Tag Archives: medical history

The Fall of the House of Ford

lincoln indiana

Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his rail-splitting boyhood in Spencer County in southern Indiana, fell victim to the bullet of the 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater.  Soon, the president’s body headed west by train, stopping in Richmond, Indiana, for a public viewing at 2:00 in the morning on April 30, then on to Indianapolis and Michigan City, with short stopovers at small Hoosier train stations along the way.

In a downpour, possibly fifty thousand Hoosiers viewed Lincoln’s open casket in the rotunda of the old State House.  (At a time when the population of the capitol city was less than 40,000, the crowd of black-draped mourners must have been a spectacle in itself.  Many were African Americans clutching copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.)  Just before midnight, a carriage brought the president’s coffin through the rainy streets of Indianapolis, lit by torches and bonfires, to Union Depot, where it departed north by train for the south shore of Lake Michigan, en route to Chicago and eventually to Springfield, Illinois.


lincoln funeral michigan city
Lincoln funeral cortege in Michigan City, 8:00 a.m., May 1, 1865.

An exhibit running through July 7 at the Indiana State Museum, So Costly a Sacrifice: Lincoln and Loss, includes some actual “relics” of that fateful Good Friday in 1865 when Booth shot Indiana’s favorite son.  Among the artifacts are a few that seem like medieval religious relics:  clothing with spots alleged to be the blood of Honest Abe, and  a piece of the burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia, where the assassin met his own fate at the hands of a Union soldier, the eccentric street-preacher Boston Corbett.

One of the most interesting things to me about the Lincoln assassination and the funeral that came after is the apparent curse on the people and even the physical things involved in it.  Poe’s Raven could be telling the story, and the bird of death keeps on talking, quawking not “Nevermore” — just “More.”

What happened to Booth and Corbett is pretty bizarre and appalling.  Basil Moxley, a doorman at Ford’s Theater who claimed that he served as one of Booth’s pallbearers in Baltimore in 1865, fed a conspiracy theory in 1903 when he asserted that another man is buried in the plot and that Lincoln’s murderer actually escaped to Oklahoma or Texas.  A mummy hoax brought the assassin back to life as a sideshow attraction in the 1920s.  But perhaps the moody English-American actor would have been thrilled to know that the morbid tragedy he let loose wasn’t over yet.

For instance, Booth’s own killer probably went down surrounded by flames.  It is thought that Boston Corbett died in the massive forest fire that consumed Hinckley, Minnesota, in 1894.  And oddly enough, the very train car that carried Lincoln’s corpse west to Illinois from Washington also burned in Minnesota.  In March 1911, while in storage in the northeastern outskirts of Minneapolis, the historic Lincoln funeral car perished in a “spectacular prairie fire.”


lincoln funeral car
Minneapolis Sunday Journal, March 19, 1911.

photo
This decorative fan now on display at the Indiana State Museum commemorates the Lincoln assassination. John Wilkes Booth goes down in smoke on the far right.

In 1893, a year before the inferno in the North Woods probably claimed Corbett’s life, news readers followed the ghastly story of Ford’s Theater’s own doom.  On June 10, the Indianapolis Journal ran this especially sentimental, tear-jerking news piece on the front-page:

fords theater collapse - indianapolis journal june 10 1893

As the Journal tells it:

Hundreds of men carried down by the floors of a falling building which was notoriously insecure; human lives crushed out by tons of brick and iron and sent unheralded to the throne of their Maker; men by the score maimed and disfigured for life; happy families hurled into the depths of despair. . . Words cannot picture the awfulness of the accident.  Its horrors will never be fully told.  Its suddenness was almost the chief terror. . . Women who kissed their loved ones as they separated will have but the cold, bruised faces to kiss to-night. . . In the national capitol of the proudest nation on earth there has been a catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of history, and in every mind there is the horrible conviction that its genesis is to be found in the criminal negligence of a government too parsimonious to provide for the safety of its loyal servants by protecting its property for their accommodation.

