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The Black Stork: Eugenics Goes to the Movies

The Black Stork 4

From 1917 into the 1920s, Hoosier movie-goers had a chance to see one of the most controversial — and arguably infamous — silent films ever produced, The Black Stork, later renamed Are You Fit To Marry? Identified by one film historian as among the earliest horror movies, The Black Stork was based on a real and gut-wrenching medical drama from 1915.

Billed as a “eugenics love story,” the movie’s script was authored by Chicago journalist, muckraker and theater critic Jack Lait.  Lait worked for news mogul William Randolph Hearst, the very man who inspired the lead figure in Orson Welles’ great 1941 movie Citizen Kane.  Hearst, king of American “yellow journalism,” relished controversies, which sold newspapers and theater tickets. His film company, International Film Service, produced The Black Stork.

Many Americans today have never heard the word “eugenics,” a once-popular scientific theory spawned by Victorian understandings of evolution and heredity in the wake of Charles Darwin.  The word comes from the Greek for “well-born” or “good stock” and refers to the social interpretation of scientific discoveries purporting to show how harmful genetic traits are passed on from parents to children — and how healthy children could be bred. Eugenics wasn’t strictly the same as science itself, but a social philosophy based on the discoveries of Darwin, the monk-botanist Gregor Mendel, and Darwin’s nephew, geneticist Francis Galton. Yet many scientists and doctors got involved with this social philosophy.

Once fairly mainstream, support for eugenic theories plummeted after the defeat of Hitler, its most notorious advocate. Aspects of eugenics — like the forced sterilization of repeat criminals, rapists, epileptics, the poor, and some African Americans — continued in twenty-seven American states into the 1950s and even later in a few.  The last forced sterilization in the U.S. was performed in Oregon in 1981.


U.S. Eugenics Advocacy Poster, 1926
U.S. eugenics advocacy poster, 1926. The authors ranked just 4% of Americans as “high-grade” and “fit” for creative work and leadership.

Indiana played an enormous role in the history of eugenics when the Hoosier State became the first to enact a compulsory sterilization law in 1907 — a law that lumped the mentally handicapped in with sex offenders, made it virtually illegal for whole classes deemed “unfit” to reproduce, segregated many of the disabled into mental hospitals, and enshrined white supremacy. Though the Indiana law was struck down in 1921, those ideas were hugely popular with many academics and activists all across the political spectrum.

Indiana Historical Bureau state historical marker.

Especially notable, the Indiana Eugenics Law wasn’t pushed by those designated as white racist “hillbillies.” “Poor white” Indianapolis slum-dwellers, in fact, were very much targeted by the eugenicists of the early 20th century.  Promoters of these spurious theories included mainstream biologists, doctors, many reform-minded Progressives, women’s rights advocates, college presidents, even a few Christian ministers and Socialists. The list of widely-admired people who spoke out in favor of simplistic eugenic proposals included Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Sir Winston Churchill, Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger, author Jack London, IU and Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, Alexander Graham Bell, and the civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois.  One of the few well-known anti-eugenics crusaders was Senator William Jennings Bryan, a Christian Fundamentalist who lost caste with Progressives in the 1920s for opposing the teaching of evolution.


Murder rankings
American eugenic “scientists” blamed murder rates on heredity, ethnicity, and imaginary racial types like “Dinaric” and “Alpine.” “Pure Nordic,” the type idealized by Hitler, was deemed the least prone to criminal activity. Time would prove that theory wrong.

Eugenics, however, was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” Americans of all political stripes supported its basic premise — the preservation of social order and the engineering of more a “humane” society.  Strong support for eugenics came from Americans concerned about the proliferation of poverty and urban crime and who sought a reason to keep certain nationalities from entering the U.S.  Eugenics did not begin to go out of favor until 1935, when scientists from the Carnegie Institute in Washington demonstrated the flimsiness of other scientists’ work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.  Yet even as eugenicists placed human reproduction on the level of horse- and livestock-breeding, the genetic abolition of any individual deemed “feeble-minded” — and the destruction of hereditary and sexually-transmitted diseases — was packaged as a positive goal, a social benefit to all, even to those who underwent involuntary sterilization and were occasionally killed.


Better Baby Contest, Indiana State Fair, 1931
Better Baby contest, Indiana State Fair, 1931. Eugenicists put reproduction and marriage on the level of agriculture and sought to manage human beings like a farm. Better Baby contests began at the Iowa State Fair in 1911.

Euthanasia was one component of eugenics.  Alongside the “positive eugenics” campaign for “Better Babies and Fitter Families,” “negative eugenics” partly revolved around the controversial view that infants born with severe disabilities should be left to die or killed outright.  In 1915, a case in Chicago plunged Americans into a heated debate about medical ethics.

That November, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, chief surgeon at the German-American Hospital in Chicago, was faced with a tough dilemma.  A woman named Anna Bollinger had just given birth to a child, John, who suffered from severe birth defects.  John had no neck or right ear and suffered from a serious skin ailment, all judged to be the result of syphilis likely passed on by his father. Dr. Haiselden knew that he could save the child’s life through a surgical procedure.  But since he was familiar with the conditions into which Illinois’ “feeble-minded” were thrown after birth, he convinced the child’s parents to let John die at the hospital.  When the news came out that the doctor wasn’t going to perform the necessary surgery, an unknown person tried to kidnap the child and take it to another hospital.  The kidnapping attempt failed and John Bollinger died.


South Bend News-Times, November 18, 1915
The South Bend News-Times called “Baby Bollinger” a martyr, but later carried advertisements for the doctor’s film.

While the Catholic Church, one of the few vocal critics of eugenics, was the only major group to initially protest the surgeon’s decision, Haiselden was soon called before a medical ethics board in Chicago. He nearly lost his medical license, but managed to keep it.  Public opinion was sharply divided.  Chicago social worker and suffragette Jane Addams came out against Haiselden.  Short of the death penalty for murder, Addams said, no doctor had the right to be an unwilling person’s executioner.  “It is not for me to decide whether a child should be put to death. If it is a defective, it should be treated as such, and be taught all it can learn,” she added.

Many of Haiselden’s critics, such as Addams, pointed out that if eugenicists had had their way, they would have killed some of the great “defectives” in history, like Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevksy, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, children’s writer Edward Lear, and even the eugenicist Harry Laughlin himself — all of them epileptics.  (Biologist Laughlin, Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor and one of the science’s greatest advocates, had suffered from epilepsy since childhood.)

Support for Dr. Haiselden, however, came from many famous social activists.  Among them was Helen Keller — advocate for the disabled, a Socialist, and a eugenics supporter (at least in 1915.) Keller, who was blind and deaf since the age of one but thrived against all odds, published her views on the Haiselden case in The New Republic. She thought that children proven to be “idiots” by a “jury of expert physicians” could and perhaps should be put to death. Chicago lawyer and civil liberties crusader Clarence Darrow — who famously went up against eugenics critic William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial — made no bones about his support for the surgeon: “Chloroform unfit children,” Darrow said.  “Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” Indiana Socialist Eugene V. Debs also supported Haiselden’s decision.


Clarence Darrow    Helen Keller
(Clarence Darrow and Helen Keller supported Haiselden.)


