Tag Archives: medicine

“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 Cristmastime, 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 crisscrossed 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 whites and five blacks in all — 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, a 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 skeleton’s brother.)


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 illustrious corpse — like slave bodies, considered property — 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(Faculty of Winchester Medical College, 1858-89.)


It seems that he did.  Mary Greenhow Lee, a famous diarist in Winchester during the Civil War, wrote — with sick pleasure — 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.

Books vs. Candy

Curious Cabbage vs. Fighting Tailor

Nineteenth-century American newspapers overflowed with medical ads.  Many touted quack panaceas, remedies for everything from dropsy and tuberculosis to STDs and impotence.  At a time when even “scientific” medicine was often little better than the variety promoted by “snake doctors,” folk medicine and spurious innovators actually helped keep newspapers afloat — as underwriters paying for ad space.

Six years before the Civil War broke out, the editors of the Brookville Indiana American put in some clever medical commentary.  Rather than feed your kids candy — a potential medical and dental no-no — why not buy them “toy books,” ancestor of the “pop-up” book?


Indiana American (Brookville), August 31, 1855

(Brookville Indiana American, August 31, 1855.)


A few months later, candy sales must have still been trumping sales of movable toy books at Dr. Keely’s.  The editors reissued their advice:  buy your kids candy for the brain, not sugary venom that “injures the health.”


Indiana American (Brookville), February 8, 1856(Brookville Indiana American, February 8, 1856.)


Was this the dry, brutal utilitarianism of Charles Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind?  (The satiric Hard Times, which included an overbearing schoolteacher named M’Choakumchild, came out in 1854.)

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.

What were these “toy books,” competitors of the sugary destroyer?

Modern readers might imagine that the movable revolution in children’s literature is a new phenomenon. Yet the earliest books incorporating retractable parts date back to the 13th century.  Spanish philosopher Ramón Llull, who tried to demonstrate God’s existence through numerology, put spinning paper wheels in his books.  These helped the reader understand the mathematical charts illustrating Llull’s theories about the universe as a thinking machine.

Cosmologists’ use of movable book parts was complemented by Renaissance-era medical men.  One example was Dutch doctor Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body), printed in Switzerland in 1543.  Readers of this anatomical manual could lift flaps covering Vesalius’ illustrations to get a peak at the human innards and even watch a child being born.

Eighteenth-century London publisher Robert Sayer made a different kind of “interactive book.”  Around 1765, Sayer was making books with movable flaps revealing the “inside story” of everything from children’s tales and folk ballads to the story of Adam and Eve and the metamorphoses of Harlequin, a stock character in Italian comic theater.  Sayer’s “Harlequinades” were hugely popular in England and Europe.  Some must have showed up in colonial America.


Harlequinade of Adam and Eve, circa 1770

(Robert Sayer, Harlequinade of Adam & Eve, circa 1770.  A short history of the origins of death.)


By the 19th century, book makers were taking movable illustrations even further.  In England, Stacey and William Grimaldi published a title in 1821 called The Toilet Book or just The Toilet.  The Grimaldis — father and son — promoted the traditional idea that feminine beauty was a mark of virtue.  (“Toilet” referred to beautification, washing, and maintaining one’s health at a time when poet John Keats emphasized that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”)  The Grimaldis’ illustrations of mirrors, perfume bottles, etc., could be lifted up to reveal fortune-teller-like revelations.

In addition to “peep show” and “tunnel” books — paper cut-outs depicting theater scenes — some of the best-known and most successful examples of the “interactive book” before the Civil War were those of Dean & Son, English publishers.  These were probably available at Hoosier bookstores before the Civil War — copies were advertised for sale in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1860.  Paper images were connected to paper tabs that, when levered back and forth, moved the cut-out characters around the page or flipped the entire illustration over to reveal a development in the story.

One of the Deans’ most popular titles was Dissolving Views.  A kind of 3-D forerunner to the stereoscope, which allowed readers to travel to places they would never see in person, some of its illustrations showed exotic landscapes, such as volcanoes erupting — succeeded by fire’s elemental opposite, cascading water.  Others depicted folktales or comic scenes with a didactic message.


Sausage Meat 1Sausage Meat 2(Dissolving Views, publishing house of George Dean, London, 1862.)


With the invention of cameras, improvements in optics, and the advent of more sophisticated magic-lantern projectors (first developed in the 1650s), “dissolving views” became a synonym for early, “phantasmagoric” versions of the cinema.  During the days of Dickens, these motion pictures were big entertainment.  Eventually, they evolved into silent film.


The Times-Picayune, February 21, 1841(The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 21, 1841.)


Indianapolis News, November 2, 1870

(Indianapolis News, November 2, 1870.)


