetery attendant to open up the new grave and cut off his head.  “Scientists” then boiled off the flesh or used acid to remove the skin and muscle in order to examine Haydn’s cranial bumps.  Until 1954, the famous skull remained on display in a glass case in Vienna, when it was reunited with the rest of Haydn’s bones.   After the coffins of Beethoven and Schubert were exhumed for relocation in the 1860s, their skulls were also examined, as was the entire mummified body of American naval hero John Paul Jones, unearthed in subterranean Paris in 1905 — a hundred-and-thirteen years after he died.

Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson — two Midwesterners gunned down at Harpers Ferry — were considered “fine physical specimens.”  Southern doctors took them to Winchester Medical College in Virginia, where, like Joseph Haydn, they had (most of) the flesh stripped off them.  John Brown’s 24-year-old son, who had left behind a widow, Isabella, and a young child who died in 1863, was turned into a model skeleton for the instruction of future Southern medical men.


Dr. Jarvis Johnson
Dr. Jarvis Johnson, surgeon of the 27th Indiana Volunteers.

Yet Winchester, Virginia, just thirty miles from Harper’s Ferry and the Potomac River, changed hands several times during the Civil War.

In the spring of 1862, two and a half years after Watson Brown’s death, the 27th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers marched into town with the Union Army.  Among them was regimental surgeon Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson.  Born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1828, Johnson practiced medicine in Martinsville, half way between Indianapolis and Bloomington.  He would have been 34 when he walked into Winchester Medical College and found out what doctors had done to the remains of Watson Brown — an action for which, Virginians believed, Union troops burned down the college, the only case of arson during Winchester’s military occupation.

In 1882, the Indianapolis Journal printed the most widely-accepted version of the tale.  It came in the aftermath of a visit by John Brown, Jr., who visited Morgan County, Indiana, with several other investigators to examine a set of human remains there.

Dr. Johnson had stated that while serving as commander of a military hospital in Winchester, he acquired Watson Brown’s body from the museum of the medical college — then shipped it on a train to Franklin, Indiana, the nearest railroad depot to his home in Martinsville.  Like the Virginia doctors, Johnson kept the body in a case at his medical office.  For twenty years, the raider’s bones were a strange part of the life of a Hoosier country town.


Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882

Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882 (2)
Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882.

In 1882, word of the skeleton’s whereabouts came to John Brown, Jr., Watson’s elder brother and the abolitionist’s oldest son, after Jarvis Johnson put a notice in the Chicago Tribune looking for family members.  The doctor claimed, probably disingenuously, that he hadn’t realized any of the Brown brothers were still living, and he hadn’t wanted to upset Watson Brown’s mother.  Though John Brown, Jr., had fought in “Bleeding Kansas,” he in fact wasn’t part of the raid on Harpers Ferry.  During the Civil War, he helped recruit troops for the famous “Jayhawk” border fighter James H. Lane. (Before Lane became an anti-slavery senator from Kansas and a famous target for Confederates, he had been the lieutenant governor of Indiana.)

Brown, Jr., visited Indiana in September 1882, having already moved back east to Ohio, where he grew grapes for the wine business on South Bass Island in Lake Erie and took an interest in geology.


John Brown, Jr.
John Brown, Jr.

The other main forensic investigator to come to Martinsville that September was one of Indiana’s most prominent scientists, the impressively-bearded State Geologist John Collett.  Remembered as a beloved “Santa Claus” figure, Collett was a Wabash Valley native who lived in Indianapolis and often weighed in on scientific and agricultural questions — from the study of caves and killer meteorite hoaxes to how to improve celery crops.  Collett traveled to Martinsville with several doctors to look over the badly-treated remains of the bygone Harpers Ferry raider.


John Collett
Hoosier geologist John Collett, who drew the first maps of Wyandotte Cave, helped Watson Brown get back to New York.

The Indianapolis Journal printed this description of the scene at Dr. Johnson’s office:

The body has received careless treatment during the last few years. It has been carted about from place to place, and has been doing duty in all the anatomical exhibitions about town. During the first few years it was in the possession of Dr. Johnson it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation, but ill usage has ruined it. For several years, it has been lying in the Knights of Pythias hall, and, it is whispered, was used in the mystic ceremonies of the order. The best of care had not been bestowed upon it, and it was infested with worms and insects. Knowledge of its ill-usage was sedulously kept from Mr. Brown. When he intimated that he would like to see the body, he was considerately kept in waiting until it could be removed from the lodge-hall to the residence by way of a back street, and there placed in better condition for the examination.