Harry Haiselden held onto his job, but bolstered his position and kept the firestorm of public discussion brewing by starring as himself in a silent film based on the Bollinger case.  The Black Stork came to hundreds of American theaters, including many Hoosier ones.  Because public health workers and eugenicists often gave admonitory lectures before and after the movie, separate showings were offered for men and women.  Young children weren’t allowed to attend, but a South Carolina minister encouraged parents to bring their teenage children — so they could see what might come from sexual promiscuity, criminality, drinking and “race mixing.”  Some theater bills added the catchy subtitle: “The Scourge of Humanity.”


South Bend News-Times, November 9, 1917
The Black Stork enjoyed several screenings at the Oliver Theater in South Bend. South Bend News-Times, November 9, 1917.

The movie’s plot was partly fictional and not entirely based on the 1915 Bollinger euthanasia case.  The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette gave its readers the basic story line, which came with an interesting twist near the end:

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 12, 1917 (1)The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 12, 1917 (2)The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 12, 1917.


The “taint of the Black Stork” was obviously bad genes and heritable diseases. Haiselden’s silent film has been called one of the earliest horror movies, though its promoters billed it as educational and even romantic in nature. It fueled the eugenics movement’s campaign about defectives but also tackled an ethical dilemma that’s still alive today:  is it ever humane to kill a person without their permission, on the grounds that the victim is doomed to live a miserable life and be only a “burden on society”?


The Black Stork 5


Since American eugenics was supported by known racists and would later be directly cited by the Nazis as inspiration for their  “racial science,” it’s uncomfortable to look deeper into it and realize how much turf it shares with Progressivists’ real concern for the treatment of the poor — and of mothers, some of whom would have been forced to raise severely disabled children. Some Americans thought the best way to eradicate poverty and disease was to eradicate the poor themselves by restricting their right to pass on the human “germ plasm” to the next generation.  Eugenics and even euthanasia became, for some, a way to avoid social reforms.  “Nurture vs. nature” lost out to inescapable hereditary destiny.

The Black Stork’s title was eventually changed to Are You Fit To Marry?  It ran in theaters and roadshows well into the Roaring Twenties.  It’s hard to believe that eugenicists begged Americans to ask themselves honestly if they were “fit to marry.”  One wonders how many Americans voluntarily abstained from having children after deeming themselves “unfit”?

Ads show that the film was screened at at least three theaters in Indianapolis (including English’s Theatre on Monument Circle) as well as at movie halls in Fort Wayne, East Chicago, Whiting, Hammond, Evansville, Richmond and probably many other Hoosier towns.


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1920

(The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1920.)


The Black Stork 6


The “eugenics photo-drama” reminded Americans of the dangers that “bad” heredity posed not only to their own families, but to the nation.  When The Black Stork was shown in Elyria, Ohio, just a few months into America’s involvement in World War I, it clearly drew from the well of fear-mongering that linked crime and disease to alcohol, immigration, prostitution and rumors about German traitors and saboteurs — all clear threats to Anglo-Saxon ideals. Eugenics and euthanasia, by “saving our nation from misery and decay,” clearly got hitched to the wagon of nationalist politics. Viewing The Black Stork, like supporting the war effort, became “a solemn duty.”


The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, Ohio), December 17, 1917
The Chronicle-Telegram, Elyria, Ohio, December 17, 1917.

German scientists were promoting “racial hygiene” long before the Nazis came to power in the 1930s.  Fascism’s scientists and propagandists would also draw heavily on the work of British and American eugenicists — and point to laws like Indiana’s when opponents criticized them.  Racial Hygiene, in fact, was the title of an influential textbook by Hoosier doctor Thurman B. Rice, a professor at IU Bloomington, a colleague of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and one of the founders of IU Medical School in Indianapolis.  In April 1929, Rice wrote an editorial in the Indiana State Board of Health’s monthly bulletin, entitled “If I Were Mussolini,” where he supported compulsory sterilization of “defectives.”


Thurman B. Rice 2
“If I Were Mussolini,” Monthly Bulletin of the Indiana State Board of Health, April 1929.

The Black Stork wasn’t the last film about euthanasia and eugenics. In 1941, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, commissioned one of the classics of Nazi cinema, Ich klage an (I Accuse).  The plot revolves around a husband who learns that his wife has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  He gives her a drug that causes her death, then undergoes a trial for murder.  The film’s producers argued that death was not only a right but a social duty.  A tearjerker, Ich klage an was intended to soften up the German public for the Nazis’ T4 euthanasia campaign, which led to the deaths of as many as 200,000 adults and children deemed a burden to the nation. (There’s some further irony that Ich klage an’s cinematic parent, The Black Stork, was based on events at Chicago’s German-American Hospital.)

Eugenics captivated Americans and Europeans for a few more decades after the Bollinger case. British writer G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic convert and a fierce opponent of eugenics, probably deserves the last word here. Chesterton called eugenics “terrorism by tenth-rate professors.”


Chesterton at Notre Dame, 1930
G.K. Chesterton in South Bend, Indiana, October 1930, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame. Dr. Harry Haiselden himself once gave an address to South Bend’s Fork and Knife Club in May 1916.

In his 1922 book Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State, Chesterton quipped that society has never really had all that much to fear from the “feeble-minded.” Rather, it’s the “strong-minded” who hurt society the most.  Tearing into eugenics advocates in Britain, Germany and America, Chesterton spotlighted their frequent class prejudices, then skewered them brilliantly:

Why do not the promoters of the Feeble-Minded Bill call at the many grand houses in town and country where such nightmares notoriously are?  Why do they not knock at the door and take the bad squire away?  Why do they not ring the bell and remove the dipsomaniac prize-fighter?  I do not know;  and there is only one reason I can think of, which must remain a matter of speculation. When I was at school, the kind of boy who liked teasing half-wits was not the sort that stood up to bullies.

Dr. Harry J. Haiselden was involved in the deaths of at least three more disabled infants.  He died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on vacation in Havana, Cuba, in 1919.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

“The Notorious and Diamond-Bedecked Dr. Lighthall”

Dr. J.I. Lighthall (2)

Today, rural towns often have doctors with Indian surnames.  But in the 1800s, an “Indian doctor” meant something totally different.

For decades after the Civil War, so-called “Indian medicine shows” rolled through cities and country towns across the U.S.  These shows were something like the medical version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Leading them, there was usually a wild-looking doctor — typically a white man claiming to be Native American or at least to have studied herbal healing with “Indian medicine men.”  What the shows really dispensed was exotic flare: banjo-playing minstrels, brass bands, even freak shows.

The traveling outfits also raked in thousands of dollars by touting medicinal cure-alls for common ailments, as Indian doctors announced their ability to cure practically all known ills — from dysentery, headaches and “private diseases” (venereal in nature) to dreaded cases of tuberculosis, cholera, and cancer.  Elixirs were only part of the lure. These doctors often doubled as dentists and yanked rotten teeth by the thousands.  In the days before anesthetics, brass bands covered up patients’ screams inside the wagon.  Music and entertainment also helped drown out the protests of local doctors and dentists, whose business these shows cut in on.

While the heyday of the Indian medicine shows came after the Civil War, the “Indian doctor” phenomenon goes back farther than that, piggy-backing off the dearth of professional doctors in pioneer settlements and the primitive state of “scientific” medicine itself.  Southerners who moved to the Midwestern frontier had often lived for a while in Appalachia, where white settlers took an interest in traditional medicine practiced by the Cherokee and Choctaw.  German and Scots-Irish settlers also had a medical heritage of their own going back to medieval Europe.


