Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Life for the Resurrectionist, while certainly nasty and brutish, may also have been gravely shortened by their profession. Oddly enough, people resented those who unearthed and sold their loved ones’ bodies, no matter how much it advanced scientific knowledge, and they put up stiff opposition to the body-snatcher’s clandestine activities.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Grave Robbing at Mount Hope, Ky., Receives a Bloody Check.

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 18. News of the shooting of a grave robber at the cemetery in Mount Hope was received here yesterday. Several robberies had been committed and when the remains of Miss Morris were interred her fiancé watched the grave. Two men came at midnight and began digging. “Smiley” Jordan, a farm hand of the neighbourhood, was killed, but his companion escaped the fusillade of bullets. Marion County Herald [Palmyra, MO] 20 December 1894: p. 2 

Normally physicians did not go into the field in search of specimens, but perhaps this unfortunate decided to cut out the middle man.

BODY SNATCHER KILLED

Syracuse, N.Y., May 18. Dr. Henry W. Kendall was found in a meadow near the county poor house cemetery this morning with a bullet hole between his eyes. A full kit of resurrectionists tools were found near the body. It is supposed that he was engaged in body snatching. He cannot live. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 19 May 1882: p. 1 

Sad mistakes sometimes occurred.

FRENZIED FATHER KILLS WRONG MAN BY MISTAKE

Great Falls, Mont., May 10. Last night the body of the baby of Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Conroy was stolen from the grave in the local cemetery. This morning the father of the dead babe, while hunting the grave robbers, killed Joseph Hamilton, former sheriff of this county, mistaking him for the robber of his child’s grave. Fairbanks [AK] Daily Times 11 May 1911: p. 1

And there seemed to be little honor among corpse-thieves. In one particularly appalling instance, in Ohio an elderly, retired Resurrectionist named Beverly Taylor was murdered, along with his wife and grand-daughter, by his former colleagues, who sold the bodies to the Ohio Medical College: the same institution which Taylor had once supplied.

Sometimes there was disagreement over the spoils of the grave.  Usually an episode like the following would conclude in the arrest or lynching of the grave-robbers, rather than the grave defenders.

GRAVE ROBBER KILLED

Farmer Indicted for Shooting Wm. Gray, of Cantrell Party.

Indianapolis, March 14. Lucius Stout and Hampton West, farmers living 15 miles north of Indianapolis, were indicted today at Noblesville for the murder of Wm. Gray at Frankfort, in a grave yard battle over the possession of a corpse, in which Stout and West opposed Cantrell and his gang of thieves. The evidence before the grand jury showed Stout and West came upon Cantrell and his gang of thieves just as the latter was lifting a corpse from the grave in Beaver cemetery. West and Stout opened fire upon the gang, one bullet killing Gray, while the others escaped. Cantrell and his companions testified before the jury. They said Gray was buried in the swamps near the cemetery. Iowa City [IA] Press-Citizen 14 March 1903: p. 1 

I thought something didn’t quite ring true in this squib. Were Stout and West at the cemetery just as vigilante guardians of the grave? Well, not exactly…

The investigation of the operations of ghouls in the vicinity of Indianapolis, Ind., has taken a new and unexpected turn. The grand jury at Noblesville returned an indictment against Lucius Stout and Hampton West, charging the two men not only with grave robbery, but with murder. Both men are prominent and wealthy farmers. For years, according to the testimony of half the hundred witnesses who appeared before the jury, the two have been the most conspicuous figures among the mourners at all the funerals of the country-side. Even when they were unacquainted with either the dead or the surviving relatives, they were present at the graveside when the corpse was lowered to its last resting place. Suspicion on this account, has rested on the men for some time, but their wealth and position shielded them from open accusation Cantrell’s arrest and subsequent confession, however, implicated both men, and their arrest followed. The indictment returned charges them with the murder of William Gray in September, 1901. At midnight West and Stout, proceeding to a grave in the Beaver cemetery, surprised Cantrell and his gang at work removing the corpse that the two farmers had come to secure. Hot words followed, and both parties drew revolvers. A running fire ensued, in which Gray was mortally wounded and West’s forehead was grazed by a bullet. He bears the scar to-day. During the battle in the midst of the little churchyard, the combatants sheltered themselves behind the grave stones. Cantrell and his men, including Samuel Martin and Walter Daniel, two self-confessed ghouls, running short of ammunition, were forced to abandon Gray. The latter was taken by West and Stout to the West home, where it is alleged he died. By a strange turn in fate, Gray’s body, it is alleged, next made its appearance in the dissecting room of an Indianapolis medical college. Another story, however, relates that upon Gray’s death West and Stout buried his corpse in a swamp near the West home. The Indiana [PA] Democrat 18 March 1903: p. 10