At 9:30 a.m. on June 9, the front part of Ford’s Theater, a notoriously rickety and rotten old structure then being used as a government office building, collapsed, sending beams, iron, and over a hundred employees plummeting toward the basement.  Twenty-eight years after Abraham Lincoln was shot here, twenty-two men were killed and sixty-eight injured in one of the deadliest disasters in Washington, D.C.’s, history.  (In a twist of irony, the same day the theater collapse made national headlines, John Wilkes Booth’s brother, the great American actor Edwin Booth, was laid to rest at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Many said that Edwin Booth’s life and death were overshadowed by two different tragedies and the curse of Ford’s Theater.)


fords theater collapse june 10 1893


fords theater draped
Ford’s Theater draped in mourning for President Lincoln.

Collapsing structures were a major news item in the 1890s.  Almost every week, American papers reported mass casualties at overcrowded factories and apartment buildings, especially in Chicago and cities back on the East Coast, where poor construction and dry rot led to the deaths of thousands of industrial workers and tenants — often women and children.  During the Progressive Era, such tragedies inspired reformers like the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (who documented child workers in Indianapolis in 1908) to illustrate the real peril of shoddy, dilapidated buildings in the workplace and at home.

In 1893, Ford’s Theater was probably one of the most dangerous structures in America.  Built in 1863 by the 34-year-old entrepreneur John T. Ford, the building occupied the site of a Baptist Church-turned-theater that had burned down a year earlier.  John Ford’s business was a victim of Booth, too.  After the Lincoln assassination, public opinion and the U.S. government both decided that it was inappropriate to use the site of the nation’s great tragedy for entertainment.  Ford wanted to re-open his theater, but received arson threats from at least one Lincoln mourner.  The Federal government appropriated the playhouse, compensating its owner with $88,000 in July 1866.

Even before the government actually paid for the building, renovations were underway.  In December 1865, the suitably morbid Army Medical Museum moved onto the third floor.  “A far cry from the once jovial theater,” the famous local landmark now housed an array of skeletons in glass cases, body parts, surgical tools, and other gory reminders of military medicine.  The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office soon occupied the second floor.


fords theater medical museum
From 1866 to 1887, Ford’s Theater housed medical exhibits. An active theater for just two years, the place was a literal showcase of death for more than twenty. The museum later moved to a new location at 7th & Independence. A section of John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae was on display here for years.

fords theater medical museum 2


guiteau
The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail reprinted an incorrect rumor that the skull of Charles Guiteau, assassin of President James Garfield, was on display at Ford’s Theater when the building collapsed in 1893. Guiteau’s skeleton did go on exhibit there, but had been moved to the new museum at 7th & Independence, where his brain and partial skeleton are still in the collections of the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Guiteau’s head was also reported to be touring southern Indiana during World War I.

The other floors of the former theater housed the War Department’s Office of Records and Pensions.  The unstable, visibly bulging building was the workplace of several hundred employees and was further imperiled by probably a few tons of heavy paperwork, the red tape of veterans’ pensions.

After the building succumbed to gravity and rot in 1893, American public opinion was almost as outraged as at the assassination of Lincoln.  The Indianapolis Journal wrote:

As long ago as 1885, this building. . .  was officially proclaimed by Congress an unsafe depository for even the inanimate skeletons, mummies and books of the army medical museum, for which a safer place of storage was provided by an act of Congress.  But notwithstanding the fact that in the public press, and in Congress, also, continued attention was called to the bulging walls of the building, its darkness and its general unsuitability and unsafety, it continued to be used for the daily employment of nearly five-hundred government clerks of the pension record division of the War Office.

According to a riveting coroner’s inquest that whipped up public excitement, workers at what the Indianapolis Journal dubbed “Ford’s death trap” had been intimidated and cowed into silence by their tyrannical boss, former army surgeon Col. Fred Ainsworth.  Afraid of being fired, the endangered clerks didn’t protest the condition of the building and later testified that Ainsworth’s assistants had told them to tip-toe on the stairway to keep from falling through.  Investigators determined that the “old ruin’s” collapse finally came while a low-bidding contractor, George W. Dant, was making repairs to the building.  (A support in the basement gave way.)

Court testimony relayed in the Journal resonated with public opinion.  “The government did not want skilled men to execute its contracts, and it would not pay fair prices for good work. . .” the paper claimed.  “An architect testified that the cement used in underpinning the piers supporting the old building was ‘little better than mud.’  A builder said the manner of the work was suicidal.”  Another report said that for years the decaying structure also suffered from “defective sanitary conditions.”