Indian Guide to Health

(This early Indian Guide to Health [1836] contains some of the often bizarre knowledge gleaned from medicine on the Appalachian frontier. The author was an early Hoosier doctor, Squire H. Selman — alias “Pocahontus Nonoquet” — who studied with the Kentucky doctor-adventurer Richard Carter.  Son of an English physician and a métis woman, Carter enjoyed one of the most thriving medical practices on the Ohio Valley frontier.  Selman went on to practice medicine in Columbus, Indiana.)


It’s a curious fact that one of the first doctors in Indianapolis was a 24-year-old “Indian doctor” from North Carolina.  The man also had an unforgettable name:  Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer.  (In 1851, the Indiana State Sentinel thought his initials stood for “Dr. William Kellogg Francis Fryer,” but we sincerely hope that it really was “Frohawk.” That name appears on the cover of his own book.)

Dr. Fryer claimed to have studied medicine with Native Americans and was remembered by Indianapolis historians as an Indian doctor “of ancient memory.”  Some of his repertory of cures, however, apparently came from “pow-wow,” an old form of Pennsylvania German faith healing.  That practice was known as Braucherei or Spielwerk (spell-work) in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, and pow-wow practitioners (Brauchers or Hexenmeisters) drew on spells and folk remedies that probably go back to the world of Roman Catholic folk healing, forced underground in Germany after the Reformation. (The word pow-wow was either of Algonquin origin or a mispronunciation of the English “power” but had nothing to do with Native American medicine.)  The first book on pow-wow, published by German immigrant Johann Georg Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1820, anthologized many of these magical healings, talismans, and charms, based partly on occult “white magic” meant to ward off “black magic” or witchcraft. Pow-wow used esoteric words, sometimes from the Bible, as a form of healing and was explicitly Christian in nature, even reminding some of Jesus’ miracles accomplished via saliva.  Brauchers allegedly cured livestock by putting magical words into their feeding troughs.


powwow_3

(From John George Hohman’s Der Verborgene Freund [The Long-Lost Friend], 1820.  The book is still in print.)


Pow-wow, which claimed to cure “both men and animals,” became an unorthodox form of spiritual medicine among Lutherans, Amish, Mennonites and Dunkers at a time when university-trained doctors were hard to come by even on the East Coast. Sometimes called “Christian voodoo,” pow-wow might even figure into the origin of the hex signs you can still see on barns.  (It led to a “Hex Murder Trial” in 1929.)  As a form of medical treatment, pow-wow’s heyday is long-gone, but it is still practiced on the sly in rural eastern Pennsylvania and was probably once part of folk medicine in the rural Midwest, wherever Pennsylvania Germans settled.


hex postcard

(Some scholars believe the hex tradition came out of pow-wow.)


In 1839, the year Dr. William Kelley Frohawk Fryer published his own Indian Guide to Health in Indianapolis, the Hoosier capitol city was just a few steps out of the wilderness.  Fryer believed in “vegetable medicine.”  He would probably have been able to find most of the roots and herbs he needed for medications in the swamps, bottomlands, and woodlands that still covered Marion County.  There’s even some evidence that he provided medical treatment in exchange for plants.  A clip from the Indiana State Sentinel in June 1886 states that he ran a place called “The Sanative House,” probably near his home on “South Illinois Street, near the Catholic school on Georgia.”  But Dr. Fryer was long gone by 1886. In the late 1840s, the young doctor moved down to Mobile, Alabama, then to New Orleans, where he advertised his manual on health (printed in Indianapolis) for sale nationwide.  Early front-page ads in the New Orleans Daily Crescent also carry glowing testimonials (maybe fictional) from his former patients back in central Indiana.


The Daily Crescent (New Orleans), July 25, 1850 (4)

(W.K.F. Fryer claimed to have relieved more than 100,000 patients from ailments as diverse as stuttering, yellow fever, and cancer.  He was still in business in New Orleans in the 1870s, when his name appears in the city directory on a list of physicians.  This ad appeared on the front page of The Daily Crescent, July 25, 1850.)


As the number of college-trained doctors and dentists back East grew after the Civil War, “Indian doctors” were squeezed out to the West and Midwest — where many claimed to have learned their trade in the first place, straight from Native American healers and shamans.  (It’s hard to say how many of these claims are true, but a few of them probably are.)  Yet “folk doctors” weren’t necessarily bad and provided the rudiments of medical care to some patients who couldn’t afford a university-trained physician, who simply had no access to one, or who (like African Americans) were even cruelly experimented on by the medical establishment.

J.P. Dunn, an early Indianapolis historian, wrote that Indiana was a “free-for-all medical state” until 1885.  During the 1800s, American doctors and state and local officials gradually began driving “quack” doctors out of business (or at least out of town) by requiring all practitioners to hold medical licenses.  The establishment didn’t always succeed at this. As early as 1831, legislators in remote Arkansas Territory tried to outlaw quackery.  Their law, known popularly as the “Medical Aristocracy Bill,” was vetoed by the territory’s one-armed governor John Pope, a former Kentucky senator.  Pope objected to it on the grounds that it violated “the spirit of liberty” and said: “Let every man be free to employ whom he pleases where he alone is concerned.”  The governor also took a swipe at college-trained “professionals,” pointing out that

many who have gone through a regular course in the medical schools are grossly ignorant of the theory or practice of medicine. They are mere smatterers in the science. With a piece of parchment in their pocket, and a little superficial learning, they are arrogant, rash and more dangerous quacks than those who adopt the profession from a sort of instinct, or a little practical observation.

Pope may have been right.  Whether educated or not, pioneer doctors sometimes killed whole families by accident.  (My great-grandmother’s grandfather, one of the first settlers of Rosedale, Indiana, was orphaned in 1846 by a doctor who prescribed a deadly concoction of some sort to his parents and one of his brothers.  As late as 1992, then, there was a Hoosier woman still living who had actually been raised by a man victimized as a young boy by pioneer medicine.)


Williams gravestone

(“All died September 15, 1846.”  Boatman Cemetery, Parke County, Indiana.)


In 1885, Indiana finally passed a law requiring doctors either to show that they had studied at “some reputable medical college” or had practiced medicine in the Hoosier State continuously for ten years preceding the date of the act.  In April 1885, the Indiana Medical Journal endorsed this new law, saying: “It will probably make a few of the hundreds of quacks who now infest Indiana seek more congenial climes, and if enforced will prevent quacks from other states from settling within our borders.”

Yet the number of known Indian doctors operating in the state that year was low:


The Waterloo Press, June 12, 1884

(The Waterloo Press, Waterloo, Indiana, June 12, 1884.  “Accouchar” was a misspelling of accoucheur, a male midwife or obstetrician.)


As J.P. Dunn pointed out, the tough question became: what was a “reputable medical college?”  County clerks, not medical organizations, issued doctor’s licenses.  Dunn wrote that since a county clerk only got paid if he issued a license, “he was usually liberal in his views” about the meaning of the word “reputable.”  A state examination board for licensing doctors wasn’t set up in Indiana until 1897.

By then, one of the most outrageously colorful Indian doctors had already had his day in the Hoosier State and gone to his own grave.