Rufus Cantrell, “The King of the Ghouls,” sang like a ghoulish canary, implicating Stout in the chloroforming of a young woman, the murder of a police officer, and several other unsolved murders. Prosecutors were dubious and in the end Stout seems to have gotten off on a procedural technicality.

Many sextons and graveyard guards thought it prudent to arm themselves. There are thrilling reports of gun battles among the tombstones.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Last Monday night, Jacob Swein, the sexton of the new City Burial Ground, in Cincinnati, was awakened by a man in his employ, and told that some one was in the grave yard and engaged in digging up bodies. Mr. S., taking his gun, went out, and saw three persons, one of whom advanced towards him with a knife in his hand. Mr. S. immediately raised his gun and fired, with so much certainty as to kill the body-snatcher dead in his tracks. The other two instantly fled, leaving a horse and wagon, and the implements used for digging up the graves behind them. Lebanon [PA] Courier 15 October 1852: p. 2 

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Not only did honest Resurrection Men have to deal with over-zealous sextons with guns, there was no guarantee that the corpse they exhumed wasn’t a death-trap. An Ohio artist named Phil. K. Clover was the inventor of the “coffin torpedo.” 

Good News for the Dead

Mr. Phil. K. Clover, the artist, has invented a torpedo designed to make the robbery of graves a hazardous and unpopular business, and has taken the necessary steps to procure letters patent. The torpedo may be briefly described as a miniature needle-gun. It is about six inches long, and is divided into two pieces. The first piece, which is to be nailed inside the coffin, and almost covered by the upholster, contains a spiral spring, to which are attached two small chains, which are to be fastened around the body or around the arms of the corpse. So far the invention is harmless, but just before the final closing of the coffin the second piece, containing a cartridge, and arranged on the needle-gun plan is to be screwed onto the section containing the spring. The torpedo is now ready for action. The grave-robber may dig to the coffin, and remove the covering thereof, but when he attempts to move the body he pulls the chain and sets off the spiral spring, which strikes the needle with great force, explodes the cap, and sends buckshot or ball in an upward direction. The grave-robber, stooping over his work is liable to be shot with deadly effect. Under the most favorable circumstances to him he is likely to be powerfully impressed with a sense of danger, and to vacate the premises with dispatch. The torpedoes will not be very expensive, and several of them may be placed in the same coffin, so that the resurrectionist will have no assurance, when one explodes, that the danger is over. Should the article come into general use, the knowledge of its existence will have a restraining influence, and it will do its work without many fatal cases. Iowa Liberal [Lemars, IA] 31 July 1878: p. 8

TORPEDOES FOR BODY SNATCHERS.

If one may judge from the patent records, live people do a good deal of thinking about death. The very latest device that has been applied to burial appliances is the “coffin torpedo,” which is designed as an effective and very summary punishment for body snatchers. Nothing less than a bomb is introduced into the coffin, before the latter is closed, the arrangement being such—we spare the reader all technical details— that any attempt to force it open will release a spring, strike a percussion cap, and set off the bomb. The thing is done, and the robber is floating in pieces about the air long before he has had any time to prepare for his sudden journey.

But what happens to the corpse? The inventor leaves us in the dark on this point—probably because the question is hard to answer. We are afraid the coffin torpedo has no very brilliant future on this account, and for the further reason that local authorities (who are notoriously difficult to deal with) might object to have their burial grounds studded with infernal machines. Electrical Engineer, Vol. 22, 1896 p. 332

Clover wasn’t the only man thinking along these lines.