At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the skeleton was that of Watson or 22-year-old Oliver, John Brown’s other son killed in October 1859.  Watson and Oliver looked alike.  Both stood six feet tall.

An office assistant of Dr. Jarvis’ showed John Brown, Jr., a “coffin-shaped box standing against the wall.”  Then he removed a cloth covering, exposing “a bare and hideous skeleton.”

“Gentlemen, if it is either of my brothers, I am now inclined to think that it is Oliver,” Brown exclaimed after picking up and poring over skeletal fragments and examining the shape of a half-missing skull.   Yet the more he looked, the more he came to think he was looking at his other brother, Watson.


Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882 (3)


Geologist John Collett wasn’t a qualified expert in forensic facial reconstruction, a process that would actually be pioneered in the next decade.  (When Johann Sebastian Bach’s bones showed up at a church in Leipzig, Germany, in 1894, Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His reconstructed a face from the skull, which resembled an old painting of Bach — who became an unwitting helper in the baby science of crime-scene forensics.) After comparing all the forensic evidence available, however, including written descriptions of Watson Brown’s gun wound, it was John Collett’s opinion that the cadaver standing before him in Martinsville, Indiana, was, in fact, the man in question.

True to the often bogus science of the time, though, some of the “professor’s” statements expose how ludicrous phrenology was.


The Inter Ocean, September 14, 1882 (2)
The Inter Ocean, Chicago, September 14, 1882.

Then came a fascinating insight.  Dr. Jarvis Johnson’s written affidavit, notarized by Morgan County lawyers, also shed light on why doctors in Virginia wanted to preserve Brown’s corpse in the first place.

When he was put in charge of local Union Army medical operations, “A number of the prominent citizens of Winchester called upon me at the hospital, and each and all declared that [these were] the remains of a son of John Brown.”  Amazingly, the doctor who “prepared” the body, whom Johnson never identifies by name, also stopped by — and pleaded with Johnson to give him back this “exceedingly valuable piece of property.”

Like the medieval Europeans who condemned criminals to be drawn-and-quartered, Virginia doctors held up the corpse as a warning to  their state’s enemies.  Sic semper tyrannis?


The Inter Ocean, September 14, 1882
(The Inter Ocean, Chicago, September 14, 1882.)

Who was this doctor, then?

He was surely on the faculty list — and it’s a small one.  Founded by Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire, Winchester Medical College had only four instructors in 1859, including the founder’s son, Hunter Holmes McGuire (1835-1900).  At age 24, Hunter McGuire, already a professor anatomy at his father’s school, would have been an exact contemporary of the “fine specimen” killed at Harpers Ferry.

Hunter McGuire, however, was probably not the culprit. In late 1859, he was studying medicine in Philadelphia.  The young doctor was even there during the famous walk-out of Southern medical students, which occurred after John Brown’s body was paraded through the streets by Northern admirers.  Insulted, McGuire led an exodus of about three-hundred Southern students from Jefferson Medical College, who dropped out, went down to Richmond, and re-enrolled at the Medical College of Virginia.  Some sources say that he financed the trip of all these students with his own savings.

Dr. Hunter McGuire later enlisted in the Confederate Army and even served as Stonewall Jackson’s personal surgeon, amputating the general’s arm after Chancellorsville.  He went on to become the president of the American Medical Association.  In the 1890s, McGuire would contribute to the debate over eugenics, racial purity, and the castration of rapists, especially African Americans — arguments that eventually led to Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, a major victory for the controversial eugenics movement and one of the worst misapplications of science in history.  He also strove to ensure that Southern school textbooks “would not poison the minds of Virginia schoolchildren” by teaching a northern revisionist history of the Civil War.

The Medical Pickwick (1918) states that Watson Brown was “dissected by students.”  McGuire, as stated, was in Pennsylvania in the aftermath of Harper’s Ferry.  But did he have anything at all to do with this man’s bizarre fate?