For a few summers in the early 1880s, Dr. J.I. Lighthall, “King of Diamonds,” crisscrossed the Midwest sporting a flashy, diamond-studded suit, selling his herbal remedies and often giving them away to the poor, while also earning notoriety as a “tooth-yanker.” Lighthall caught the interest of the press and annoyed local doctors in Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Richmond, Seymour and Columbus.


The Indian Household Medicine Guide, 1883

(Dr. Lighthall’s Indian Household Medicine Guide was published from his home base of Peoria, Illinois, in 1883.)


At the beginning of his Indian Household Medicine Guide, Lighthall claimed he was born in 1856 in Tiskilwa, a small Illinois River town north of Peoria. He announced that he was of one-eighth Wyandot heritage on his father’s side and had left home at age eleven to go out West to study botany with the Indians. If that’s true, in the 1870s the teenage Lighthall lived with tribes in Minnesota, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma, picking up ethnobotanical knowledge on the Plains.  He also grew out his hair, cultivating a look that some women, at least, found sultry and exotic.


Dr. J.I. Lighthall

(This poster was printed by Cullaton & Co., Richmond, Indiana, where the twenty-something Dr. Lighthall was “Curing hundreds of people daily, at his Camp on Main St.”)


By around 1880, Lighthall had set up shop in Peoria, Illinois.  His mother apparently cooked barrels-full of his herb-, root-, and bark-based medicaments, then bottled them and shipped them by railroad or wagon.  When it came to naming his drugs, he skipped the big Latin and Greek words of modern pharmacology and came up with picturesque names like “King of Pain” and “Spanish Oil.”  Some were probably cut with whiskey, cocaine, opium, and morphine. Lighthall also offered an array of 19th-century popular medicine’s omnipresent “blood purifiers” and “liver regulators,” miracle liquids commonly advertised in mainstream newspapers — partly to keep journalism itself afloat when subscriptions lagged.

As his business picked up, the Doc put together a brass band and went into makeshift dentistry on the street.


Indiana State Sentinel, February 3, 1886

(Indiana State Sentinel, February 3, 1886.)


Educated skeptics abounded, but some of his herbal medications might actually have proven beneficial as “home remedies” for less serious ailments.  The official medical view is that some patients were probably cured by the “placebo effect” (i.e., a belief in a cure led to a real improvement due to reduced stress about the illness). Curiously, one of the real health benefits of Lighthall’s medicine shows was that he got sick people to laugh.

Although the “doc” gave off an aura of the Wild West, most of his short career as an Indian doctor was spent in Indiana and Illinois. Lighthall typically rolled into a town and stayed for a few weeks or months, long enough to garner local notoriety.  Like a well-known politician in 2016 who shall go unnamed, he probably did and said outrageous things in public on purpose to augment his fame — few of which ever seemed to hurt him. However angry the doctors and medical establishment got, “common folk” kept flocking to his medicine wagon. Dr. Lighthall’s entertainment troupe, newspapers reported, resembled a circus and was made up of about 60 “Spaniards,” “Mexicans” and “half-breeds” — and some Hoosiers from Fort Wayne.

Cleverly, Lighthall sympathized with the poor, sometimes handing out free medicine bottles wrapped in $10 and $20 bills to customers who couldn’t afford them.  While the doctor won fame for such “charity,” thousands of others forked out their nickels and dimes for entertainment — money Lighthall would throw into the air to attract an even bigger crowd.  Others came to have their teeth rapidly yanked, often for “free.”  Yet in spite of all the freebies, within a year or two, Lighthall was rumored to be worth about $150,000 (maybe ten times that much in today’s money.)  He wore clothes and a hat studded with valuable diamonds and cut an impressive appearance in public.  Women were attracted to him.  He put his gems on display at a Louisville jewel shop.  A Kentucky hat store sold a line of Lighthall-inspired Texas hats.

Lawmen and doctors tried to do him in, but usually failed.  A court in Decatur, Illinois, summoned him to appear in October 1883 for illegally practicing medicine there.  Ironically, he had just come back to Decatur from Terre Haute, where “the Philistines” and Indiana’s “sun of civilization” drove him back over the state line.


Decatur Daily Republican, July 27, 1883

(Decatur Daily Republican, July 27, 1883.)


Decatur Daily Republican, August 23, 1883

(Decatur Daily Republican, August 23, 1883.)


The Daily Review (Decatur, IL), October 17, 1883

(The Daily Review, Decatur, Illinois, October 17, 1883.  Though the doc was fined, he later produced a bogus diploma from the “University of Tennessee at Clarksville.”)


The following summer, July 1884, Dr. Lighthall’s show rolled into Fort Wayne and camped out for a few months “near the baseball park. . . The joint resembles a circus.”


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 25, 1884

(The Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 25, 1884.)


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 28, 1884

(The Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 28, 1884.)


His tooth-yanking sometimes got him into legal trouble, as when he got sued for allegedly breaking a man’s jaw in Indianapolis during a complicated dental extraction.  Lighthall’s apparent love for the ladies also turned public opinion against him.  While camped out along East Washington Street in Indianapolis in 1885, he got booked by the cops for being “rowdy” at a “house of ill fame.”  Locals accused him of trying to get two young girls near Fountain Square to run away with his troupe and “go on the stage.”

However dangerous and perhaps lecherous he might have been, Lighthall provided heavy doses of entertainment.  On a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in early 1885, the Doc got into a bloody tooth-yanking feud with a Frenchwoman engaged “in a similar line of business.”  She was dressed as an “Indian princess.” The bizarre fight that followed deserves to be restored to the annals of history.  (We also find it amazingly allegorical this election year.)


The Daily Gazette (Fort Wayne, Indiana), March 31, 1885

The Daily Gazette (Fort Wayne, Indiana), March 31, 1885 (2)

(The Daily Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana, March 31, 1885.)


Lighthall may have engaged in just such a “contest” in Indianapolis:

Decatur Daily Republican, July 14, 1885 (2)

(Decatur Daily Republican, July 14, 1885.)


After he left Louisville and the Jeffersonville area one summer, moving north to Seymour and Columbus, the Jefferonsville News reported that local dentists were busy repairing the damage Doc Lighthall had done to Hoosier jaws.

For better or worse, the Indian doctor’s (and yanker’s) own days were numbered.  By January 1886, he had headed south for the winter, encamping in San Antonio, where he was reported to be successfully filching Texas greenhorns of their greenbacks. Tragically, a smallpox epidemic broke out in un-vaccinated San Antonio that month.  The 30-year-old’s medical knowledge couldn’t save him.  He “died in his tent” on January 25, 1886.  Several men from Fort Wayne who were performing with his troupe might also have succumbed to small pox.


The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1886

(The Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 27, 1886.)


News of his demise quickly flashed over Midwestern newspapers, in towns where he had become well-known in days just gone by:

Decatur Daily Republican, January 26, 1886

(Decatur Daily Republican, Decatur, Illinois, January 26, 1886.)


Though rumor had it that Lighthall owned an expensive mansion and a medicine factory back in Peoria, he was buried at San Antonio’s City Cemetery #3, not far from The Alamo.  Fittingly, there are bellflowers carved onto his gravestone:


Lighthall grave

(Findagrave.com)


He’s been forgotten today, but Dr. J.I. Lighthall’s fame briefly lived on, with at least one Hoosier writing to ask if he was alive or dead in 1888:

Indianapolis News, March 5, 1888

(Indianapolis News, March 5, 1888.)