SURE DEATH TO GHOULS.

A Lawyer’s Startling Device to Foil Grave Robbers.

The details of the device of Jesse Hodgin, the well-known Westfield [Indiana] attorney, to protect the grave of his wife were made public the other day, says a Noblesville (Inc.) dispatch to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The plan has been examined by experts, who unhesitatingly say that it will put a stop to body snatching by ghouls. They not only say the device will be effective, but they also indorse it because it is inexpensive.

A few inches above the rough box in the grave is an ordinary gas pipe three-quarters of an inch in diameter filled with nitro-glycerine. The pipe occupies a position lengthwise of the coffin and extends from six to twelve inches over each end. There is a cap fastened tightly on each end of the pipe to prevent the deadly explosive from leaking. Scattered promiscuously through the soil about a foot or eighteen inches above the pipe are several dozen concussion caps. A spade or any hard substance that comes in contact with these caps will explode them. The jar will in turn explode the nitro-glycerine, which would mean death to any one within twenty-five or fifty feet of the grave. It is intimated that there is sufficient nitro-glycerine in the pipe to make an excavation in the earth fifty feet square and from ten to fifteen feet deep.

While Mr. Hodgin admits that the explosion would completely destroy the body of his wife, he says he would rather see that done than to know that the remains were ever on a dissecting table in a medical college.

“And I would also know that there would be some dead ghouls somewhere in the vicinity of the grave,” he said. “The plan is original with me and my brother, but I am satisfied that it would prove a success if it was ever tried. When I first mentioned the matter to the sexton of the cemetery, he refused to allow me to put in the device on the ground that it might result in injuring some innocent parties or despoil other graves. I then consulted the trustees who have charge of the cemetery and obtained their consent.” The Newark [OH] Advocate 6 November 1902:  p. 8

It is impossible to know how often these devices were deployed, but here is an incident from 1881.

A more serious incident was reported near the village of Gann [Knox County] about the same time. When three men attempted a grave robbery, they struck a torpedo which had been planted near the bottom of the grave, instantly killing one of the men and breaking a leg of one other. The third party, who was keeping a watch, succeeded in getting his companions into a sleigh, taking flight, and evading arrest.  Ohio State Journal January 20, 1881. 

But when it comes to poetic justice, it would be hard to top this story.

A Man Hung by a Corpse

The Cincinnati (Ohio) Gazette states that on Saturday night, a fellow was stealing a dead body from the graveyard at Cumminsville near that city, when in crossing the fence, he slipped and fell on the outside, and the rope which held the sack containing the corpse, sliding from his shoulders to his neck, at daylight his body was found hanging on the outside of the graveyard fence, while the corpse he had stolen, hung on the inside, both equally lifeless. Weekly Vincennes [IN] Gazette 12 March 1859

I will add the caveat that there’s an identical story about a man stealing a pig.

Given the many hazards inherent in the profession, I was surprised to unearth no tales of body-snatchers crushed by tipping tombstones, buried alive, or infected by diseased corpses. Except this one, about the ghastly end of one phrenologist-turned- grave-robber. This was the story my editor wouldn’t let me use in The Victorian Book of the DeadShe said it was too gruesome.  Thanks to the fearless and always tasteful Undine of Strange Company for sharing!

Other grave threats to Resurrectionists? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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.

Tombstone Murder Stories: 1905

TOMBSTONE MURDER STORIES

[St. Louis Globe-Democrat.]

“Abroad last summer I found a number of tombstones with murder stories on them,” said a detective. “The poor folk under the stones were the victims of murderers undiscovered and unhanged.

“One inscription was in the English town of Merrington. I jotted it down in my notebook. It was on the tomb of two murdered children. Here it is:

The detective read from his notebook:

“‘An unknown hand caused all our pain,

Sleeping we were slain.

And here we sleep till we must rise again.’

“Another was in Samdridge, the tomb of a Custom House officer shot by smugglers. It said:

“‘Thou shalt do no-murder, nor shalt thou steal.

Are the commands Jehovah did reveal.