Contemporary newspaper advertisements show that several Hoosier booksellers stocked “toy books” in the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, they don’t list the titles.  Yet as Brookville’s Indiana American shows, as early as 1831, just fifteen years after Indiana achieved statehood and with much of it still wilderness, even small country towns had access to these children’s books.

In Lawrenceburg on the Ohio River, toy books were sold alongside such things as thermometers, spy glasses, tooth picks, mustard seed, cough drops, and… tweezers:

Western Statesman, January 7, 1831

(Lawrenceburg Western Statesman, January 7, 1831.)


The Indiana Whig, January 25, 1844(Lawrenceburg Indiana Whig, January 25, 1844.)


Brookville American, December 24, 1858(Brookville American, December 24, 1858.)


Evansville Daily Journal, December 18, 1852

(Evansville Daily Journal, December 18, 1852.)


Richmond Dispatch, December 23, 1859

(Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, December 23, 1859.)


Daily Evansville Journal, December 25, 1862(Daily Evansville Journal, December 25, 1862.)


In December 1868, a weary Indianapolis father trudging home in “a half dreamy state” after fifteen hours “at the office” was surprised by a man standing on his roof when he got home.  Santa Claus, whom he insulted as “You confounded Dutch idiot,” was greeting him with a “Hi! Hello! Stop! Hold on!”

Santa showed the man a sneak preview of what he was bringing his children.  This windy story — in reality, an ad for Indianapolis’ Bowen, Stewart & Co. — might rank as one of the longest ads for a bookstore in the annals of American journalism. Fortunately, Santa wasn’t hauling around a bag-load of candy:

Daily State Sentinel, December 23, 1868 (1)Daily State Sentinel, December 23, 1868 (3)(Daily State Sentinel, December 23, 1868.)

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.)

When Theodore Roosevelt Was Hospitalized at St. Vincent’s

Indianapolis Journal, September 23, 1902

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

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

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


Roosevelt Car, Pittsfield, Mass., 1902

(The stricken presidential carriage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 1902.  Courtesy Harvard University Library.)


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

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


Roosevelt in Tipton, 1902

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


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

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

image

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

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


Indianapolis Journal, September 24, 1902

(Indianapolis Journal, September 24, 1902.)


Indianapolis News, September 24, 1902 (2)

(Indianapolis News, September 24, 1902.)


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

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


Daughters of Charity 5


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

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

We should doff our hats to them, too.

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

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

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


Daughters of Charity 2

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


Daughters of Charity 3

(Hospital radium ward, New Orleans, 1963.)


Daughters of Charity 1918

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


Daughters of Charity 4

(Reading with children, 1950s.)


Daughters of Charity 1

(The “Butterfly Nuns” drink 7-UP, circa 1960.)


Kokomo Morning Times, September 1, 1964

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

Harry L. Kramer and the Candy Cathartic

Cascarets ad 2

In the sometimes not-so-good old days, Hoosier newspapers were overflowing with ads for what today we’d call snake oil.  Before the Civil War, when these papers typically only ran to four pages and often lacked enough subscribers to stay afloat, vast amounts of newsprint went to work advertising spurious quack panaceas.  As late as 1900, editors in need of underwriters for the news had no qualms about giving ad space to “doctors” who thought that cocaine could cure a sore throat or that an effervescent ginger “summer drink” could get rid of your cholera.

Nor did the amount of medical ads diminish after the war.

From the turn of the century until World War I, a massive national advertising campaign directed at mothers and kids touted a tasty cure-all with roots in the Wabash Valley:  Kramer’s Cascarets, “The Candy Cathartic.”

Born in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1861, to parents who hailed from Richmond, Indiana, Harry Lewis Kramer was a clever businessman and one of the most energetic and revolutionary advertisers of his day.

In 1890, the 29-year-old entrepreneur, who lived in Attica in Fountain County, attracted investors and started up a health resort at a spot near the spectacular Fall Creek Gorge in neighboring Warren County.

Built around a mineral spring discovered in 1884 by Civil War veteran Samuel Story (a victim of severe arthritis who noticed his ailment getting better when he sloshed around in the mud), the lavish hotel Kramer constructed first went by the name Indiana Mineral Springs, then as the Hotel Mudlavia, after the soothing mud-baths offered there.  A service town that popped up next door to the resort took the name of its postmaster, Kramer, and is still on the map, though the hotel has faded into legend.


Harry L Kramer - Fair Play Sainte Genevieve Missouri September 17 1904

(Kramer made sure his face was all over small-town American newspapers.  This clip appeared in Fair Play in Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, on September 17, 1904.  Printer’s Ink hailed Kramer as “a man of almost superhuman energy — a new Napoleon, perhaps. . . He writes his own advertisements, all of which are characterized by wonderful originality and a desire to get out of the beaten track.”)


