Planted in the Trench: 1882

philadelphia school of anatomy lecture ticket 1865-6
Philadelphia School of Anatomy lecture ticket https://jdc.jefferson.edu/lecturetickets/1200/

SEARCHING FOR A CORPSE.

A BOGUS BURIAL AND THE RESULT.

How the Medical College Vaults Were Scoured for the Remains of Alfred Breslow by the Dead Man’s Family—An Old Ghoul’s Horrible Work in the Vats.

Wendell P. Bowman, the lawyer, yesterday related the particulars of the stealing of the corpse of one of his clients and the strange hunt he had for the missing remains. Alfred Breslow, an industrious German mechanic, lived very happily with his wife and a pretty sixteen-year-old daughter on Master street, above Ninth, where he died suddenly while reclining on a lounge in the sitting room. Five or ten minutes later his wife and daughter discovered that he was dead. The wife fell in a swoon and the horrified daughter ran screaming into the street. The house was soon filled with neighbors, who found Mrs. Breslow in spasms at the side of her dead husband. She was carried up stairs and placed in bed, while the daughter was taken to a neighboring house.

The case was hastily investigated by a man from the Coroner’s office, who came to the conclusion that death had resulted from heart disease. On the following day, when the grief-stricken wife and daughter regained their senses, they were astonished to hear that the dead man’s body had been taken to the Morgue. Mrs. Breslow went at once to the Morgue for the purpose of claiming the body and burying it, but she was told that it had been taken to the Potter’s Field. The wife and daughter sought legal advice at the office of Richard P. White and George H. Earle, but as the dead man had known Wendell P. Bowman the case was turned over to him. Mr. Bowman began his investigation on the third day after Breslow died. At the Morgue he was told, as Mrs. Breslow was, that the body had been taken to the Potter’s Field for burial. On visiting the Potter’s Field he found an old man named Carey, who has for years been known about the hospitals and schools of anatomy.

RECORDED, BUT NO BURIAL.

The old man’s Quasimodo-like figure is surmounted by an unnaturally large head, covered with coarse iron-gray hair. He has but one eye, and his swarthy, wrinkled face is traversed by an ugly purple scar which extends from the right check to the left ear. Old Carey replied to Mr. Bowman’s inquiries by pointing to this terse entry in a greasy notebook which he took from his pocket:

“Breslow–dutchman from Morgue– planted in the trench.”

Mr. Bowman asked what trench? Carey pointed the place out, but the lawyer saw that the earth there had not been disturbed for weeks. “Are you sure it was buried there?” “Yes,” replied Carey. “Then it must come out at once,” said Mr. Bowman. The old man said it could not be got at, and made numerous excuses. When Mr. Bowman threatened to have him arrested, however. Carey confessed that the corpse had been taken to a medical college instead of being buried, but declared that he did not know the name of the college. According to old Carey’s story, the man who hauled the body from the Morgue was so impressed by its magnificent physique that he resolved to benefit himself and advance science by selling the corpse for dissection. The body reached Potter’s Field before noon and was stored in a shady corner of the tool house until night, when it was hauled away. Mr. Bowman at once turned his attention to the colleges. In order that the body might be identified, if found, the widow and daughter accompanied the lawyer during his ghastly investigations. At this season of the year no bodies are dissected, but a large stock is laid in for the fall and winter season, when the medical schools are in full blast. Fresh bodies, being soft, do not take the knife well, and in order to give the flesh the desired firmness and keep it in that condition during hot weather the corpses are treated with a chemical preparation before being put into pickling vats.

FACES OF THE UNBURIED DEAD.

The bodies are kept down in the brine by boards, on which heavy weights are placed, and when one is wanted for the dissecting room it is gaffed with an iron hook and dragged out. Armed with authority to search the college vats and the quick-lime pits, in which the mangled flesh is thrown after dissection, Mr. Bowman and the two women began the painful search. At the first vat Mrs. Breslow fainted when a body was dragged to the surface and exposed for her inspection. She revived in a few minutes, however, and the search went on, corpse after corpse being hooked up without finding the one wanted. At the end of two days the vats, pits and dissecting rooms of every medical college and school of anatomy in the city had been examined, without success. The women, worn out by the unnatural strain on their nerves, became hopeless and favored giving up the search, but Mr. Bowman’s blood was up and he resolved to pay another visit to old Carey, believing that that tricky person had lied to him on his first visit. This conjecture proved correct, for Carey at last admitted that he had sold the body at Dr. Keen’s Anatomical School, in a little thoroughfare which runs from Tenth street, between Market and Chestnut. The corpse brought fourteen dollars. Carey, anxious to propitiate Mr. Bowman, offered to assist in searching for the corpse. The offer was accepted and an hour or two later Mr. Bowman, Carey and Breslow’s weeping widow and daughter stood on the brink of the corpse vat in Dr. Keen’s school.

A GHOUL WITH THE DEAD.

The women were greatly agitated, and even Mr. Bowman was made nervous by the belief that the black basin at his foot contained the long- looked-for body. Carey was, by long odds, the coolest member of the quartette. He removed his shoes and stockings, rolled the bottoms of his pantaloons to his knees, and, with a short pole in his hands, slid in, waist deep, among the ghastly contents of the vat. Before the shuddering spectators fairly realized what he was about he poled the naked corpse of a man to the surface of the pickle, thrust one of his arms under its neck, raised the head so that the face could be seen, and said: “Is that him?”

The women shook their heads and the ghoulish fisherman allowed the corpse to slip from his arm and hide itself in the depths of the pickle pool. Carey next fished up the corpse of a woman…, over which he used much strong language. There were fifteen subjects in the vat, but Breslow’s corpse was not among them. The pit in the cellar was overhauled, but no new remains were found there. After searching the house from bottom to top Mr. Bowman and the women departed, leaving Carey behind to put on dry clothes. The women went home and the lawyer sought and found Dr. Keen himself. On learning the facts of the case he went with the lawyer to the school and ordered the janitor to tell where the body was. The janitor denied all knowledge of its whereabouts, and there the search ended. It is Mr. Bowman’s opinion that after he first saw Carey at Potter’s Field the body snatcher became frightened and, conveying his fears to the janitor, they together took the body from the vat and buried it. If this theory is true old Carey’s note-book entry:

“Breslow–dutchman from Morgue–planted in the trench,” may now be correct.

The Times [Philadelphia PA] 4 August 1882: p. 1

NOTE: “Dutchman” here means “German,” from “deutsch.”  Dr. Keen’s Anatomical School was actually The Philadelphia School of Anatomy. It was under the direction of Dr. William Williams Keen Jr.  

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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