But thou, O unnamed wretch, withouten dread

Of thy tremendous Maker, shot me dead.’

“A tombstone in the cemetery of Cladoxton, Glamorganshire, said:

“‘To record murder

This stone was erected over the body of Margaret Williams, aged 26, living in service in this parish, who was found dead with marks of violence upon her in a ditch on a marsh below this churchyard on the morning of Sunday, the 14th of July 1822.

“‘Although the savage murderer escaped the detection of man, yet God hath set his mark upon him, either for time or eternity, and the cry of blood will assuredly pursue him to certain and terrible but righteous judgment.’

“Another stone made me laugh. It was in Dulverton. It said:

“‘Mrs. Jane Winsmore, born 1794; died 1851.

Poisoned by the doctor, neglected by the nurse.

The brother robbed the widow, which made the matter worse.’”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 December 1905: p. 11

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

Pinched Ashes

The Urn

A report of a vile, “ashes for cash” scheme sent me to my files on early cremation to look for vintage stories of  purloined cremains.  It was surprising that, while corpses were often held for ransom or replevin, similar stories about ransom demands for ashes were extremely rare. Perhaps this was because fewer Victorians were cremated, yet there were plenty of stories of stolen ashes.  Let’s fire up the retort and look at some of these cases of ashen bodysnatching. There is quite a variety in motives and mysteries.

In most of the ash-theft cases, it is obvious there was a more mercenary motive.

HIS ASHES STOLEN.

St. Louis Girl Carried Reminder of Dead Sweetheart in Ring.

St. Louis, Dec. 15. Miss Cora Evelyn asked the police to locate a robber who stole from her $250 worth of jewelry, including an unusual ring. This ring contained the ashes of her former sweetheart, according to her statement. He was Charles Patterson who died in Binghamton, N.Y., about a year ago.

After his body had been cremated, Miss Evelyn says she procured a small quantity of his ashes, which she had placed in the setting of the ring, behind a transparent film. Her reason for this, she said, was to have near her always, some forcible reminder of her dead sweetheart. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 15 December 1910: p. 9

Today, of course, you can purchase pretty glass lockets in which to keep a pinch of the loved one’s cremains ever near, but in 1910, the ring  was freakishly unusual. In the 19th century the “correct” mourning accessory would have contained the hair, rather than the ashes, of the beloved.

Thefts of bronze urns and grave markers for scrap-metal sale are commonplace even today. One wonders if that was the motive here.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

The police of Newark, N.J., were asked yesterday to investigate the theft of a bronze urn containing the ashes of Henry Rundel Center. The urn bore the name of Center and the date of his death, November 19, 1909. Mrs. Catherine Center, widow of Henry Rundel Center, occupied an apartment at 176 Third street. Recently she went to Washington, D.C., and left the apartment in charge of a friend. The friend discovered several articles were missing, among them the urn. A sneak thief robbed the apartment. Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph 29 March 1918: p. 24

Other stories are simply a comedy of errors:

HUSBAND’S ASHES LOST.

Comedy of mixed bags.

An American widow who is so devoted to the memory of her late husband that she always carries his ashes with her was revealed by a curious mistake at the Pittsburgh station of the Pennsylvania line.

Mrs Mary White, of Chicago, who had been spending a holiday with friends at Pittsburgh, left her portmanteau at the station cloakroom while she was saying good-bye. At the same time a mechanic named James Robinson, who was going to seek employment at New York, left a similar valise containing his tools at the same station. Robinson was the first to call for his bag, accepted the one handed to him, and started for his 21 hours’ journey to New York.

Here his quest for work was successful. “But I can’t begin,” said Robinson; “they’ve given me the wrong valise at Pittsburgh and my tools are left behind.” An examination of his luggage disclosed the fact that the valise he had brought contained some woman’s wearing apparel and a sealed copper urn, to which was attached a coffin plate engraved, “George Shires White, died 1910.” There was also a Civil War medal which had belonged to Mr White. At the same time the stationmaster Chicago was telegraphing throughout the Pennsylvania line: “Wanted, a lady’s valise containing memorial tagged with the name of White; lady very anxious.”