“Indian doctors” weren’t even on their way out the door when Lighthall died in Texas in 1886.  In 1900, in spite of efforts to regulate the practice of medicine, the patent medicine business was still reckoned to be worth about $80 million a year.  Several major traveling shows thrived into the 1950s.  By then, industrial pharmaceuticals and the discovery of antibiotics had launched medicine into a new era, but the entertainment aspect of the business kept it alive until radio and television killed it off.

Whatever the medicine shows did for the human body, they were definitely good for the soul, as the early 20th-century troupes helped fuel the rise of jazz, blues and country.  In 1983, folklorist Steve Zeitlin and filmmaker Paul Wagner were still able to find some old medicine show performers in a rural North Carolina town — the subject of their documentary Free Show Tonight.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Onions vs. Cancer

anti-onion gas mask

What’s the connection between Quakers, whalers, cancer and onions?  Here’s some unexpected medical history from the Hoosier State.

While flipping through a few of the oldest Indiana newspapers, we ran across several “vintage cures” — including a couple of surprising ones for cancer, a disease that was as feared in 1816 as it is now, though the pioneers suffered from exponentially lower rates of it.

Oddly enough, the first remedy here, which claims to be able to treat cancer with onions, might not be bogus.

Modern medical research agrees with “folk” doctors on one thing, at least:  regardless of the real havoc wreaked on your breath, garlic and onions are potent cancer-fighting foods.  These veggies rank up there with broccoli, wild berries, ginger, olive oil, and a daily glass of wine as one of nature’s best weapons against tumors.

Onions have figured into medical practice for far longer than chemotherapy and radiation.  Alternative practitioners and cancer patients often claim that vegetable-based remedies are at least as effective as chemo and radiation therapy — and they avoid the psychological side effects.  Red onions, containing high amounts of a “flavonoid” called quercetin, are a strong antioxidant, antihistamine, and natural antibiotic.  Quercetin helps protect cells and DNA against damage and reduces cholesterol and inflammation. Not only do onions lend a hand in preventing cancer to begin with, they seem to help rid the body of it.


onions 2


Believe it or not, an onion remedy for cancer appears (as a reprint) in Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun.  This 1811 remedy — published when Vincennes was still the capital of Indiana Territory and just a few months before the Battle of Tippecanoe — isn’t too far off from the “onion juice therapy” still touted in alternative medicine.

It’s doubly interesting that the list of “signers” who vouched for the cure is headed by a woman, Jane Starbuck.


starbuck

(Western Sun, Vincennes, Indiana, June 29, 1811.)


Genealogical records indicate that the Jane Starbuck who had apparently gotten involved in “folk medicine” and tried to help cancer patients was probably a Quaker named Jane Taylor Starbuck (1755-1834).   Her “receipt” (i.e., recipe) for an onion-based cure made its way into the Vincennes Western Sun by way of a copy of the Raleigh Star that was brought from North Carolina to the Wabash Valley and read by editor Elihu Stout.  (The Western Sun contains almost no local news, which would have traveled by word of mouth in a small place like Vincennes.  Stout, however, was always eager to pass on news from back East and down South.)

Jane Taylor Starbuck lived in Guilford County, North Carolina, birthplace of several thousand Quakers who began moving north to Indiana just before the War of 1812.  Most came for new land, but many came to get away from slavery, which most — not all — Quakers opposed.  Jane Taylor Starbuck seems to have stayed in the South, but her son Edward Starbuck, who also endorsed the cancer cure, joined the Quaker exodus to the Midwest.  Edward, born in 1777, settled just east of Fountain City in Wayne County.  His brother William Starbuck, another Quaker pioneer, is thought to have bought twenty-one slaves in North Carolina before he came north — a clever move against slavery, perhaps, since he set them all free when they got to Indiana.  (Even free African Americans moving north often traveled with and settled near Quakers for protection.)

If the name “Starbuck” means more to you than coffee, you’ve probably read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  The Starbuck family, into which Jane Taylor married in 1776, were prominent whalers on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.  While the Starbuck who served as chief mate of Captain Ahab’s doomed Pequod — sunk by the white whale in the South Seas — was a fictional cousin of these Hoosier pioneers, Melville’s story was based on the very real fate of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was crushed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.  The Essex’s crew, floating around the Pacific Ocean on rowboats, were reduced to cannibalism and drew lots to see who would die next.  One of the unlucky victims was a teenage sailor from Nantucket, Owen Coffin.


moby dick 2


Now if the name “Coffin” means more to you than a casket, maybe you’ve visited the home of the “President” of the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin, in Fountain City, Indiana.  Coffin’s house is just a few miles from Edward Starbuck’s farm.  One of the bravest men in Hoosier history, Levi Coffin was another ardent Quaker from Guilford County, North Carolina.  He moved to Indiana in 1826 and began funneling escaped slaves toward Canada almost as soon as he arrived.

Like the Starbucks, Levi Coffin was originally from New Garden, North Carolina, but had Nantucket family roots. He almost definitely knew Jane Taylor Starbuck and her son Edward. (Both families belonged to the New Garden Quaker Meeting.) Coffin himself was a cousin of Jane Starbuck’s husband, William, who was a Nantucket native, reared among the whalers and seafarers of colonial Massachusetts.  From his Indiana farmhouse, Levi Coffin showed as much fearlessness as his New England cousins and grandparents did sailing the remote seas.


Levi Coffin

(Levi Coffin, 1798-1877, who with his wife Catherine fought the cancer of slavery and survived to see its death, lived just north of Richmond. Their Indiana home has been called the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad.  They helped thousands evade slave catchers.)


In his memoirs, Coffin mentions an Edward Starbuck.  He and the man who offered a cancer remedy in 1811 appear to be one and the same. (Coffin wrote that an Edward Starbuck also helped him found an anti-liquor society in Fountain City — then called Newport — in 1830, when the fugitive slave conductor was also beginning a “War on King Alcohol.”)  Edward Starbuck himself lived on a farm between Whitewater and Fountain City, a few miles from Ohio.  At some point, Starbuck apparently left the Quakers to become a Methodist minister.

Here’s the onion cure — which called for more than onions, by the way.  It also required puccoon root (blood root), used in both European and American Indian pharmacology for generations as an antibiotic.  (American Indians also used it as a dye.) The Western Sun of Vincennes printed this alleged cure on June 9, 1811.


Western Sun, June 29, 1811 (1)

Western Sun, June 29, 1811 (2)

Western Sun, June 29, 1811 (3)

Western Sun, June 29, 1811 (4)

(Western Sun, Vincennes, Indiana, June 29, 1811.)


A decade later, “cures for cancer” were still coming out in American newspapers.  The 19th century turned out to be a golden age of questionable — if not downright dangerous — panaceas, some of them offered by doctors, some by quacks.  Even some university-trained practitioners swore they could make a patient cancer-free.

It’s hard to blame anybody for trying, but this cure, reprinted in the Richmond Weekly Intelligencer in 1822 and which seems to recommend some kind of cauterization, would be impossible to vouch for.


Richmond Weekly Intelligencer, August 28, 1822 (1)

Richmond Weekly Intelligencer, August 28, 1822 (2)

(Richmond Weekly Intelligencer, August 28, 1822.)