Faculty of Winchester Medical College


It seems that he did.  Mary Greenhow Lee, a famous diarist in Winchester during the Civil War, wrote  that when Union soldiers torched the medical school on May 16, 1862, “They buried in the yard what they supposed were [Oliver Brown’s] bones, but the genuine ones had been removed by Hunter McGuire, thus foiling their malicious designs.”  Were the bones buried those of Jeremiah Anderson, a native of Wisconsin who fought with John Brown?  Lee might have been mistaken about the identity of the bones.  It’s harder to believe she was mistaken about Dr. McGuire.  After all, he was fighting in northern Virginia and may have been the doctor who approached Jarvis Johnson.

Twenty years later, Johnson willingly handed over to the Brown family the cadaver he claimed to have shipped by train from the Shenandoah Valley to the Midwest.  In October 1882, Watson Brown’s strange post-mortem odyssey finally came to an end.  On an autumn day in the Adirondacks, he was laid to rest in a patch of soil near his famous father, who — as the old Union song put it — had long lain “mouldering in the grave.”


John Brown's body 2


Isabella Thompson, aged just 22 when the Harpers Ferry raid left her a widow, married Watson’s cousin, Salmon Brown.  For decades, the couple lived in Kilbourn City, Wisconsin — later renamed Wisconsin Dells.  Isabella may have died near Traverse City in northern Michigan in 1907.  Her second husband died in neighboring Antrim County, Michigan, in 1921.  “Bella” was buried at North Elba, New York, near her first husband, his final whereabouts pinned down at last.

John Collett passed away in March 1899 and was buried in Terre Haute.  Dr. Johnson died that September, just a few weeks after the mass re-interment of Brown’s other missing men, among whom was his son Oliver, who had lain in a merchant’s box on the Shenandoah for forty years.  Johnson rests at East Hill Cemetery in Morgantown, Indiana.

Gordon’s Leap: A Tale from the Heyday of the Resurrectionists

dissecting room valparaiso indiana 1915

In a previous post about “ghoul busters,” I mentioned the body-snatching problem that was a major issue in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis and throughout the U.S. for most of the 1800s.  Driven by the need for “fresh material” on dissecting tables at American medical colleges, the longstanding problem of body thievery was widespread and decades-old.

Originally allowed by law to bring only executed felons and the unclaimed poor into the classroom for anatomical study, doctors facing increasing enrollment at nineteenth-century medical schools were forced to prey on ordinary citizens even after “Anatomy Acts” made legal acquisition easier.  Though such data hardly show up on the census records, physicians nabbed tens of thousands of bodies from poorly-guarded graves in city and country alike.  Tragically, providing bodies for classrooms was a burden that fell disproportionately on African Americans, who play into American medical history both as the robbers and the robbed, the main instruments and victims of grave robbery and desecration into the 1940s.

Ghouls (grave robbers in 19th-century speak) often ignited civil disturbances, like the “Anatomy Riots” that rocked New York City in 1788.  (Twenty people were killed on that occasion.)  An English robber kept a laconic but harrowing record of his thefts in 1811-12, published in 1896 as The Diary of a Resurrectionist.  Often overlooked as a cause of violence on both sides of the Atlantic, the ghouls supposedly unearthed many of the specters that still haunt America.

Indiana was no stranger to this mostly forgotten practice.  In the 1860s, well-substantiated fears of the “Resurrection Man” led to the creation of Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, now one of the largest in the U.S., designed partly to ward off desecration of the dead by needy medical faculties.  Staffed by pistol-toting guards at the turn of the century, Crown Hill ensured that families would no longer have to stand watch over their loved ones’ final resting place until decomposition rendered the remains useless to science.

Further digging into Hoosier newspapers turns up a vast trove of journalism and folklore on this bizarre aspect of medical history. One of the wilder and more entertaining tales from the heyday of the “resurrectionists” comes from Andrew Jackson Grayson, a veteran newspaperman of Madison, Indiana, and is set just before the Mexican War.


andrew jackson grayson family
Andrew Jackson Grayson, seated center, with his family circa 1900.

