Body Snatching in the 1800s

Published on facebook by Julie Rimer · June 22 ·

Body Snatching in the 1800s: Mt. Washington Cemetery the Site of a Body Snatching in 1878

Body snatching is a term that describes the act of secretly removing corpses from graves in order to sell them. Body snatching was a frequent occurrence in the 1800s in the United States. The purchasers of the corpses were primarily medical schools where the bodies were used for dissection and anatomy lessons. As the number of medical schools in the United States proliferated and the study of anatomy became a priority, the need for fresh cadavers intensified. Many medical practitioners and institutions believed body snatching was a necessary evil, one that was offset by the benefits anatomical study of the bodies would provide. Often, the teacher of anatomy at a medical college was held responsible for obtaining fresh cadavers. The teacher would ask no questions about how the body was obtained and would have a fund with which to pay grave robbers for corpses. It was not unusual for medical students to immediately remove identifying features of the corpse (remove scalp, cut off ears, remove eyes) as soon as it was obtained in case a search of the medical college by the authorities was instituted.

The increasing demand for fresh cadavers gave rise to “resurrectionists,” men paid to dig up and deliver bodies. At least as frequently, in newspaper articles about grave robbing in the 1800s, the robbers are referred to as “ghouls.” Resurrectionists/ghouls would work in teams, mainly targeting new graves because it was easier to dig up the unsettled earth. Most graves were robbed within a day of interment in order to obtain the freshest corpse possible. The robbers worked only in the cold season because a “stiff” (the name grave robbers used for the corpse) was only good for a few days before it became too putrid and decayed to be useful. No robberies were committed during the warmer months since there was no way to refrigerate the bodies to keep them cool enough to prevent putrification. The dissecting period at medical colleges usually lasted from the middle of October to the end of November. The ideal body was that of a thin, emaciated person, frequently someone who had died of consumption. That was because a student wanted a subject whose muscles and arteries were free from fat. The students did not want to spend a lot of time scraping off the fat. A fully developed body was also preferred, so subjects who were at least 16 years old at the time of death were most desired.

The resurrectionists worked in teams. One member of the team had the job of transport. He would drive a wagon a short distance from the cemetery and hide in an inconspicuous spot. Two other men would be charged with digging up the body. While one dug, the other kept watch for anyone who might see them. With a tarp, a rope, a crowbar, and wooden shovels, the men would go to work. The body snatchers would lay the tarp by the grave so the nearby grounds were undisturbed. Digging was done with a wooden spade, which was quieter than those made of metal. The digging would be done at the head of the grave until the coffin was reached. When they reached the head of the coffin, the resurrectionists would use a crowbar to break open the coffin. They would then put a rope around the head or under the shoulders of the corpse and drag it out. The soil would be transferred back to cover the opening. The process took about an hour and a half. The body would be carried or dragged to the man who was the transporter who would immediately drive it to the medical school.

Resurrectionists sometimes hired women to act the part of grieving relatives and claim the bodies of the dead at poorhouses. Women were also hired to attend funerals as grieving mourners; their purpose was to ascertain any hardships the body snatchers might later encounter during the disinterment. So in demand were bodies in the 1800s, that spies were sent to funerals to gauge sex, age, condition and means of death to determine desirability and cost of the deceased. One newspaper article about a body snatched in 1891 stated the ghouls were paid $80 for the corpse. That would be equal to over $2100 in today’s dollars!

Grave robbing created something of a moral dilemma for the authorities – clearly they couldn’t be seen to be complicit in the disinterment of the dead or the ransacking of graves on sacred ground, but neither could they reconcile themselves to holding up the progress of medical breakthroughs that would cure and treat the sick at the expense of only a few. The solution was a sort of compromise – although the tampering with graves was officially frowned upon, the punishment was relatively slight, a misdemeanor rather than a felony, a potential fine and a stint behind bars.

With these relatively lax attitudes, families of the recently deceased had to take it upon themselves to keep watch of the burial sites of their loved ones. Some families chose lead-weighted, steel and iron coffins to make an attempted body snatching too time-consuming. Rich families were able to protect family member’s graves by covering the graves with large marble slabs and headstones or sometimes using locked mausolea which would prevent easy access. Some cemeteries employed night watchmen, some of whom used large dogs to detect intruders. The wealthiest could afford private watchmen and even wired alarms that would go off if the coffin was disturbed. In 1896, a “coffin torpedo” was patented. This device could be placed in the casket before it was closed. Any attempt to force the coffin open would release a spring that struck a percussion cap and set off a bomb. This would mean almost sure death to the unsuspecting grave robber.

When a grave robbed of its corpse was discovered in a cemetery, it invariably set off tremendous anxiety among the loved ones of those who had relatives recently buried in that cemetery. This frequently set off a round of grave openings to see if any other recently interred bodies had been robbed.