One of the public figures who weighed in on the federal investigation was Indiana Congressman William S. Holman.  A Dearborn County native, Holman sat in Congress from 1859 to 1897 and was  once ranked as the longest-serving U.S. Representative.  He was also a notoriously frugal hawk on government spending.  (Yet far from being a total naysayer, Holman passionately advocated the Homestead Act that tried to break up the domination of Western public lands by big railroads.  He also indirectly helped establish the U.S. Forest Service by providing for Federal timber reserves.)


william s. holman 2
U.S. Representative William Steele Holman of Aurora, Indiana, kept a famously tight wallet but was a great opponent of land monopolies and unregulated corporations after the Civil War. He helped establish Yellowstone National Park and was described as “a botanist of no mean ability” and a friend of public forests.

mr holman talks - jasper weekly courier june 1893


As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, the curmudgeonly Holman oversaw a lot of government funding.  On June 23, 1893, the Jasper Weekly Courier reported that after Ford’s Theater collapsed, even the arch-fiscal conservative was ready to “deal liberally in the matter of providing safe public buildings, and enact such legislation as would look to the preservation of human life.”  The Indiana Congressman supported moving the U.S. Government Printing Office — ranked with the old theater as one of the worst potential death traps in Washington, D.C. — to a new location.  (The weight of printing equipment housed on upper stories was part of the problem.)

Yet once it was rebuilt after the 1893 collapse, Ford’s Theater returned to government use — oddly enough, as a storage warehouse for the Government Printing Office.  The building narrowly survived being condemned for demolition by President Taft in 1912.  From 1931 until renovations in the mid-1960s, the historic structure housed a government annex and a first-floor Lincoln museum.  Restored to its 1865 appearance and now run by the National Park Service, it opened as a public museum in 1968.


liberty express
Liberty Express, Liberty, Indiana, February 11, 1921.

fords theater 1900s
Ford’s Theater in an early 20th-century stereograph.

edwin booth
The Indianapolis Journal took note of the strange coincidence that Ford’s Theater crumbled on the very day that Edwin Booth was buried in Massachusetts. Edgar Allan Poe, author of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” would have appreciated the irony.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

A Skirt Divided

two women on cycle

Rummaging through the always-interesting (and sometimes shockingly relevant) news of the 1890s, I recently ran across a Sunday extra in the Indianapolis Journal.  On April 28, 1895, an eight-page supplement — the “Bicycle Edition” — was devoted entirely to the cycling craze that engulfed the Hoosier State and the rest of the country.

Later this spring, we’ll be uploading the “Bicycle Edition” to Hoosier State Chronicles.  Meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the early days of folks on spokes.

Bicycles’ huge role in the women’s rights movement was common news a hundred years ago and, in the 1890s, stirred up a ton of buzz in American newspapers.  While our great-grandmothers would not have needed much reminding about how important mobility on wheels had been to achieving equal rights with men, the turn-of-the-century female cycling phenomenon was later mostly forgotten.  (A great book published by National Geographic in 2011 has helped bring it back into the light:  check out Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom.)

Every generation has its great social debates, and Indiana was no stranger to hot discussions about women on wheels. Hostility toward the newfangled bicycle took on many forms: from horse salesmen and carriage drivers who thought it hurt their business, to ministers who complained about cyclists skipping church on Sunday to go out on country rides and break the Sabbath.  But at the center of the debate was women’s dress and embattled notions about female “purity.”

The ample dresses worn by nineteenth-century women made riding around on spokes outright dangerous — as even a sympathetic male, Lieutenant Defrees of the Indiana National Guard, admitted to the Indianapolis Journal in 1895.  As a safety issue, Defrees supported women’s preference for “bloomers,” or “athletic knickerbockers” as they were also called.

A sort of divided skirt that resembled both baggy pants and a dress, bloomers were first adopted in England in the 1850’s, when women rejected Parisian fashions in favor of styles from the Middle East, especially Turkey, where females actually had many surprising freedoms not enjoyed in Europe and America at the time.  (In the U.S., the practical new clothing item was nicknamed bloomers after Amelia Bloomer, a suffragette from Iowa who fought the prejudice against revealing female attire.)

Lieutenant Defrees, too, opposed the endless ridicule directed at this eminently rational item of clothing.  (In fact, some women called them “rationals.”)  He put it this way:

He Favors Bloomers - Indianapolis Journal April 28 1895


awful effects of velocipeding
A Victorian cartoonist satirized “The Awful Effects of Velocipeding” in the New Comic Times, a British magazine from the mid-1800s. Men feared that in addition to going down the slippery slope of cycling, women would adopt another “vice” from Asia: smoking cheroots.