In the annals of Hoosier journalism, Grayson had a knack for recognizing a good story.  Born at Sandcreek in Decatur County in 1838, at age three he moved sixty miles south with his family to the old Ohio river town of Madison.  He later described Madison as a “queer old town. . .  the Mecca of Indiana, the gem of the Ohio Valley.”  In 1861, the 21-year-old enlisted in the 6th Indiana Infantry and fought in the first land battle of the Civil War at Phillipi, Virginia.  (While the war was still on, he published a humorous memoir of the regiment’s role in the Virginia campaign.)  Mustered out in 1862 due to varicose veins that developed in his left leg after a forced march to Shiloh, he came back to southern Indiana and at age 22, went to work for the Madison Courier.  Grayson worked in the printing trade for the rest of his life.

Like the old river town itself, his grave-robber story comes from before the war and is a sort of “crossroads” of Hoosier history.  It also taps into a confusing vein of folklore.

Madison had one of the few medical colleges in antebellum Indiana.  Consequently, even small towns nearby often had surprisingly qualified (and interesting) doctors. One of the doctors was Charles Schussler, a German immigrant.  Educated at the universities of Tübingen and Vienna, he came to New York in 1828, fought in the Texas Revolution, lived in New Orleans for a while, prospected in California during the Gold Rush, then came back east in the early 1850s to set himself up in medical practice in Madison, where he helped found the Madison Medical Institute.  (Though the institute went out of existence long ago, the physician’s house is a bed-and-breakfast today.)

For instruction purposes, Schussler often had to steal bodies.  According to one story, on a secret grave-robbing operation he and a band of “ghouls” were forced to contend with a “human icicle” they dug up one frigid winter night, probably in a country graveyard.  As the frozen body bounced around the wagon while the team sped away from the cemetery, the stiff smashed into Schussler’s foot.  The doctor reportedly cried out in agony, then attacked it in a temporary fit of insanity, screaming “Hurt my foot, will you?!”

One of the protagonists of the anonymous doctor’s tale later recorded by Grayson was thought to be with Schussler that night.  Part of a trio of fascinating brothers who practiced medicine in southeastern Indiana in the mid-1800s, Dr. John W. Mullen was born to an Irish family in Pennsylvania.  Like Schussler, he went to Texas around 1830, where he served as a page to Sam Houston and almost died of yellow fever.  Tiring of Texas, Mullen went back to Philadelphia, trained as a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, then moved to Madison.

Mullen’s elder brother, Alexander, was also a protagonist in Grayson’s story.  Born in Ireland in 1813 but raised near Philadelphia, Alexander Mullen ran away from home to join the American Merchant Marine, first training as a doctor on a ship, then at Louisville Medical College in Kentucky.  His Irish pioneer family had moved west to Ripley County, Indiana, in the meantime, hence his own move to the Hoosier State around 1840.  Alexander served as Prison Physician at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, the regimental surgeon of the 35th Indiana Infantry (the “Irish Regiment”) in the Civil War, and finally moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he died in 1897.  In the 1840s, he was practicing medicine in the small town of Napoleon.  He also trained country doctors at the nearby Versailles Medical Seminary, which once sat on the courthouse square.


alexander mullen      bernard f. mullen

(Irish-born Alexander Mullen, left, gave medical lectures in Versailles.  His brother, the pediatrician, soldier, and Irish-American radical B.F. Mullen, right, was also a grave robber.)


The folklore begins to come fast and furious, but around 1846, when Alexander was in his early thirties, his other brother, Bernard Mullen, was either studying medicine or practicing alongside him in Versailles or Napoleon.

If there is anyone who dispels the eerie, Hollywood stock image of a grave robber, it is definitely B.F. Mullen.  One of the earliest pediatricians in the Hoosier State, when the Mexican War broke out in 1847, the 22-year-old enlisted in James Henry Lane’s 3rd Indiana Regiment and became the youngest surgeon ever to serve in the U.S. Army, being appointed to that post at the General Hospital in Jalapa, Mexico.  (As Grayson’s story will show, Mullen was probably driven into the army to avoid the scandal of being labeled a grave robber back home.)  In the 1850s, Mullen, an Irish Catholic, became a vocal opponent of the nativist “Know Nothing” Party, which tried to prevent immigration, especially from Ireland.  Acclaimed as an orator, Mullen eventually became active in the Fenian Brotherhood, a fraternal society that was a forerunner to the global Irish Republican Brotherhood whose last leader was Michael Collins.