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.

The Science of the Headless Horseman

Der Kopfloser Reiter

Yesterday’s post sent a few heads rolling, but we can’t get enough this October.  Here’s a follow-up from medical science.

Contrary to popular belief, Washington Irving didn’t invent the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman from scratch.  Said to have been a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannonball during the American Revolution, the dark rider was left to roam the Catskill Mountains near a Dutch settlement in New York called Sleepy Hollow.

Written while Irving was living in Europe, the story actually drew on German and Irish folklore, where similar specters haunt the realm of the living.  There’s also a long list of early Christian saints (known as cephalophores) who according to hagiographic legends, picked up their own heads after execution and walked away — or at least uttered an important message before going silent at last.  Saint Gemolo, who probably came from Germany or Scandinavia, was even said to have grabbed his head in his hands and ridden away on horseback.

Germans told of Der Kopfloser Reiter, a shadow figure that rides out of the forest, hunts down malefactors, warns the living, and — like his cousin the Irish banshee — announces the approach of death.  Irish folklore includes reports of the dulachán or dullahan, a specter that also rides a dark horse, but he comes with some frightening accouterments:  a whip made from a human spinal cord, a funereal bone cart. . .  Like the screaming banshee, the apparition of a dullahan portends encroaching death.  And like Washington Irving’s horrid creature, the dullahan carries its own severed head, believed to look like moldy cheese.  Don’t look at the specter to find out:  he’ll throw blood in your face.


The Dublin Penny Journal, November 22, 1834

(The Dublin Penny Journal, November 22, 1834.)


Terre Haute Tribune, April 11, 1948

(Terre Haute Tribune, April 11, 1948.)


The Gazette (Stevens Point, Wisconsin), March 25, 1908(The Gazette, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, March 25, 1908.)


The Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania), December 25, 1939

(Amazingly, Dullahan is also an Irish surname.  The Gazette and Daily, York, Pennsylvania, December 25, 1939.)


With the mass emigration of Irish peasants overseas, especially after the brutal Famine of the 1840s, these stories got carried to the U.S.  Some were twisted into hyper-literary forms.  But apparently the actual banshees didn’t care for transatlantic sea voyages and stayed home in their native terrain.  Headless horsemen, though, weren’t totally fictional.

In 1870, doctors in England offered a rational explanation for what were actually real sightings of decapitated equestrians.  These sightings, of course, occurred in war zones.

Readers of the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette encountered the following clip from The Lancet, a famous London medical journal.  Founded in 1828, just nine years after Irving’s Sleepy Hollow came out, The Lancet was the brainchild of Thomas Wakley, a crusader against “incompetence, privilege, and nepotism” in British society — and flogging.  The doctor was also a radical Member of Parliament.  Wakley’s sons edited The Lancet until 1909.

The medical clip sought to explain a bizarre event during the Franco-Prussian War.  On August 6, 1870, at the Battle of Wörth in the Rhine Valley, a headless French horseman was spotted “going at full speed” across the battlefield.  The Lancet’s explanation came out a month later on September 3.


Terre Haute Daily Gazette, September 29, 1870 (1)Terre Haute Daily Gazette, September 29, 1870 (2)

(Terre Haute Daily Gazette, September 29, 1870.)


A letter to the editor sent as a follow-up and signed by Logan D.H. Russell appeared in the British magazine in January 1871.  Dr. Russell gave a few examples of “life-like” rigidity in death witnessed by doctors, nurses, and soldiers during the American Civil War.


The London Lancet, January 1871 (1)The London Lancet, January 1871 (2)(The Lancet, January 1871.)


Scientific investigation into these aspects of post-mortem physiology continued during the 20th century.  Though farmers and any homeowner with poultry in the back yard knew that “headless chickens” were no myth — the skeletal anatomy of chickens really do allow them to live briefly after decapitation — newspaper readers in 1912 were surely surprised to hear that a French surgeon in New York City had successfully performed experiments allowing headless cats to survive for another three days.


Marion Weekly Star (Marion, Ohio), December 7, 1912(The Marion Weekly Star, Marion, Ohio, December 7, 1912.)


This surgical revolution was the work of Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), one of the more unusual and forgotten pioneers of surgery.  Oddly, before he began experimenting on cats, Carrel’s scientific work took him into the realm of what most scientists consider superstition and folklore:  divine healing.

Raised in a devout Catholic family, Alexis Carrel fell away from religion as a young medical student.  In 1902, however, pressured by a colleague, he traveled to Lourdes in southwestern France to see something unusual.

Lourdes was a mountain town in the Pyrenees made famous in the 1850s by apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who allegedly came and spoke to a French shepherd girl there for weeks on end.  French scientists and secularists, calling it a fraud, tried to have Lourdes shut down under public hygiene laws after thousands of suffering believers came in search of a cure — which, incredibly, they often found.  For decades, reports of miraculous healings attributed to mineral waters from the caves and to divine intervention plagued, even embarrassed, European doctors and intellectuals.

In 1902, Alexis Carrel saw one of these miracles as it was happening:  the sudden and complete healing of a tubercular patient given up for dead.  Decades before the discovery of antibiotics, Marie Bailly, the patient, was soon declared totally free of her disease, which she was expected to die of at any moment.  She became a nun and lived for another thirty years.  Carrel, an agnostic, claimed that he actually watched her body undergo a healing transformation at Lourdes.


Alexis Carrel(Alexis Carrel, 1912.)


The young doctor delivered some of the main eyewitness testimony about the miracle — which led to his being banned from working in French hospitals and universities.  With his reputation destroyed, Carrel emigrated to Canada, where he became a cattle rancher and farmer.  Later coming to the U.S., he taught at the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute in New York.  Over the next few decades, Carrel became a pioneer in the field of vascular suturing techniques.  Helped by aviator Charles Lindbergh, he invented the perfusion pump, used to preserve organs during transplantation.

For his work in human physiology — partly involving experiments on headless cats — Carrel won a Nobel Prize in 1912.  Still baffled by the bizarre cure he witnessed at Lourdes, Carrel never retracted his belief that Marie Bailly was healed by a supernatural force, an event so strange that one writer believed it drove him mad.  His book about the Lourdes miracle, written in 1903, was only published in 1949, five years after his death.


Lourdes grotto

(Lourdes Grotto, scene of some mysterious medical phenomena.)


Science and religion both have their dark sides.  Tragically, Carrel’s went beyond cutting up cats.  By the 1930s, the French-American surgeon had become a major proponent of eugenics, the forced sterilization of “inferior” human beings and the poor.  (Carrel was no pioneer here. Back in 1907, the Indiana Legislature instituted the world’s first eugenics law.  Over 2,300 Hoosiers were sterilized in an effort to eliminate “degeneracy,” under a law only repealed in 1974.)

As a prelude to the Nazis’ perversion of science, Dr. Alexis Carrel went on to publish a bestselling book, Man, the Unknown (1935).  The Nobel Laureate even joined an anti-Semitic French fascist party, the PPF.  During Hitler’s occupation of France, Carrel helped put eugenics laws into place under the Vichy collaborators.  If he hadn’t died in 1944, the doctor would probably have been put on trial as a traitor or war criminal.

All of which is further proof that scientists — like Hessian horsemen and everybody else — can lose their head.