Mudlavia Hotel 1

(Hotel Mudlavia near Williamsport, Indiana, around 1917.  This photo was taken by Anna Marie Landis, who worked at the famous resort.  Williamsport-Washington Township Public Library.)


Kramer’s sprawling Mudlavia health spa attracted the rich and famous — including boxing champion John L. Sullivan, Indianapolis poet James Whitcomb Riley, and Hoosier songwriter Paul Dresser. Papers lauded it at as “one of the finest sanatariums in the United States.”  Mudlavia ranked with the great mineral baths at French Lick, Indiana; Bedford, Pennsylvania; and Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The lure?  Not just nature — or the elaborate Chinese garden out back.  Pure mineral waters bubbling out of the Warren County hills offered relief from a vast array of bodily ailments.  Infusing water with mud, doctors and their assistants at Kramer’s resort offered a therapeutic “Magno-Mud” cure (sometimes misspelled “mango mud” in the papers), giving blissful relief to aching joints and muscles.  Kidneys and livers also went away from Mudlavia feeling much happier.


Mudlavia Hotel 2

(A guest at Mudlavia gets a mud bath, circa 1917.  An ad for Kramer’s chewing gum, “No-To-Bac,” hangs on the wall behind him.  Click to enlarge.  Williamsport-Washington Township Public Library.)


Closely tied to Kramer’s investment in this tranquil health spa in the luscious Hoosier woods was his other main business interest: a sugary substitute for the dreaded dose of castor oil once administered by American mothers everywhere.  This was Kramer’s nationally-famous “candy cathartic,” Cascarets.

Dozens of speedy and sure-fire purgatives feature in the annals of 19th-century medicine and journalism.  From a spoonful of old-fashioned castor oil itself to a gentler “Castoria” and a wide variety of sarsaparillas and “fig liver syrups,” our ancestors knew plenty of ways to achieve what they rightly saw as the highly-desirable result of these over-the-counter drugs:  a vigorous flush of the intestines.


warner's log cabin sarsaparilla

(Hoosiers William Henry Harrison and his grandson Benjamin Harrison appeared on this 1880’s ad for a cure-all wonderworker.)


I’m not sure if Kramer ever studied chemistry and medicine or just stuck to the business end of things.  But in the 1890s he made a fortune selling laxatives.  (The Attica entrepreneur also marketed a chewing gum called No-To-Bac, which claimed to help smokers kick the habit.)  Pioneered at a lab in Attica, by 1899 five million boxes of octagonal, chocolaty-tasting Cascarets were pouring out of Kramer’s factories in Chicago and New York.

“Cascaret Kramer” revolutionized American advertising, but he was no medical Napoleon.  Plant-based laxatives, used to flush out the bowels, had figured for millennia into folk medical practice.  The jolt to the nether regions customers got from these candy cathartics came from the drug’s most potent ingredient, the bark of a species of buckthorn tree — the cascara, native to the Pacific Northwest, northern California, and Idaho.  Early Spanish explorers called this diminutive tree the cascara sagrada (“sacred bark”).  Mixed with aloe and the roots of rhubarb, Native Americans on the Pacific Coast and in the Northern Rockies used it as a natural purgative.

By the late 1800s, trainloads of buckthorn bark were being shipped out of the Northwest to pharmaceutical companies around the world in quantities that endangered the tree’s survival.  Much of the bark went to the factories of the Sterling Remedy Company, Kramer’s wildly successful over-the-counter pharmaceutical enterprise.

Like other Americans,  Hoosiers were wild for a good clean-out.  Kramer helped create the craze.  On April 25, 1907, the Indianapolis News ran a full page-length ad (really a medical manifesto). “The Curse of Constipation” was almost certainly written by Harry Kramer.


Indianapolis News April 25 1907


Often Caused by Castor Oil and Salts

A Warning That All Should Read and Heed

Constipation is indeed the curse of mankind.  From a simple bit of carelessness this dreadful destroyer of life gets a hold on its victim and slowly but surely tortures him to a horrible death.

It is a fact that all people at some time or other become constipated, and if the warning be not instantly heeded, and the system put back into working order without delay, the victim is marked for death — a long, lingering one, often so disguised that no one would dream of its original cause.

It is also true that nearly every disease recorded by medical science has its beginning in constipation.  Yes, great learned men have said that if people would learn to keep their bowels in order there would be no disease.  Professor B. Howard Rand, the great professor of chemistry in the famous Jefferson Medical College, as a farewell advice to the newly graduating class of young doctors, always said “Trust in God and keep your patients’ bowels open!”