During the Civil War, B.F. Mullen would serve as Colonel of the 35th Indiana “Irish” Regiment, where his brother Alexander was surgeon.  Col. Mullen, former ghoul, led the 35th Indiana into the “Battle Above the Clouds” at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee and helped ward off John Hunt Morgan’s raid on Madison itself.  After the war, the colonel practiced medicine in Madison until 1871, then moved to Terre Haute.  In January 1879, Mullen was Democratic candidate for Indiana State Librarian, but died of tuberculosis in an Indianapolis hotel a month later.

On to the story.

According to Grayson’s version of the tale in the Indianapolis Journal, Alexander and Bernard Mullen were teaching a medical class at Versailles, probably in 1845.  More likely, Bernard was the third student who got entangled with a “posse” at the Cliff Hill Cemetery above Laughery Creek (now Versailles Lake).  The other two students were John B. Glass, who may have ended up in Missouri or Colorado, and Jonathan W. Gordon, the eponymous origin of the Versailles landmark called “Gordon’s Leap” since the 1800s.  Originally from Pennsylvania, Gordon had come to town in 1844 to practice law.  He afterwards fought in the Mexican War, served as a major in the Civil War, entered Hoosier politics, and helped future President Benjamin Harrison get started in the law when Harrison first came to Indianapolis.

But as the story shows, around 1845 the lawyer-doctor was a famous local lawbreaker.


     jonathon w. gordon  gordons leap

(Major Jonathan W. Gordon, soldier-doctor and occasional “ghoul,” went on to become speaker of the Indiana House, Prosecuting Attorney for Marion County, and the “most prominent criminal lawyer” in the state.  He died in 1887 and was buried at Crown Hill.  A vintage postcard shows Bluff Springs near the site where Gordon and/or his companion John Glass allegedly jumped to avoid being lynched.)


Though we shouldn’t take the following tale at face value — it probably contains several major factual errors — let’s turn it over to Grayson.  The wild story was printed in the Indianapolis Journal on November 17, 1901:

THE ROBBING OF GRAVES

“‘The sensational instances of grave-robbing that have just come to light in Indianapolis remind me of a similar event in which the late Maj. Jonathan W. Gordon figured when he was a young man,” said Andrew J. Grayson, of Madison.  “The incident occurred near Versailles in Ripley County, the place made famous in recent years by the lynching of five men simultaneously.  [Five “desperadoes” were killed just outside the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 1897 at a spot called “The Hanging Tree.”]  Oddly enough, Major Gordon and his companions came near figuring in a lynching bee themselves.  They only escaped an untimely and shameful death at the rope’s end by making one of the most thrilling leaps ever attempted by a human being.  The spot at which the perilous jump was made by the young men in question is known to this day as ‘Gordon’s Leap.’

“I obtained the full particulars of the grave-robbery in which young Gordon participated from a veteran physician of Madison,” continued Mr. Grayson.  “I was sitting in the old doctor’s office one day chatting pleasantly with him when I asked him suddenly if he had not in his long career had some experiences that were of more than passing interest.  ‘I have had quite a few,’ he replied, with a smile.

“Upon being pressed to narrate some of his experiences he consented, and the first story he told was that of ‘Gordon’s Leap.’  ‘Nearly fifty years ago,’ said the veteran physician, ‘the town of Madison could boast a medical institute.  I was a student in the school, together with a number of other young sprigs that were desirous of receiving their initial instruction in that primitive academy of science.

“‘About that time Jonathan W. Gordon, who afterwards turned to the law and became one of the most brilliant advocates of the Indiana bar, was a medical student.  He and a young man named John Glass attended a course of private medical lectures given by Drs. B.F. and A.J. Mullen at their office in the town of Napoleon, not far from Versailles, in which Gordon resided.

“‘Dr. J.W. Mullen, a brother of the Napoleon physicians of the same name, came one summer from a Philadelphia medical college, in which he was taking a course of instruction, to visit his brothers.  He met and formed a close friendship with young Gordon.  One day he received from Gordon a note saying that a body that would be an excellent subject for dissection had just been buried in the cemetery near Versailles and proposing that the trio, Gordon, Mullen, and Glass, make arrangements to lift the corpse from its resting place.  The recipient of the note entered heartily into the ghoulish scheme and arrangements were made to carry it out.