Dr. Henry J. Garrigues, a specialist on women’s health, was another early male who advocated the benefits of bloomers for female riders.  Dr. Garrigues authored a fascinating defense — “Woman and the Bicycle” — originally published in The Forum, one of the great “social issue” magazines of the day.  An excerpt from Garrigues’ piece appeared in the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail on January 25, 1896.

Touting the many health benefits of cycling, Garrigues writes: “Bicycle-riding has changed the habits of hundreds of thousands who formerly took little or no exercise in the open air.  It has widened the mental horizon for many by inducing them to undertake long rides far away from their homes.”

About bloomers specifically, Garrigues was pretty frank:

The usual long skirt is objectionable in every respect. It impedes the free movement of the legs, pumps air up against the abdomen, and is in great danger of being caught by projecting parts of their own machines or those of other riders, as well as by other obstructions found on the road. To avoid these inconveniences many women have shortened their skirts, and some have done away with them altogether, wearing so-called ” bloomers,” a wide, bifurcated garment extending from the waist to the knee. This garment, combined with a waist and leggings, forms a neat, practical dress for a woman rider. True, it is at present ridiculed and even condemned by some as immodest. However, before men say anything against the decency of bloomers, they had better reform their own trousers, which are not much more decent than becoming. . .

From a medical standpoint bicycling is valuable both as a prophylactic and as a curative agent. Like other outdoor exercises it takes its votaries away from the vitiated air of closed rooms; but it has several advantages peculiarly its own. It is less expensive and safer than horseback-riding. For the female sex it is also healthier, since horseback-riding, if indulged in too much or at too early an age, is apt to produce a funnel-shaped pelvis, which abnormality may prove a serious obstacle to childbirth.

And for an age that seemed leery of even mentioning women’s bodies in so many ways, it’s interesting that Garrigues went into a long, detailed description of what he believed was another benefit of cycling.  The New York doctor claimed that the womb, “being of muscular construction, is, like all other muscles, strengthened by bicycling.”  He also touted the benefits for men and women suffering from an array of ills, including asthma, neuralgia, headache, insomnia, and “diseases of the intestinal canal — such as dyspepsia, constipation, and haemorrhoids.”


bicycle built for two (2)
A couple rides an early tandem bike outside the White House, circa 1890.

bloomers
Wearing bloomers, she was a daredevil in more ways than one.

ariel cycling manufacturing co 1895
An 1895 trade catalog of the Ariel Cycle Manufacturing Company in Goshen, Indiana. The Hoosier bicycle industry was centered mostly in Indianapolis and the northeastern part of the state.

New Ulm Review July 8 1896
New Ulm Review, New Ulm, Minnesota, July 8, 1896.

Though opposition to bloomers (and wheeling in general) often dragged religion into the fray, liberal-minded Christians spoke out against more conservative ones.  But whatever animosity was directed toward pants from the pulpit, preachers could hardly match the sheer weirdness of Chicago’s “Jack the Whipper,” whom the Terre Haute paper thought to be a truly distinguished “crank of the first water.”

Jack the Whipper

But less than a year later, in 1895, bloomers were still new enough to Terre Haute to cause many men there to stretch their necks in wonder and possibly even in admiration, as the Saturday Evening Mail noted:

Bloomers have not come into such general use in this city as to be common, and the sight of a pair of them in broad daylight very frequently causes a great deal of what the small boy calls “rubber necking.”  The other day a young lady was coming up Seventh street on a wheel, and she made quite an attractive figure in her bloomers.  A man walking along the street, going in the opposite direction, evidently had never seen bloomers before, and he stretched his neck in the effort to follow her with his eyes.  He was so much interested that he paid no attention to where he was going, and presently he ran into a tree on the sidewalk with such force as to peel all the skin off one side of his face.