Going into amazing detail in the pages of the News, Kramer went on to describe how Cascarets “begin to cure the moment you begin to chew them.”  These buckthorn candies give “tone and strength” to the walls of the intestines and (so the ad went) help purify the blood, give “a ruddy complexion; bright eyes; clear, active brain; everything that makes life worth living.”  Kramer promoted his tablets as useful against ills far beyond those affecting the intestines.  Children’s diseases, headaches, nervous ailments, female complaints, skin diseases, appendicitis, oral thrush, and worms could all be kept in check or cured.

Some of the drug’s benefits were almost certainly mythic.  One of many printed endorsements ran: “After taking Cascarets for a few nights before writing, I was able to pass a tape-worm 24 feet in length.  Cascarets have our praise. . . — Mrs. Harry Wood, Kenneth, Indiana.”

Kramer sold his candy cathartic for a dime in handy, pocket-sized metal boxes.  “You don’t know until you try how much good is crowded into a little 10-cent box.”


Gunters Magazine Advertiser

(“Grandfather’s Cure for Constipation,” one of Kramer’s humorous ads, appeared in Gunter’s Magazine Advertiser in 1906.)


Cascarets - South Bend News Times November 20 1918

(Kramer’s clever marketing extended to kids, who often didn’t realize they were taking “medication” when they downed a sweet Cascaret.  “They are harmless and safe for the little folks.”  This ad from the South Bend News-Times on November 20, 1918, shows a “Kid’s Indignation Meeting.”  A marketing genius, Kramer often paid to have his ads run in the regular news columns of papers.)


South Bend News Times November 19 1918 (3)

(South Bend News-Times, November 19, 1918.)


Cascarets - South Bend News Times November 30 1918

(South Bend News-Times, November 30, 1918.)


Cascarets - Plymouth Tribune January 16 1908

(Plymouth Tribune, January 16, 1908.)


The name and popularity of the sugar-coated laxative became so widespread that it entered the popular vocabulary.  A polo team in Anderson, Indiana, took the name “Anderson Cascarets” around 1904.  In New York City, night-workers at banks began to be known as “Cascarets” because they “work while you sleep.”


Cascarets -- Lake County Times, April 5, 1920

(Lake County Times, Hammond, Indiana, April 5, 1920)


Cascarets ad 4


Kramer sold his product rights for the drug to the Sterling Remedy Company around 1918 so that he could focus on his health resort at Mudlavia.  (The company was then based in Wheeling, West Virginia.)

Tragically, on February 29, 1920, a fire in a linen closet reduced the vast wooden hotel to ashes.  Many sick patients at the sanitarium, unable to walk due to rheumatism, were barely able to get out alive.  Some guests jumped from third-story windows, then suffered in the February cold even as Mudlavia smoldered in front of them.  Over fifty-thousand dollars in jewels perished in the flames.

Harry Kramer planned to rebuild the hotel, but never did.  The advent of antibiotics and the coming of the Great Depression effectively ended the heyday of the great American health spas.  (The owners of the French Lick resort in southern Indiana sold it to the Jesuits for use as a school in the 1930s for $1.00.)

Kramer retired to 1012 Ferry Street in Lafayette and died of a heart attack in 1935, apparently while visiting the license branch of the Tippecanoe County DMV.  The inventor of Cascarets is buried at Lafayette’s Greenbush Cemetery.

A retirement home and restaurant were built on the site of Mudlavia.  They, too, burned down in 1974.  (Some ghost hunters claim the site is haunted.)  As late as 2008, the natural spring that once made this place famous was still being tapped by an Indianapolis-based mineral water company.  The FDA banned the use of cascara bark in 2008, when researchers discovered the plant has carcinogenic properties and (ironically enough) may contribute to liver ailments.

Harry L Kramer at Mudlavia

(Kramer in his office at Mudlavia around 1917.)


Mudlavia Hotel 7

(Mudlavia Hotel, Attica, Indiana.  Allen County Public Library.)


staylor336 [at] gmail.com

The Terre Haute Madstone

madstone2

In 1858, Terre Haute, Indiana, was beginning to have an odd distinction:  bite victims from all over the Midwest were coming here for a cure.

That year, Isaac M. Brown, editor of the Terre Haute Daily Union, suggested to the city council that the town purchase for public use a “madstone,” a curious leech-like hair ball found in the guts of deer — preferably an albino buck.

For centuries, folk doctors on both sides of the Atlantic believed such madstones to be helpful in warding off rabies infections and healing poisonous bites.  (Queen Elizabeth I of England apparently kept a madstone hanging around her neck.)  To back up his support for this public health measure in Terre Haute, Brown quoted a letter from the Mount Pleasant Journal in Iowa, which tells the wild story of one settler there, Seth Stanton, bitten by a rabid feline at his home near the Missouri state line.