“‘It seemed, however, that a Dr. [William] Anderson of Versailles was suspected of entertaining body-snatching proclivities and the people residing in the vicinity of the cemetery made preparations to give him a warm reception if he should make an attempt to secure the subject in question.

“‘At the appointed time Gordon, Mullen and Glass set out for the lonely burial ground, and when they reached the place they began without hesitation the work of disinterring the coffin containing the coveted body.  They had dug clear down to the box and were raining blows on that with a pick in order to force it open when the enraged citizens in ambush descended upon them with a fierce rush.  The young fellows knew well that to be caught meant nothing short of lynching.  There was but one way of escape.

“‘A few yards away was a precipice about one hundred and twenty feet in height, the top of which looked down upon Laughery Creek.  Fully fifty feet of the cliff was a perpendicular wall.  To the young men was presented the alternative of dying surely, but disgracefully, at the hands of the mob or of risking a less shameful death and possibly gaining liberty by leaping over the frowning precipice.  With Gordon to think was to act.  Hurling himself like a cannonball towards the precipice and shouting to his comrades to follow, the daring youth leaped without hesitation over the face of the cliff.  Fired by their leader’s amazing courage, Glass and Mullen jumped after him.  Down the trio plunged for, it seemed, an interminable length of time, clutching frantically at branches of trees projecting from ledges, until at last they fell in one quivering, panting heap of humanity into a tangled mass of brush at the bottom, which served to prevent them from being instantly killed.

“The leap would have been pronounced suicidal by anyone not under the stress that weighed on these young men.  They, however, escaped serious injuries and what was better still, vengeance of the mob.  Young Glass sustained a dislocation of an arm, while Gordon and Mullen were simply shaken up and bruised.

“The trio of daredevils were afterward arrested and brought to trial on a charge of grave-robbing, but fortunately made good their escape through the astuteness of Judge Miles Eggleston, father of the famous author [Edward Eggleston], who discovered a flaw in the indictment against the young men. . .”


gordons leap frank hohenberger(Gordon’s Leap, Versailles, Indiana, seen on August 21, 1928, by Brown County photographer Frank Hohenberger.  Frank M. Hohenberger Photograph Collection, Indiana University.)


The doctor’s version of “Gordon’s Leap” that Grayson heard probably had a couple of serious errors.   The Mullen brother who accompanied Gordon and Glass to the graveside was almost definitely Bernard, who would have been about twenty if the jump happened in 1845.  (Gordon was about twenty-five.)  Several sources suggest that both Bernard Mullen and Jonathan Gordon were forced to run away and join the army during the Mexican War due to the fallout from their “ghoulish scheme.”

As long ago as 1884, the truth or falsehood of the leap was hotly debated.  On May 15, a piece appeared in the Versailles Republican.  The writer said that he had asked Gordon himself about the location of the famous jump:

We asked him if we had been correctly informed as to the locality. As he had visited the spot the day before, he was certain as to the place from which he leaped. But he says he jumped from a tree that stood upon the verge of the bluff and now that tree is not only gone but ten or more feet of the bank is gone. At all events, it was a fearful leap. One of the men, who was with him, also jumped and received severe injuries…

As to the identity of the coveted corpse that night, the Versailles Republican claimed: “A black man had just been buried there, and it was his body the students were after.”

gordons leap 3

The story of the leap stayed alive in folklore but varied from telling to telling.  The location became a famous Ripley County landmark.  In 1941, the WPA’s travel guide to Indiana mentioned it.  (WPA writers collected a large amount of Hoosier folklore during the Great Depression, though sadly not much of it made it into the WPA guides.)  The author makes no mention of any of the Irish Mullen brothers, claiming instead that Gordon and Glass were studying with the Dublin-trained physician Dr. William Anderson — who was, in fact, practicing in Versailles around that time.  In the WPA writer’s abbreviated telling, when the lynch mob showed up, Glass escaped through the foliage, while Gordon jumped over the cliff, broke a leg, and dragged himself to a cabin, where he got hold of a horse and fled the county.