Cincinnati was home to an infamous professional body snatcher named William Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham was said to be notably fearless, even once returning to the same gravesite in which he had been caught digging. In that incident, when he was caught, his comrades fled the scene, but Cunningham willingly went with his captors, bought them a drink at a local tavern, and promised to leave the grave alone. He was released and went directly back to the gravesite to finish his work. Cunningham went by quite a few nicknames that portray his character: “Old Cunny,” “The Ghoul,” and “Old Dead Man.”

He was said to be able to exhume enough bodies to provide for the needs of an entire medical school. Cunningham was a heavy drinker and notably vindictive. He once gave human cadavers that had died of smallpox to some medical students simply because these same students had offended him. Cunningham was also fearless in the way he would transport his cadavers. If he expected to run into people, Cunningham would take the cadaver he had exhumed, dress it in fresh clothing, and sit it next to him in the wagon. If he encountered any passers-by, Cunningham would talk to the cadaver to further normalize the situation.

The late 1870s saw American graverobbing reach its height. On May 31, 1878, the body of Ohio congressman John Scott Harrison, son of President William Henry Harrison, was stolen and later found hanging on a hook in the subcellar of the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. According to a 1950 article in the Ohio History Journal, John Scott Harrison died and was buried in the family plot in North Bend, Ohio. To protect Harrison’s body, his family interred him in a heavy vault and covered the vault with soil mixed with large rocks. That didn’t deter the resurrectionists. On the day of Harrison’s funeral, mourners noticed that a nearby fresh grave that had contained the body of a man named Augustus Devin was empty. One of Harrison’s sons was a friend of Devin’s; he joined with a second friend and headed to Cincinnati’s medical schools in search of the body. Instead, they found John Scott Harrison, hanging nude from a rope in a dark chute. Harrison’s body had been snatched, too. Devin’s body was later found preserved in a vat of brine at the University of Michigan medical college.

Mt. Washington Cemetery was also the site of a body snatching in 1878. Harriett F. Bellville died on Wednesday, January 5, 1878 after an illness of only a couple of days. The doctors had not been able to determine the cause of the illness before she died. She was buried in Mt. Washington Cemetery on Saturday, January 8. The following Friday, her bereaved husband, James Bennett Bellville, paid a visit to her grave only to find the grave had been rifled and the body stolen.

Due to circumstantial evidence, the family concluded her body had been robbed the very night she was buried. Mr. Bellville had received an anonymous note telling him to go to the Ohio Medical College with the proper authorities to recover the body of his wife. A chase similar to a Keystone Cops episode ensued with poor Mr. Bellville being sent from one police officer to another to try to obtain a search warrant for the Ohio Medical College. Finally, Mr. Bellville, his son, Squire Garrett, Judge Wilson and Sargeant Gaul all went to the college. Sargeant Gaul had all the others wait while he spoke with the janitor. The janitor led the group to the dissecting room, but Mrs. Bellville’s body was not there.

The following night, Mr. Bellville received a note from a Detective Snelbaker saying he had found the body and that Mr. Bellville should come to the college to see it. When Mr. Bellville and his son found Detective Snelbaker, Snelbaker said he was mistaken about the identity of the body. That night, Mr. Bellville again attempted to get a search warrant, but he was led from one police officer to another, none of whom issued the warrant. Now here comes the worst part: Sergeant Gaul went to Mr. Bellville that night and asked him if there was “any money in the matter.” If there was, Sergeant Gaul told Mr. Bellville that he could procure the body. Mr. Bellville instead pursued getting a search warrant. When he obtained one the following day, the search was again unsuccessful. However, Mr. Bellville subsequently received information from some medical students that while he searched, his wife’s body was moved from room to room as the search progressed. The scoundrels!

Mr. Bellville’s nephew chose another path to recover the body. He went to the Demonstrator of Anatomy at the Ohio Medical College, Dr. Conner, and told him the family knew Harriett’s body was there. The nephew told the doctor that there would be no prosecution if Mrs. Bellville’s remains were returned to the family to be reinterred. The doctor said that the body would be returned on a couple of conditions: that the students be allowed to finish their dissection of the body and that the family not prosecute or ask any questions when the body was returned. Mr. Bellville reluctantly agreed to these conditions.

Finally, six weeks after her death, only a few bones from Harriett’s body were returned to the family which they reburied in Mt. Washington Cemetery. The family did not prosecute because they were relieved to get back anything of Mrs. Bellville.

Now, for a final twist in the story: I live in the Mt. Washington home built by Harriett Bellville’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Bellville Tandy. Elizabeth and Walter Tandy built our home in 1929. They are buried adjacent to James and Harriett Bellville in Mt. Washington Cemetery within view of our home.

*Photos of Bellville family members courtesty of Betty K.