Monday, October 31, 2011

The Empty Grave

After last year's post about genealogy encounters of the Creepy kind, my creepy meter has been getting a work out all year. My above title does not refer to the Resurrection, but to those monsters of the cemetery: The Resurrectionists (cue evil cackle and lightning/thunder.) My interest in this macabre group came about after two incidents. Late last year I became acquainted with the cemetery/burial issues concerning the Eastern State Hospital in Lexington KY. During a period of time spanning from 1824 to the 1950s, patients dying while residing in the "lunatic asylum" were believed to have been buried on the premises, especially when family members could not afford the cost of hometown burial. Unfortunately, finding the "missing" remains has been a huge challenge. The records are "missing" from the state, and apparently, so are the bodies. Some bodies have been discovered on the premises, but the number is very low compared to the amount that should be there. One of the documents I viewed in regard to this issue was a letter from a health nurse in the 1980s. She suggested that perhaps many of the bodies are missing because they were never buried, but instead, transported north to the Cincinnati Medical College for post-mortem use: ie: dissection.

I don't think many people took this suggestion very seriously, but I suspect it is a distinct possibility. Eastern State Hospital sits right next to the railroad line, and reports have surfaced that the Cincinnati to Indianapolis to Michigan network for cadavers was a true network that involved pickle/paint vats and the train system. For those of you not familiar with Cincinnati's grave robbing history, I suggest three things: 1. Read up on the grave-robbing scandal involving the Harrison family. 2. Check into some of the publications written by Dr. Linden Forest Edwards at Ohio State University. He wrote a series of articles for the Ohio State Medical Journal back in the 1950s that were later re-published in the form of small booklets by the Wayne County Indiana Public Library. These articles/booklets explored the medical practice of employing grave robbers to fill the need of fresh cadavers for medical dissection. (I will provide a small reading list at the end of the post) 3. Watch the video posted at the end from the History Detectives. They are researching a grave alarm which in turn leads them to go over some of the numbers associated with the grave robbing "industry" of the time. With each medical college in the area advertising a cadaver for each student, the number of fresh cadavers needed each year was pretty staggering.

The Cincinnati area was rife with the problem. Bodies were being stolen all the time during this period (1860s-1880s)....many from poorer cemeteries. Dr. Edwards wrote about the stories that were being told, and people were so aware of this problem that they employed night watchmen to guard over fresh graves - if they could afford this service.....otherwise, sometimes carried out by family members. Ironically, in the largest Cincinnati Cemetery, Spring Grove Cemetery, the Medical College erected a headstone in memory of all the bodies used for scientific purposes. I think that alone speaks volumes about the number of bodies we might be talking about.

So what about the central Kentucky area? Were these areas susceptible to the crime of stealing bodies? Without any real proof, my gut says, not as much as the Cincinnati/Louisville area. We had Transy's Medical School here, but I would imagine the need for them was not as large. Louisville was noted to have a bit of a problem there, but like Cincinnati, they were on a river. I would say, unless we used the railroad heavily, I would guess the easiest victims were had more along the river. After all, the grave robbers may have sold the fresh bodies to the medical colleges, but they were essentially on their own. If arrested, it was clear the men acted "on their own", with the doctors nor colleges feeling any heat with the arrest. Public sentiment grew pretty hostile against this practice, but things did not change until laws were passed that allowed legal acquiring of cadavers, including the donation of bodies.

This regional issue brings me to my second encounter with grave robbing. It came when I stumbled upon a note in the E.E. Barton papers of Pendleton County KY. One of my distant cousins related a tale that had been passed down in the family about the burial of my fourth great grandfather, Samuel Cox: "My Mother never did think that her grandfather rested in his grave, for just in a night or two at 12 o'clock, a man left that grave with something wrapped in white lying across his horse in front of him. The man was a truthful man, and is a brother-in-law of my father, Newton Humble was the man. (Speaking of the witness). We always thought that it was old Dr. Thomas, and that he probably took the body to Cincinnati and the medical college to find out what was the cause of his death."

What really struck me about this report was the proximity of Samuel's is a small family plot on the side of the road, out in the rural areas of northern Pendleton County, which is a pretty hilly place. If I was going to snatch some bodies, I wouldn't want to have to trek up those hills an back down again carrying a body, just for $10. But then, it wasn't too much farther to Foster in Bracken County which was right on the river. What better way to transport bodies? So, it has all just made my head spin a little to many of our ancestors are not in the cemeteries we visit? I don't really mind them being used for science.....but it kinda makes me mad in a way....our ancestors were so against it, for religious/principle reasons.....what gave these colleges the right to steal what belonged to our families? And once they were done, I'm assuming the bones were burned, etc. Which means we no longer have true knowledge of a final resting place. I think the headstone placed in Spring Grove is a nice gesture, but I would like to know where they deposited the post-dissection pieces or ashes. I think that would be the proper place for a memorial - and a place we could point to as a final resting place. Anyway, just some points to ponder - especially on Halloween :-)

Watch Cemetery Alarm on PBS. See more from History Detectives.

For additional reading:
Body Snatching in Ohio During the Nineteenth Century by Dr. Linden F. Edwards
Cincinnati's Old Cunny by Dr. Linden F. Edwards
Dissection and Body Snatching in the Nineteenth Century by Heather Fox, The Filson, Volume 9, Number 2, Summer 2009
The Poor, the Black, and the Marginalized as the Source of Cadavers in United States Anatomical Education by Edward C. Halperin, Clinical Anatomy, Vol 20, 2007.


Deborah Andrew said...


Awesome post! I have never thought about how many of our modern medical practices and knowledge were found out because of cadavers.

I did a search on Genealogy in the historical papers section after narrowing the states down to Ohio with he words "night watchman grave" and came back with 600 hits. WOW!

A lot from the 1880's time frame talking about nightwatchmen being hired to watch over bodies.

Thanks for doing this post.

Kathy Reed said...

I was fascinated by this post. I am currently trying to find a death date for someone who was a prostitute in Lexington. I can't find anything on her death which would have been after 1890. The ladies often didn't use their legal names making it particularly difficult to track. I wondered if she could have ended up hospitalized. You've given me something to think about -- just wish there were records.

Cheri Daniels said...

You're very welcome ladies! Those 600 hits are amazing! Our ancestors lived with this knowledge, but I guess they were pretty powerless to stop it - except when the law finally got passed after the Harrison incident. I suspect many of the empty graves would be in the poorer cemeteries - and as this was their reality - I have heard that some of the boogey man stories they scared their children with were based on the grave robbing trend, especially in Europe. This was not a problem unique to America. Many of the famous grave robbing stories come from England and Scotland. I guess I find it a fascinating subject because it was a secret network of crime that in turn helped science - and even though everyone was aware of the problem, our ancestors seemed to forget to pass on this least those newspapers are still around to prove the reports! Thanks for that search Deborah!

And Kathy, the bodies that were given legally to the colleges were the unclaimed who died in hospitals, or unidentified bodies, or yeah, records are not our friends in this case! Good luck!


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