On the topic of rubber. . .  In the 1890s, Indianapolis was especially well-poised to become a bicycle-manufacturing mecca: the capitol city was once a major rubber-producing town.  (The local industry tanked in the 1950s.)  At the turn of the century, Indianapolis could boast of at least nine bicycle manufacturers, and the demand for pneumatic tires was a major spur to the creation of the Indianapolis Rubber Company.


rubber tires


In addition to being able to get a quick local replacement for a bad tire, in 1895 riders who worked in downtown offices could also take advantage of a “bicycle livery and boarding stable” located under the Brunswick Hotel on Monument Circle.  A nearby bike hospital  also offered a cure for “the last stages of consumption.”


bike livery stable


bicycle hospital


Harry T. Hearsey, born in London, England, in 1863, grew up in Boston, then moved to Indianapolis at age 22.  An early Hoosier cycling pioneer, he ran his own manufacturing company, which made not only bikes, but carriages, sleighs, portable heaters, and eventually automobiles.

Hearsey also operated a riding school, which catered in large part to women.  Walter Marshall “Major” Taylor, the great African-American cyclist and Indianapolis native, worked as an instructor at Harry Hearsey’s Riding School, located at 116/118 N. Pennsylvania St.  This ad from the German-language Indiana Tribüne touts Hearsey’s Reitschule (“often Tag und Abend.”)


hearsey ad -- Indiana Tribune July 27 1896


Though he was a businessman with an obvious profit to turn, Hearsey may have been one of the many Americans who thought that women at the wheel was something to be praised.  Even many who believed in “womanly purity” found something positive in cycling, as a writer in Lincoln, Nebraska, admitted:  “The modern bicycle is one of the modern safeties of womanly purity,” he or she wrote.  “She no longer needs to jostle through a crowd of men on the street corner or in the street car.  The primest little maid of this city wears bloomers, rides a bicycle, and works in a printing office.”

Bike sales in Indiana boomed in the 1890s.  Thomas Hay, of the firm of Hay & Willits at 113 W. Washington St., told the Indianapolis Journal in 1895 that “At the present time about 20 per cent of the wheels sold are for ladies, while two years ago I doubt if the sales of the ladies’ wheels reached 2 percent of the total.”  Hay attributed part of the surge in sales to improvements in the manufacture of women’s bicycles, which had previously been neglected.  In 1897, women were so important to the industry that the Central Cycle Manufacturing Company put them on the cover of their gorgeous trade catalog, designed and printed in “Arts and Crafts” style.  It is a beautiful illustration of the generational gap between the old woman in skirts and the dashing Belle on Wheels.


ben hur bicycle


ben hur bicycle 5


ben hur bicycle 1
The Central Cycling Company of Indianapolis built the once-popular “Ben-Hur Bicycle,” named for the novel written by Hoosier literary giant Lew Wallace.

bicycling in fort wayne (2)
These wheelmen in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were some of the last aficionados of the highwheeler, old-fashioned even in 1900.

Gradually, of course, the sight of women in bloomers wasn’t shocking to most Americans at all.  Times changed fast, so fast that the great Hoosier songwriter Cole Porter could easily lampoon an earlier generation in the immortal lyrics of “Anything Goes”:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes. . .
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like,
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose.

Yet even before the Roaring Twenties and the day in 1934 when Cole Porter penned those lines, the ladies of the 1890s had already paved the way.  Sportswomen in baseball and basketball literally “followed suit.”  We salute them all.


ariel cycling manufacturing co 1896


bloomers basketball chicago 1097
Women in Chicago play basketball in 1906.

star bloomers ca 1900
The Star Bloomer Girls were an Indianapolis baseball team that toured the country around 1914. The pitcher and catcher, far right, were male but the whole team wore the same outfit.

women fencers
Women of the Indianapolis Socialer Turnverein appear at a fencing match in Fort Wayne in the 1920’s. Athenaeum Turners Collection, IUPUI.

Indiana newspapers are full of stories about women, cycling, and sports.  Do a search at Hoosier State Chronicles to unearth more tales like these.  Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com

Bringt die Babies! “Denglish” in Indianapolis’ German Newspapers

Indiana tribune January 1 1893 (1)

In a previous post, I featured an example of “text speak” published in the Vincennes Western Sun way back in 1849.  Here’s a few more linguistic oddities from early Hoosier newspapers.

If you drink German beer from a bottle, you might have seen a label on the side saying something like “Brewed according to the German purity law of 1516,” a reference to the famous “Reinheitsgebot” that regulated the brewing of beer (i.e., only water, barley and hops could go into it.)  But since 2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the German beer law, in the meantime let’s talk about a different kind of “purity.”