More variations are told.  Ripley County in Vintage Postcards states that “Glass ran the wrong direction and fell over the precipice.”  Alan F. Smith, author of Tales of Versailles, insists that the “leaper” was John Glass.  Smith also adds: “Dr. Gordon lost a patient and could not understand why.  He was quite interested in performing an autopsy on the body, but the family of the deceased would have nothing to do with the desecration. . .  In the darkness, Glass ran over the cliff. . . but, perhaps because Gordon was the dead patient’s doctor, the general public always held the belief that it was he who had jumped.”

Folkorist Ron Baker caught one more elaboration of the tale, which shows up in his classic anthology Hoosier Folk Legends (1982).  As someone told Baker: There was a Dr. Gordon in Versailles.  There had been a strange death.  Gordon thought an old man’s wife had poisoned him and wanted an autopsy.  The family wouldn’t let him.  One night real late, he dug up the body.  When he got the casket open, the cops and the family came out.  Gordon took off running.  There’s a 200-250 foot drop cliff at the edge of the cemetery.  At the foot of the cliff is Versailles Lake.  Gordon fell off and broke a leg.  He swam away, and no one ever saw him after that.  Now this is called Gordon’s Leap.”  (This is certainly false.  Versailles Lake, a reservoir, was constructed by damming Laughery Creek in the 1950s.)


louisville medical students with cadaver
Medical students at a dissection in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1890s.

Unfortunately, the story wouldn’t be complete without the harrowingly sad coda Grayson appended to it in 1901.

Lest Gordon be considered a hero rather than a grave robber, it’s important to remember that the bodies stolen from rural and urban cemeteries by “resurrection men” were, more often than not, African American.  (So were many of the resurrectionists themselves.)  White doctors were rarely prosecuted for theft, however, especially if the body was black, whereas African American “ghouls” in their employ often went to court and were sometimes shot and killed by police on the spot.

At one time (1884) the Versailles Republican mentioned that the town’s citizens were considering putting up a monument to Gordon “the leaper.” (In fact, the Ripley County Historical Society erected a historical marker at the Cliff Hill Cemetery in 2013).  It is worth noting that no such marker exists to memorialize the thousands of African American bodies robbed from Indiana cemeteries over at least a century.

But I’ll leave it to the doctor from Madison to tell this tale.  The date isn’t mentioned, but he claims the event happened before the Civil War:

There is but one authenticated instance of body-snatching in the Madison cemetery, the body taken being that of an old colored man named Taylor.  The reason body-snatching was rare in Madison was that we usually got our subjects from rural graveyards.  But to return to the Taylor case:  A son of the old man was employed as a messenger in the office of Dr. H., in Madison, and after his father died the lad suspected his employer of having stolen the remains.  This suspicion, I remember, was aroused by a remark the youth overheard Dr. H. make.  The poor boy suffered intensely from his suspicions of his employer, for in those days a negro’s word was worthless against that of a white.

One day, when the doctor was out of his office, the boy decided to put into effect a plan he had evolved.  He knew that the doctor had in his closet a skeleton that he used for purposes of study and demonstration.  He also knew that his father, when living, had struck himself on the ankle bone with an ax, chipping off a piece of the bone.

Gaining entrance to the closet, the youth peered long and earnestly at the grewsome object suspended therein.  Oddly enough one ankle bone of the skeleton had had a piece chipped from it.  To the mind of the imaginative young darky the skeleton of his father, as he verily believed it to be, seemed to curse the ruthless hand that had dragged it from its peaceful place in the City of the Dead.

Years rolled by and the doctor disappeared from our midst, entering the Confederate army and becoming a surgeon in the Civil War.  The colored office boy grew to manhood, married and had offspring gathered about him.  Death visited his little home one day and took from him one of the little ones.  The hideous vision he had had in the doctor’s office before came back to him suddenly and with wonderful distinctness.  Here was his opportunity to satisfy himself as to the truth of his surmise formed at that time.  Accordingly he requested the sexton of the cemetery to permit the body of the child to be buried in the grave of its grandfather.  The official assented and the old grave was re-opened.  When the bottom was reached there was found, true to the long-entertained belief, the remnants of a coffin, but no trace of the body it once contained.

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.