On the morning of the 15th of March last I arose early, walked out to the gate in front of my house where I was attacked by a mad animal — a mad cat.  It sprang upon me with all the ferocity of a tiger, biting me on both ankles, taking a piece entirely out of my left ankle, clothing flesh and all. [Perhaps it was a wildcat, not a domestic creature.  Stanton is not specific.] I saw at once my hopeless condition, for the glairing eyes of the cat told me at once that it was in a fit of hydrophobia.  I at once resolved to start forthwith to Terre-Haute, Ind., expecting there to find a mad stone.  Accordingly in a few hours, myself and wife were under way, crowding all sail for that port.

Though rabies can take as much as a year to incubate and show any of its awful signs, Stanton wasted no time in traveling by train or river boat back east to Indiana.  But when he discovered there was a madstone seventeen miles from Alton, Illinois, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis, he stopped there.  Eight days after he was bitten, he wrote, “My leg turned spotted as a leopard to my body, of a dark green color, with twitching of the nerves.”

[I] drank no water for eight days.  The stone was promptly applied to the wounds.  It stuck fast as a leech until gorged with poison, when it fell off volunteerly [sic].  It was then cleaned with sweet milk, salt and water, and was applied again, and so on, for seven rounds, drawing hard each time, when it refused to take hold any more. — The bad symptoms then all left me, and the cure was complete, and I returned to my family and friends with a heart all overflowing with thanksgiving and praises to God for His goodness and mercy in thus snatching me from the very jaws of death.


terre haute madstone


American medical history is full of strange tales and oddball personalities — full as any old folktale.  In some cases, medicine and folklore come together.

Though my family has been in Terre Haute since the mid-1800s, I certainly had never heard anything about a famous “madstone” there.  The “Terre Haute madstone,” however, shows up over several decades in American and even Canadian newspapers.  At one time, journalists made Terre Haute out to be a virtual “madstone” mecca.

Madstones definitely weren’t Blarney Stones, and people who came looking for them weren’t tourists.  Madstones, it turns out, weren’t even rocks at all.  Once used as part of a rare but geographically widespread folk medical practice, they are also termed bezoars in both folklore and medical science.  Categorized according to the type of material that causes their formation — usually milk, seeds, or plants mixed with an animal’s own hair from licking itself — bezoars are calcareous masses found in the gastrointestinal tracts of deer, sheep, goats, horses and even walruses. In folk usage, these masses were mistaken for actual stones, sometimes polished to look like beautiful grey hen’s eggs, and often thought to have nearly-miraculous properties.

Frontiersmen believed that when applied to the bite of a rabid animal, and in some cases even that of a poisonous snake, madstones could draw out the rabies virus or poison before the tell-tale symptoms set in.  Rabies is almost always fatal and one of the worst ways to die, for the record.  Get your vaccination now, as victims of the infection will suffer from extreme, deathbed-splintering spasms as the virus wreaks havoc on the nervous system.  Hydrophobia, characterized by frothing at the mouth and intense fear of water, follows from the inability to swallow.  Even in 2015, there is no rabies cure.  According to Dr. Charles E. Davis in The International Traveler’s Guide to Avoiding Infections, the World Health Organization knows of only one case of a human with rabies escaping an excruciating death once the virus reached the brain.


Try_a_Mad_Stone(Farmer’s Almanac.)


woodcut-of-a-rabid-dog-middle-temple-library(On the mad dog.  From a Renaissance-era French medical book about poisons.)


While the madstone has been thoroughly debunked, one can hardly fault the practitioners of early madstone “medicine” for giving it a go.  In some parts of America, use of these stones lingered on into the 1940s.

One of the better pieces of writing about American madstones appeared in the Summer 1983 issue of Bittersweet, a magazine published by high-school students in Lebanon, Missouri.  Called the “Foxfire of the Ozarks,” Bittersweet was a spin-off of the hugely popular books written by students in Georgia in the early 1970s.  Based on interviews with Appalachian and Ozark old-timers, Foxfire and Bittersweet were a major spur to the countercultural back-to-the-land movement that came about during the days of the Vietnam War.

In “Madstone: Truth or Myth?” student Dena Myers looked at the old folk belief, once common far outside the Ozarks.  She tapped into a vast repertory of tales claiming the stone’s effectiveness.

Drawing on interviews, Myers describes the actual use of the madstone:

People using the madstone for treatment boil the stone in sweet milk, or sometimes alcohol. While still hot, they apply the madstone to the wound.  If the victim has rabies, the stone will stick to the wound and draw out the poison.  Once the stone adheres to the wound, it cannot be pulled off.  After the stone is filled with the poison, it drops off by itself.  It is then boiled again in the milk which turns green the second time.  The process of boiling and applying is repeated until the stone no longer sticks to the wound.