Denglish is a term used today in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria to refer to the mixing of “Deutsch” with “English.”  Globalization has made English the dominant language on earth, and it’s not at all uncommon in Germany to hear things like ich habe den File downgeloadet (I downloaded the file) or catch someone ordering ein Double Whopper mit Bacon und Cheddar Cheese.  Why?  German certainly has perfectly good words for bacon and cheese.  Maybe since McDonald’s isn’t German and is even an exotic novelty for some Europeans, asking for ein Doppelwhopper mit Speck und Cheddar-Käse just sounds too traditional or even too strange.  Better to just leave it in English.  (And, by the way, we don’t always translate, either:  look at sauerkraut, apple strudel, bratwurst. . .)

Though English and German are related, outside the realm of food, not many words have ever come from modern German into modern English.  Linguistic purists in Europe, on the other hand, go through “periodic bouts of angst (a German word!) about the influx coming from the other direction.  (I wonder if this kind of angst exists in Sweden, where Paul Dresser’s On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away became a very popular song when it was translated into Swedish as early as 1919. You can listen to Barndomshemmet — a.k.a., “Childhood Home” — over on YouTube.)

The influx is nothing new.  In Indianapolis, Indiana, just after the Civil War, the town had a large German population and several important German-language newspapers — the Täglicher Telegraph (the weekly edition was called the Indiana Volksblatt und wöchentlicher Telegraph) and the Indiana Tribüne.

The Tribüne survived until World War I, when anti-German feeling helped silence it in June 1918.  An advertisement in the Indianapolis Star on May 31, 1918, called on American boys to ““Kill Germans – kill them early, late and all the time but kill them sure.”  Even Hoosiers with German names joined in the irrational hatred of everything German, like William Leib of Elkhart.  Others supported the war against the Kaiser, like Richard Lieber — an immigrant from Düsseldorf, the founder of Indiana’s state park system, and a reporter for the Tribüne.

At one time, the Hoosier State also had a small number of other newspapers published in languages besides English.  (The Macedonian Tribune began in Indianapolis in 1927 and is still published today in Fort Wayne.  South Bend once had papers in Hungarian and Polish.)  Today, La Voz de Indiana, a Spanish-language paper, is printed in the capitol city.

While I haven’t run across any examples of Indiana writers mixing English and German grammar, here are some great examples of Denglish from the early Hoosier newspapers.  I culled these from random issues of the Indiana Tribüne and the Täglicher Telegraph between the years 1866 and 1910.  Any issue from those days will turn up plenty of Denglish.

The old German Fraktur script can be a challenge to read if you’re not familiar with it, but if you can read any German at all, see if you can figure these out!

Meanwhile, enjoy this little bit of  “Deutsches Theater in English’s Opernhaus.”

Indiana tribune November 3 1893 (1)


If you had Durst in Terre Haute in 1866, you might go to ein Saloon.

Taglicher Telegraph January 1 1867 (3)

Habst du Hunger?  (Und by the way, was sind Wahoo Bitters?)

Taglicher Telegraph May 11 1866 (1)

This ad has more English than German in it.  Buy ’em by the bushel crate:

Taglicher Telegraph March 5 1892 (2)

While on Georgia St., you might be interested in grabbing some

Taglicher Telegraph March 5 1892 (3)

Like seafood?  Your slimy lunch was just delivered fresh all the way from Baltimore, even in the 1860s:

Taglicher Telegraph January 1 1867 (1)

For dessert, treat yourself to something sweet.  “All kinds” of this treat are available:

Indiana tribune May 26 1895 (1)

Rauchst du?  It’s a bad habit, but if you’ve got to do it, make it a Hoosier Poet, and make sure it’s a real Havana:

Indiana tribune December 31 1899

Hausjacken on sale right now, $4.75:

Indiana tribune December 23 1893 (1)

Do you give your kids any of these before bed?  Probably shouldn’t.

Taglicher Telegraph January 3 1905 (4)

Und was trinken Sie?  Before Prohibition, hundreds of breweries, many run by Germans and Czechs, dotted the American landscape.  (A lot of these were rural areas, but city folk, of course, drank beer, too.  The 1855 Lager Beer Riots in Chicago erupted partly because Mayor Levi Boone, descendant of Daniel Boone, didn’t like Germans boozing on Sundays.  But he also he hated their radical politics and wanted to keep them from getting together at their watering-holes, where they talked about socialism and Chicago politics.)