The Fort Wayne News (Fort Wayne, Indiana), December 6, 1912(The Fort Wayne News, Fort Wayne, Indiana, December 6, 1912.)


(Terre Haute Tribune, January 6, 1951.)

The House of Gibbering Ghosts

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901

Here’s a tale about Indian gold, the botched suicide of a pioneer medical man, things that scurry through the attic, and a horseman riding up out of the ground.

We owe this one to W.H. Blodgett, a veteran writer for the Indianapolis News, who published the piece on November 2, 1901. Blodgett typically covered politics and was the News‘ correspondent in California during the sensational trial of John and James McNamara, union men who dynamited the Los Angeles Times in October 1910.  He also took an interest in Hoosier folklore, traveling around the state looking for its spectral, mysterious past.

In October 1901, the Indianapolis News correspondent showed up on the 160-acre farm of “Gus” and Mollie Burgess along what he calls the “National Road” between Yorktown and Daleville, Indiana.  (This must be State Road 32, which runs along the White River west of Muncie.)  Blodgett had been playing cards with another reporter in Indianapolis and talking about an old haunted house that once sat on “old Mississippi Street” (Senate Avenue) when they decided to drive up to Delaware County and try to see some paranormal activity firsthand.

Charles Augustus and Mollie Burgess, both in their twenties, lived in the old farmhouse with their six-year-old son, Payton Burgess.  They told Blodgett they’d been living there for six years.  Two earlier tenants hadn’t stuck around, including one “who moved into the house one day and got out the next.”  The house sat back from the road a little and was “partly hidden by a small grove of locust trees. . . It was a lonesome-looking place on the outside, in spite of the bright lights that shone out from the windows. . . The whole place seemed to be cut off from the outer world by an invisible wall.”  The location was near a spot called “the Kilgore neighborhood, a half a mile, perhaps, from the Pike’s Peak schoolhouse, where many a good citizen of Delaware County received his early training.”

A Native American graveyard was also located “close by.”  “Even to this day, bones, arrows and crude implements of the chase are plowed up,” wrote Blodgett.  Central Indiana farmers back then sometimes kept barrels full of bones that cropped up in their fields, tumbled out of decaying burial mounds, or even showed up in the hollows of ancient trees.


Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (2)

(“Tenants of the haunted house,” Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901.)


As Blodgett told it, two legends converged on the Burgess’ White River Valley farm.   The first involved a “famous Indian chief known as Wa-Sa He-To — The Fox.”  Wa-Sa He-To, according to this story, had traded with white pioneers and “in his wigwam he had $5,000 in gold.”  After The Fox died in a wolf hunt, his gold disappeared.

By the 1890s, Spiritualists from nearby Camp Chesterfield — ground zero for paranormal investigation in the Hoosier State — were said to be conducting seances to locate the lost gold, thought to be cached near a great rock along the White River.  Blodgett never mentioned how “The Fox” died — was he eaten by a wolf? — only that his spirit might have found a new home in the “boggy swamp”  next to the river.  At some point in fact or fable, The Fox turned into a headless horseman, riding out over area farms, out of barn doors, and even straight up from the soil.

The other ghost lurking around the Burgess farmhouse — “this house of gibbering ghosts” — was rumored to be the phantom of Dr. George Washington Slack, a former inhabitant.  Slack had come to Delaware County from Pennsylvania in the 1830s as a 12-year-old settler with his parents.  After studying at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Dr. Slack went on to practice medicine in Yorktown and apparently became well known in central Indiana.  His eight children probably lived in the house with him — which might have been the original log cabin his parents built.  Slack died in January 1886, aged sixty.  Burgess misidentifies him as “Cyrus Slack,” then tells the story (perhaps imaginary) of his botched attempt to do himself in.

Here’s the tale.


Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (4)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (5)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (6)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (14)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (7)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (8)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (9)

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (10)


An article from the Indiana Herald in Huntington suggests that Dr. Slack died of apoplexy.   Yet it’s always possible that folklore got the facts correct, since in the case of the suicide of a respectable country doctor, the family might not have shared the full tale with the press and neighbors.  The truth about the doctor’s demise remains a mystery.  But it seems that like Wa-Sa He-To, he, too, was a candidate for the status of “Headless Horseman.”

Indianapolis News correspondent W.H. Blodgett slept easy that night — at least until he was awakened by an “unearthly noise” in the neighboring bed.  His traveling companion and fellow ghost-hunter, “Dick,” had started choking, gurgling, and gasping. . . “a muffled call for help.”

“Guess I had the nightmare,” said Dick, finally awakened.  Had the horse come after all? “Nightmare” is partly related to Old Norse words for a “night ride,” a “night horse,” or a “mare dream” — and the demon that rides them.

I thought a ghost without a head on a headless horse was chasing me and made me jump over a high cliff, and just as I struck, a fellow all in white was trying to crowd three fingers down my throat.  Have you heard any ghosts?


Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901 (11)


Nightmare -- Fuseli

(The Night Mare, based on a painting by Henry Fuseli, 1781.)


“Gus” Burgess later became the postmaster of Yorktown.  His brother Clyde — a spitting image — ran a Shell Station there in the 1930s or ’40s.

Inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, William H. Blodgett, born in Illinois in 1857, died in 1924.  He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Hunt for Hoosier ghost tales and more on our search engine.

The Rotgut Record

January 2, 1920 (2-2)

Digitized newspapers provide a rich boon to researchers on American medical history.  From quack medicine ads to stories about diseases, from under-appreciated tales of wartime doctors to a gory list of “1000 Ways to Die,” old papers are gold mines.

Alcohol, of course, is part of medical history.  Prohibition-era journalists were divided on whether America should turn off the tap.  Indiana was one of several states to preempt the Federal ban on booze. the Volstead Act of January 1920, which officially ushered in Prohibition nationwide.  As early as 1855, the Hoosier State tried out a liquor-ban.  That law was repealed in 1858.  Yet agitators kept on fighting against the bottle and the bier stein.  In 1918, Indiana officially went “dry” again.

Nineteenth-century Americans were far heavier drinkers than today, and alcohol percentages tended to be higher.  On-the-job drinking was allowed, sometimes even encouraged.  Prohibitionists might seem prim today, but attempts to abolish beer and liquor were often tied to some real public health concerns.  “Liberal” and “conservative” politics have changed over the last century.  Many, perhaps most, anti-alcohol crusaders were progressivists who also spearheaded the movement for women’s rights and child labor reform — and whose public health campaigns were frequently inspired by religious belief.  Patriot Phalanx, a Prohibition Party newspaper started by Quaker Sylvester Johnson in Indianapolis,  was a prominent mouthpiece.


Beer suicide

(Singer and comedian Ernie Hare wasn’t happy about beer’s demise.)


Unfortunately, shutting down saloons, etc., often had as much to do with racial, ethnic, and religious tension as it did with health concerns, and the whole law was primarily directed at the poor.  Indiana’s powerful Ku Klux Klan was, at least officially, anti-liquor — partly because of booze’s association with German and Irish Catholics, whose leader at the Vatican the Hoosier KKK was virtually at war with during the 1920s, over issues like public schools.  And the urban poor were very often Catholic.

One of the real perils of Prohibition was this:  heavy drinkers and alcoholics still had a huge thirst to quench.  Chronic tipplers had a few legal sources, like medicinal alcohol — and communion wine.  Yet they often had fatal recourse to intoxicating liquids that nobody, of course, would normally drink.  A fascinating if sober aspect of Prohibition lies in the story of the “beverages” they sometimes resorted to.