French scientist Louis Pasteur pioneered a rabies vaccine in the 1880s, but its side-effects were so terrible that many people avoided it.  (“Some Ozarkians say they would rather use the madstone than take the shots,” Myers wrote.)  References to a “Pasteur treatment” or “cure” at the turn of the century are misleading.  Once symptoms appear, “treatment” for rabies can do little but lessen the agony of death.  Those who “recovered” from rabies after a madstone treatment never had it to begin with.

Fred Gipson’s novel Old Yeller, set in the Texas Hill Country around the time Pasteur was working on the first rabies vaccine, captures the real tragedy of the disease, which was common before vaccines, muzzling and the “destroying” of animals brought it under control in developed countries.  In the U.S. today, rabies rarely occurs in dogs and cats, but still occasionally shows up in bats, who transfer it to livestock, pets, and humans, often un-vaccinated spelunkers.

Belief in a madstone remedy for rabies goes back centuries.  (Bezoar, in fact, is based on a Persian word, and use of the stone was recommended in Arabic medical manuals in medieval Spain.)  Scottish settlers seem to have been mostly responsible for bringing it to the American South, where they met American Indians who also used the rare stones.  (A madstone owned by the Fredd family in Virginia allegedly came from Scotland and was mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Talisman.)

The Cajuns in Louisiana practiced madstone healings.  (Many Cajun folk beliefs came from African Americans and American Indians also inhabiting the bayous.)  A stone yanked from the gut of an 18th-century Russian elk ended up in Vernon County, Missouri, on the Kansas state line, sometime before 1899.  A madstone used in St. Francis County, Arkansas, in 1913 was dug out of an ancient Indian burial mound.


gravois madstone

“Ernest Gravois, left, owner of the famous ‘madstone’ of Vacherie, [Louisiana], reminisces with his nephew, S. F. Gravois, over some of the miraculous cures credited to the stone which is reported to have saved 2000 persons from death by poison.”


One of the first European practitioners of madstone healing in Indiana was John McCoy, an early settler of Clark County.

In 1803, McCoy married Jane Collins (known as “Jincy” McCoy) in Shelby County, Kentucky, just east of Louisville.  As a wedding gift, or maybe as part of her dowry, Jincy’s family gave her a madstone in preparation for the couples’ move into the dangerous Indiana wilderness.  It was “the best insurance they could offer against hydrophobia.”  These are the words of Elizabeth Hayward, who edited John McCoy’s diary in 1948.  “In giving their daughter the only remedy then known,” Hayward wrote, “the Collins gave her the best gift in their power as well as a rare one.”


jincy mccoy

john mccoy


John McCoy is best known for leading the Charlestown militia after the Shawnee attack on settlers at Pigeon Roost in 1812, one of the bloodiest events in Indiana history, which happened near his home.  (Ironically, McCoy was the brother of the Rev. Isaac McCoy, a Baptist missionary and land rights advocate for the Potawatomi and Miami.  When they were evicted from Indiana in 1838, Rev. McCoy accompanied them to Kansas and Oklahoma.)  A deacon in the Baptist Church himself, John McCoy helped found Franklin College at a time when “Baptists were actively opposed” to higher learning, Hayward wrote.  What is less well known is his battle against rabies in southern Indiana.

McCoy kept a laconic record of his days.  On at least ten occasions recorded in his diary, he was called on to apply his wife Jincy’s madstone to victims of animal bites.

Hayward believes the McCoy madstone might have been the only one in that corner of Indiana at the time.  True to a common superstition about proper use of the stone, McCoy “never refused [when asked to use it] and never accepted payment, apparently regarding the possession of the rarity as a trust.  The victims were boys and men.  Probably the circumscribed lives led by the women of his times, centered on their homes, kept them out of reach of stray animals.  And more probably still, the voluminous skirts they wore protected their ankles from being nipped.”

McCoy applied the stone, carried up from Kentucky, long after Clark County, Indiana, had ceased to be a frontier zone.  Most of his diary entries related to its use date from the 1840s.

April 9 [1844].  Sunday.  At sunrise attended prayer meeting.  At 11 attended preaching, afternoon detained from church by having to apply the Madstone to a little boy, bitten the day before.  At night attended worship, then again attended to the case of the little boy till after 12 o’clock.


mccoy madstone


Later 19th-century medical investigation into the efficacy of the madstone suggested that while the stone did not actually suck out any of the rabies virus, it acted according to the “placebo effect” (i.e., belief in the cure itself allayed the bite-victim’s mind, which resulted in improvement — provided, of course, that there was not actually any rabies there.)