At one time, the Terre Haute Brewing Company, founded in 1837 by German immigrant Matthias Mogger, was one of the largest beer-producers in the United States.  The company’s nationally-famous beer “Champagne Velvet,” begun by Bavarian immigrant Anton Meyer, was recently resurrected by Upland Brewing in Bloomington.  Germans enjoyed this and many other local beers on tap over a century ago in the Hoosier State:

Indiana tribune December 21 1900

Indiana tribune November 5 1893 (3)

Taglicher Telegraph January 1 1877 (1)

Wait, too much drinking for you.  Better make a special trip upstairs to see this technological wonder of the nineteenth century:

Indiana tribune November 23 1893 (4)

If you’re ready for another binge, hey, be family-friendly now and take them out on one of these:

Indiana tribune June 10 1894

Yes.  That says “Big Picnic of the German Military Union.”  Sound scary?  Many German immigrants fought in the Civil War while serving in Hoosier regiments.  This 1903 ad announces low rates for a train trip down South to erect the Indiana Monument at the Shiloh Schlachtfeld:

Indiana tribune march 20 1903 (3)

On your stopover in Paducah, grab a bottle of the finest Kentucky whiskey.

Taglicher Telegraph January 25 1907 (1)

Plan on having the family portrait taken?  Take the kids to Cadwallader and Fearnaught, Meisterphotographen, at their studio on Ost Washington Strasse in downtown Indy.  And “bring the babies”:

Indiana tribune July 31 1886

Maybe you need a job.  If you get an office job, you’ll also need some stationery.

Indiana tribune December 21 1900 (2)

Taglicher Telegraph October 25 1866 (1)

(Office tape!  In 1866!)

If you bite down too hard on one of those Star Pencils, or if ein Paper Clip gets stuck in your teeth, here’s a German-speaking Zahnärzte at your service:

Indiana tribune December 21 1900 (3)

There was even a female dentist in Indianapolis back in those days, Mary Lloyd, across from Fletcher’s Bank and the New York Store:

Indiana tribune November 23 1893 (6)

Dentists also dealt with problems caused by this stuff:

Taglicher Telegraph January 1 1867 (4)

Got oil in your headlights?  This brand is geruchlos (odorless):

Taglicher Telegraph March 5 1892 (5)

ACHTUNG!!  Watch out for das Manhole!

Taglicher Telegraph May 28 1872 (3)

Keep your precious treasures safe.  Bank with Mr. Fletcher:

Indiana tribune December 21 1900 (4)

Or keep your fortune safe at home with this hefty beast:

Taglicher Telegraph January 5 1866 (1)

You can also protect your money by doing some bargain-shopping.  Germans are famous for thrift, aren’t they?

Indiana tribune November 5 1893 (2)

Or skip shopping altogether and just take your kids to see Santa Klaus and let him provide the gift.  Hier ist dein Ticket:

Indiana tribune December 23 1893 (2)

If Santa is in the neighborhood, that means it’s getting cold outside.  Get a “honey comb quilt” or some serious old-school heating:

Taglicher Telegraph May 28 1872 (2)

Indiana tribune march 20 1903 (2)

Taglicher Telegraph August 21 1865 (4)

If you do get sick this winter, try one of these handy home remedies:

Indiana tribune November 23 1893 (5)

Taglicher Telegraph January 3 1905 (1)

OK, that’s enough Denglish for me.  I’m off on the Eisenbahn.  And I’ll be traveling in style.

Taglicher Telegraph August 21 1865 (3)

Taglicher Telegraph May 11 1866 (3)


Run across any other great examples of Denglish?  Have any personal stories to share?  Bitte schicken Sie mir eine E-mail:  Stephen Taylor at 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.  In some cases, medicine and folklore come together.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


alexander mullen      bernard f. mullen

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


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

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

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

On to the story.

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

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


     jonathon w. gordon  gordons leap

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


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

THE ROBBING OF GRAVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

gordons leap 3

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Greenlawn Cemetery map


Diamond Chain Company


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Crown Hill patrol


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

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

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

President Grover Cleveland. Wiki Commons.

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

Indiana State Sentinel – July 5 1893 – Hoosier State Chronicles

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

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