The bags were exchanged as speedily as possible, and Mrs White explained to the Pennsylvania officials that she was never able to bring herself to inter her husband’s ashes after his cremation. She kept them with her, and it always seemed as if he himself were still her companion. Mataura Ensign, 8 August 1911: p. 5

In this story, the ashes were removed by police-impersonators probably under the guise of public health concerns. If they just wanted her trunk, how did they know there were ashes in it—did the recently widowed Mrs. Rankin mention it to the desk clerk?

DEAD HUSBAND’S ASHES STOLEN FROM WIDOW

Trunk Stolen From Hotel Room Contained Remains of Man

Cincinnati, Ohio, July 29. The disappearance of a trunk from her room in the Bremen Hotel, Twelfth and Bremen streets, containing the ashes of her husband, John Rankin, 47 years old, who died June 25, was reported to police late yesterday by Mrs. Bertha Rankin.

She told detectives she was informed police had ordered the trunk to be removed. No such order was issued through the Police Department, she was told. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 30 July 1916: p. 7

Sometimes the thieves, spooked by what they’d done, abandoned their loot.

ASHES OF HUMAN BODY STOLEN FROM DENVER OFFICE, UNOPENED URN IS LEFT AT BAKERY SHOP

Human ashes stolen Monday night from the offices of the Denver Crematory association, 100 First National Bank building, and abandoned by the thieves in a bakery at 1955 Curtis street, were returned to the crematory by the police Thursday.

As a result of conflicting instructions from relatives of the dead man—Jesse J. Haller of Mancos, Colo.—the disappearance of the ashes was not known to officials of the crematory association until the urn containing the ashes was returned to the crematory. At the downtown office of the association it was thought the ashes had been scattered in Riverside cemetery, in accordance with instructions given after Haller died here. Operator Rice of the crematory at Riverside thought the ashes had been sent to Mancos in accordance with instructions given to him by a brother last Sunday.

“It is the most mysterious happening I ever heard of,” declared President W.D. Pierce of the crematory, Thursday. “When we received Mr. Haller’s body, we were instructed to cremate it and scatter the ashes.

BODY CREMATED WEEK AGO

“The body was cremated March 24 and the ashes were locked in a steel vault at the cemetery. On Sunday, a brother appeared at the crematory and instructed Mr. Rice to ship the ashes back to Mancos. Mr. Rice sealed the ashes in an urn and brought them in to our office Monday night. The office force was gone when he arrived, and he placed the urn in a roll-top desk, locking the desk.

“The next morning we noticed that the desk would not lock, but [The rest of the story doesn’t appear or is illegible.] Denver [CO] Post 30 March 1922: p. 1

Here’s the rest of the story:

Thieves Steal Man’s Ashes, But Police Recover Them.

After having passed thru a peculiar chain of circumstances, including interment in a steel vault in the Riverside cemetery, theft from the office of the Denver Crematory association offices, abandonment in a Denver bakery and finally being turned over to the police, the ashes of J.J. Haller of Mancos, Colo., whose body was cremated on March 24, are to be shipped today to Mancos, where they will be laid in what is intended as a final resting place.

The almost unprecedented theft of human ashes was discovered yesterday when an urn containing them was returned to the Crematory by the police. The theft, which evidently occurred on Monday night, had not been noticed because of conflicting instructions from the relatives of the dead man.

Stolen from Desk.

The body was cremated on March 24, and the ashes locked in a steel vault in Riverside cemetery. Instructions from one source directed that the ashes be scattered in Riverside cemetery but a brother of the dead man, living in Mancos, gave instructions that the ashes be sent to him.

Joseph C. Rice, assistant superintendent received the latter instructions on last Sunday, so he took the urn containing the ashes to the downtown office of his company. He placed the urn in a rolltop desk and locked it. On Monday morning the urn was gone, but because of the misunderstanding that existed the possibilities of a theft was not considered.

Abandoned in Bakery.

Upon the return of the urn to the crematory association yesterday by the police, it was explained that the urn had been left in a bakery shop by two boys who said they would return for it. When they did not come to claim it the baker took it to the police station where it was opened and its contents discovered. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the boys left the urn with the baker without knowing what it contained or whether they opened it and learned of its contents before abandoning it.