Yet around the same time John McCoy was practicing his primitive form of medicine near Louisville, Terre Haute was becoming a top destination for those seeking treatment — or at least reassurance.

Mary E. Taylor, almost always referred to in newspapers as “Mrs. Taylor” or “the widow Taylor,” was the owner of the famous “Terre Haute madstone” mentioned in many American newspapers.  Her stone’s virus-sucking powers were sought out from possibly the 1840s until as late as 1932.

Local historian Mike McCormick believes that Mrs. Taylor was born Mary E. Murphy, probably in Kentucky.  Marriage records show that a Mary E. Murphy wed a Stephen H. Taylor (no relation to the author of this post) in Vigo County in April 1837.  An article in the Prairie Farmer of Chicago mentions that she lived at 530 N. Ninth St.  (This made her a neighbor of Eugene Debs.)

In 1889, Mrs. Taylor spoke about the provenance of her madstone to a reporter.  “My mother’s brother had it in Virginia,” she told the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, “and as he had no children gave it to my mother.  That is as far back in its history as I can go.”  An 1858 letter from Mary “I.” Taylor (possibly a misprint) appeared in the Evansville Daily Journal.  She claimed the stone had been in use “for the past thirty years” in Vigo and Sullivan counties.  The Terre Haute Weekly Express claimed the madstone came to Indiana via Kentucky, after the Murphys lived there for a while in their move west.

Though Mrs. Taylor might have been widowed as early as the 1840s, hoax-busters who would suggest that she used her family’s madstone to support herself should remember the prominent superstition that warned against accepting payment.

A “widow lady” whom McCormick thinks was Mary Taylor “cured three cases” of hydrophobia in early 1848, according to the Wabash Express.

During the decades when John McCoy and Mrs. Taylor were folk medical practitioners in the Hoosier State, Abraham Lincoln, according to an old claim, brought his son Robert to Terre Haute to be cured of an ominous dog-bite.

Poet and Lincoln biographer Edgar Lee Masters reported this claim in his 1931 Lincoln the Man.  (Like the president, Masters was obsessed with melancholy and death.  He grew up near Lincoln’s New Salem in Illinois and later set his paranormal masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, in the old Petersburg cemetery where Lincoln’s first lover, Ann Rutledge, a typhus victim, lies.)

“He believed in the madstone,” Masters wrote, in a section on Lincoln’s superstition, “and one of his sisters-in-law related that Lincoln took one of his boys to Terre Haute, Indiana, to have the stone applied to a wound inflicted by a dog on the boy.”

Max Ehrmann, a once-renowned poet and philosopher who lived in Terre Haute, investigated Masters’ claim in 1936.  At the famous hotel called the Terre Haute House, Ehrmann had once heard a similar story from three of Lincoln’s political acquaintances.  They told Ehrmann that sometime in the 1850s, Lincoln, then still a lawyer in Springfield, brought Robert to Indiana for a madstone cure.  Father and son stayed at The Prairie House at 7th and Wabash, an earlier incarnation of the famous hotel.  A sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, Frances Todd Wallace, backed up the story.

“I have never been able to discover who owned the mad-stone,” Ehrmann wrote.  “It was a woman, so the story runs.”  If true, Robert (the only child of Abraham and Mary Lincoln to survive to adulthood) would have been a young child or teenager.  He lived to be 82.


Robert-Todd-Lincoln(Robert Todd Lincoln may have come to Terre Haute for a rabies “cure” in the 1850s.)


Mrs. Taylor’s “Murphy madstone”  was probably just one of three such stones in Terre Haute that offered a rabies cure.  Another was owned by Rev. Samuel K. Sparks, and Mary E. Piper’s “Piper madstone” was used until at least 1901.

Though her stone became nationally famous, Mrs. Taylor faced a healthy amount of skepticism.  On March 6, 1867, the Weekly Express reprinted this clip from the Indianapolis Herald:  “We understand that Mrs. Taylor, of Terre Haute, applied her mad stone to Mr. Pope, who died a few days since of hydrophobia.  As it was not applied until after the disease manifested itself, it failed.  We fancy, however, it would have failed anyhow.”  Herald editor George C. Harding had inadvertently taken a swipe at Terre Haute, which was increasingly proud of Taylor’s madstone.  The snub caused the editor of the Weekly Express, Charles Cruft, to retort:  “We know it is wicked to do so, but we almost wish our friend Harding would receive a good dog bite, in order that his skepticism as to the efficacy of our madstone might be cured.  Although he may have more faith in whisky, which is said to be an antidote for some poisons, we’ll bet the first train would convey him in the direction of Mrs. Taylor’s residence.”