“Rotgut,” cheap, low-quality, potentially toxic liquor, was a common news headline even before 1920.

Wood Alcohol

The “detox” problem — how to help out alcoholics — must have crossed the minds of Prohibitionists.  But where alcohol was banned, death began to follow in its wake.  And toxic liquor had become a global problem.

In 1914, Tsarist Russia banned the sale of alcohol except in restaurants, partly as a war measure to keep soldiers from getting drunk.  Throughout the Russian Revolution — until 1924, in fact — the ban survived.  But Russians’ sudden inability to get their famous national drink, vodka, led to many deaths.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reprinted a litany of shocking tales about the lengths to which Russians would go to get a stiff drink during World War I.  Forlorn men turned to guzzling perfume, cologne, khanza (red pepper mixed with spices and wood alcohol), and kvasok (a concoction of cider, yeast, wild hops, and snuff).  Kvasok, incidentally, is the Czech word for “sourdough.”


Jasper Weekly Courier, September 3, 1915

(Jasper Weekly Courier, September 3, 1915)


American newspapers had been advertising the dangers of wood alcohol for years.  Called methanol by chemists (not to be confused with methamphetamine), wood alcohol traditionally was produced like other spirits, through distillation.  Ancient Egyptians had figured out the process and often used the resulting spirit — called the “simplest alcohol” — in embalming the dead.  In the West, methanol was employed in a variety of industrial and other trades as a cleaner, in photography studios, and in tin and brass works.  Around 1914, barbers were using it in a lotion called bay rum.  Baltimore physician Dr. Leonard K. Hirshberg warned Americans that year about the danger of their barber causing them to lose their eyesight, since imbibing or inhaling wood alcohol could lead to blindness, even death.


Wood alcohol -- Indianapolis Star, October 19, 1914

(Indianapolis Star, October 19, 1914)


Industrially, methanol is used as a feedstock in making other chemicals.  Changed into formaldehyde, it is converted for products as diverse as paints, plastics, explosives, deicing fluid for airplanes, and copy-machine fluid.  As the automobile age dawned, methanol came to be a component of antifreeze.  Doctors as well as newspaper reporters were keen on reminding drivers and mechanics that too much exposure to the chemical, whether through breathing or touching, could cause blindness or worse.  At the time Dr. Hirshberg was writing, there was probably a lot of wood alcohol around Indianapolis and South Bend, pioneer towns of the auto industry.  Today, methanol is used as fuel in dirt trucks and Monster trucks.  It’s also the required fuel of all race cars at the Indianapolis 500, adopted as a safety feature after a deadly crash and explosion at the Hoosier track in 1964.

You can imagine the perils of chugging the stuff.  Yet back in 1903, a couple in Columbus, Indiana, drank a deadly wood alcohol toddy, either by accident or through fatal ignorance of its effects.  A year later, three artillerymen, thinking wood alcohol was a joke, died at Fort Terry in New London, Connecticut.  In Philadelphia, the proprietor of a hat-cleaning shop who used the liquid in his trade had to mix red dye in it to try to deter his employees from stealing and drinking the stuff out back.  The trick didn’t work, and he claimed “they’re used to it” now.  Suicides found it handy, too — like an 18-year-old girl in South Bend who fell in love with a high school teacher.


Wood Alcohol -- Indianapolis Star, November 12, 1910(Indianapolis Star, November 12, 1910)


Some people said that refined wood alcohol smelled like old Kentucky rye.  The toxic effects usually took a few hours to kick in, so group deaths often occurred after bottles of it were passed around among chums having a “drink orgy.”

After Congress passed the Volstead Act on January 17, 1920, the news was soon full of stories about desperate attempts to quench the literally killing thirst — and of unscrupulous efforts to profit off drinkers’ desperation.

A Brooklyn undertaker, John Romanelli, and four other men were indicted in 1920 on charges on selling wood alcohol mixed with “water, burned sugar and flavoring extracts.”   They had sold the batch for $23,000 and the resultant “whiskey” caused “scores of deaths” in New England around Christmas-time and New Years’.  In St. Paul, Minnesota, in March 1920, nine imbibers died in a 24-hour period.

Just two weeks before the new law went into effect, a Gary, Indiana, woman, Ella Curza, got a 60-day prison sentence and a $50 fine for possession of eighteen bottles of wood alcohol that she was allegedly peddling as an intoxicant.  Hammond’s Lake County Times was already covering glimmers of the story — including the sale of methanol cocktails to unwitting men and U.S. soldiers stationed in Gary during the 1919 national steel strike.


January 2, 1920

(Lake County Times, Hammond, Indiana, January 2, 1920)


January 3, 1920 (6)(Lake County Times, January 3, 1920)


By 1922, with the crackdown on hootch in full swing, the editors of the South Bend News-Times — a liberal-minded paper — issued figures on the estimated toll of wood spirits.  “Wood alcohol is now killing 260 and blinding 44 Americans a year… In Pennsylvania the known deaths due to wood alcohol poisoning last year totaled 61… Including unreported cases, wood alcohol’s death toll probably exceeds 1,500 a year.”


Wood Alcohol -- South Bend News-Times, August 29, 1922

(South Bend News-Times, August 29, 1922)


In New York, in the first six months of 1922 alone, 130 deaths and 22 cases of blindness were reported, a figure some officials thought “incomplete.”

Future Hollywood comedic actor Charles Butterworth, who was a reporter in his hometown of South Bend in 1922, penned a story about a certain medical claim:  that alcohol-related deaths were actually higher after the Volstead Act came into effect than before.  The St. Joseph County Coroner, Dr. C.L. Crumpacker, and other local medical men thought this statement was preposterous, however:


Wood Alcohol -- South Bend News-Times, July 2, 1922

Wood Alcohol -- South Bend News-Times, July 2, 1922 (2)

(South Bend News Times, July 2, 1922)


Prohibition clearly failed and would be lifted by Franklin Roosevelt in December 1933.  Yet as one latter-day journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winner Deborah Blum, has discovered, the U.S. government — faced with the continuing thirst that led some Americans to crime and the more ignorant to varnish and perfume — decided to try out a different tactic.

Just before Christmas 1926, Federal agents deliberately began poisoning alcohols typically utilized by bootleggers.  In an attempt to deter the public — even scare them into staying dry — the Feds essentially turned almost all alcohol into undrinkable “industrial” alcohol.  Bootleggers tried to re-distill what the government had actively poisoned, which led to the deaths of (by some estimates) 10,000 people, deaths indirectly caused by the government’s “poisoning program.”

Blum, who has taught journalism at MIT and the University of Wisconsin and is a columnist for the New York Times, is no conspiracy theorist.  This is real history.   In 2010, Blum authored The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York — a book made into a PBS/American Experience documentary in 2014.


PBS(Courtesy Penguin Books/PBS.)


Lake County Times, January 15, 1920(Lake County Times, January 15, 1920)

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 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 grave robber (“ghoul” in 19th-century speak) unearths 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 one of the best knacks 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 fabulous 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 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.  (Pronounced “Ver-saylz”, the town is about 25 miles north of Madison and 50 miles west of Cincinnati.)


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)


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.