A mad dog bit four children in Rush County, Indiana, in March 1889.  Their parents brought them to Terre Haute to see Mrs. Taylor.  The Montreal Herald in Canada picked up the story.  “The Terre Haute madstone has just completed the most thorough test ever given it. . . [Mrs. Taylor] remembers that it was handed down to her from her Kentucky ancestors. . . Physicians and scientifically inclined citizens have overrun her home here since the mad dog scare began in this state, and there is hardly a day that a patient is not brought to her.”  A few days afterwards, two Warren County farmers came, “each being apprehensive that some of the saliva of a hog got under the skin of their fingers.”

A dog bit two children in Sugar Creek Township in 1892.  The child brought to see Mrs. Taylor survived.  As for the other, “death relieved her sufferings.”

In 1887, the madstone even ranked among Terre Haute’s “sources of pride.”  While singing the praises of a local masonic lodge, the Saturday Evening Mail wrote: “[The lodge] deserves to rank with the Polytechnic, Normal, artesian well, Rose Orphan Home, madstone and Trotting Association.”  On April 23, the newspaper added:  “Someone has written the old, old story about the Georgia stone.  The Terre Haute charmer’s turn will come along soon.”

Though papers reported other Hoosier madstones, like the “Bundy madstone” in New Castle (which stuck to a severely infected woman’s arm for 180 hours in 1903), Terre Haute’s fame spread to faraway Louisiana and Minnesota.  But Mrs. Taylor’s cure sometimes disappointed.  During the “dog days” of summer (an abbreviation of the “mad dog days” when a higher number of rabies cases usually occurred), the Minneapolis Journal ran this story in 1906:

Terre Haute, Ind., August 18 — William Painter, a farmer, died of hydrophobia from a cat bite, and in a moment of consciousness before the final convulsion, caused his attendants to tie him in the bed for fear he would do someone harm in his struggles.  The death convulsion was so strong that he tore the bed in pieces, but no one was hurt.

He was bitten June 21 by a cat which had been bitten by a dog eight days before.  He called the cat to him and as it sprang at his throat he caught it and was bitten in the thumb.  He had the Terre Haute madstone applied, and as it did not adhere he felt that he was not infected with the virus. 

A boy who lived east of Bloomington suffered a similar fate in 1890.  Bitten by a dog while working in Greene County, 19-year-old Malcolm Lambkins went to Terre Haute to have the madstone applied to his leg, but it didn’t adhere.  Though the wound healed, a short time later “the boy took sick, and when he attempted to take a drink of water he went into convulsions.  He grew steadily worse and wanted to fight those about him, showing almost inhuman power.”  Lambkin died on July 6.  “An experienced physician states that he never witnessed death come in such terrible agony.”

Skeptics and scientists, of course, eventually established that saliva is what carries the rabies virus, and that if bitten through clothing, one was far less likely to be infected than if bitten directly on the skin.  Also, not all animals thought to be rabid actually were.  The mental relief of receiving the “cure” from the likes of Mrs. Taylor probably helped the healing of non-rabid wounds and infections by calming the mind, thereby boosting the immune system.  (What the green stuff was that came out of the madstones, I have no idea.) Though mention has been made of bite-victims having recourse to madstones as late as the 1940s, they practically drop out of the newspapers around 1910.


Middle_Ages_rabid_dog


madstone clip 2


One last appearance of the madstone in the annals of Hoosier journalism deserves mention.  Scientists were justifiably proud of the anti-rabies vaccine, grown in rabbits, that gradually all but wiped out the virus in North America.  But in 1907, even the so-called “Pasteur treatment” hadn’t come to Indiana.  Just as today we sometimes talk jokingly about “those barbaric Europeans” who enjoy their free medical care, in April 1907 an anonymous doctor wrote this remarkable passage in the monthly bulletin of the Indiana State Board of Health.  His (or perhaps her) racism was hopefully tongue-in-cheek:

The Pasteur treatment is the only one for rabies.  “Mad stones” are pure folly.  Faith in such things does not belong to this century.  If a person is bitten by a dog known to be mad we urge such to immediately go to take the Pasteur treatment at Chicago or Ann Arbor.  Indiana has no Pasteur Institute, and this reminds us of the admirably equipped and well conducted institute in Mexico City.  In the land of the “Greaser,” unlike enlightened and superior Indiana, any person bitten by a mad dog can have scientific treatment for the asking.  It is to be hoped that the State having “the best school system” will some day catch up with “the Greasers” in respect to having a free public Pasteur Institute.


Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com

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 a thrilling 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 history.  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 completely 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 went away. (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, the history of race, and the history of 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.