A telegram asking reasons for the delay in the shipment of the ashes was received from Mancos yesterday, so the ashes will be shipped today.

Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 31 March 1922: p. 3

Recently I read of a donation to a thrift store of a bottle labeled “Dad’s Ashes.” Perhaps the bereaved are simply absent-minded, leaving “Dad” or, as in the following story “a carpenter” in the wrong place.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

Urn Taken From Railway Carriage Is Hastily Abandoned in Tram Car by Surprised Crook.

Berlin, April. 30. Strange objects have been left behind in public conveyances, but it is not often that deliberation or forgetfulness abandons anything more incongruous to workaday traffic than the urn containing the ashes of a carpenter, which was found yesterday by a conductor in the corner of a Cologne tram car.

The incident proved to be even odder on investigation than it had appeared at first sight, for it turned out that the vessel had been stolen from a railway carriage, evidently under the impression that it contained something to eat or drink, while its legal owner was conveying it home from the Maience Crematorium. On discovering that he had embarrassed himself with the incinerated remains of a carpenter, the thief had hastened to get rid of them by leaving his burden in the train. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 15 May 1910: p. 4

Did the thief think the urn was a thermos?

Then there are the truly mysterious thefts, hinting of nameless uses for the ashes.

ASHES STOLEN FROM A GRAVE

The Discovery of the Outrage Causes a Sensation in Raleigh

Raleigh, N.C., May 26. A distinct sensation has developed here among a wide circle of friends of the family at the discovery that the grave of Miss Mattie Oettinger, in Oakwood Cemetery, has been opened and her ashes stolen away. The ghouls had cut off the turf and dug down into the inner cell, where the urn was placed. On replacing the roof a mistake was made, so that the earth sifted through, causing a depression of the grave. This and the withered turf led to the discovery.

Miss Oettinger was a daughter of the late Isaac Oettinger, and died in New York about more than a year ago. The remains were cremated and brought here for burial in the family lot. Every effort thus far has failed to reveal any clue to those guilty of the crime. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 27 May 1906: p. 5

Towards the end of my search, at last I located a single instance of “ashes for cash.”

KIDNAP ANCESTRAL ASHES FOR RANSOM

Berne, Switzerland, Oct. 1. Thieves broke into a crematory situated in Bienne near Berne, a few nights ago, and stole a few sepulchral urns containing the ashes of members of wealthy families.

Prominent families of Berne and Zurich are receiving letters offering to return the urns for a consideration varying between 2,000 and 4,000 francs, according to the financial standing of the owners.

The police hope to lay a trap for the ghouls.

Wyoming State Tribune [Cheyenne WY] 1 October 1902: p. 4

And, finally, the lust for murderabilia formed the motive for the theft of a murderer’s cremains.

MURDERER’S ASHES STOLEN BY MORGUE SIGHT-SEERS

Visitors to Allegheny County’s Dead House Carry Away Dust Mementoes

Pittsburgh, Pa., Jan. 3. The ashes of Steve Rusic, whose body was first to be cremated in the county crematory, after he had been hanged in the county jail yard for murder, have slowly disappeared from an urn in the morgue building, where they have been on view since February, 1911. Curiosity-seekers are accused of carrying away the ashes until about half a handful remains.

The theft was discovered today when Deputy Coroner John Moschell noticed that the urns, containing the ashes of persons cremated, had been disturbed. Rusic was hanged for the murder of Salvarro [Mary] Domboy at her home in McKees Rocks January 15, 1910. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 4 January 1917: p. 2

Mrs Garvarro Domboy was shot by Rusic as she lay in bed with her husband and baby. Some papers reported that this was because she refused to accept the man’s attentions; others because she had ended their love affair. Did the curiosity-seekers think they could use the ashes for some kind of charm or did they merely want a grim and sooty souvenir?

Any other ashes-for-cash stories? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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.

The Undertaker’s Revenge

The Lowry Mausoleum, Ironton, Ohio

Today’s guest-narrator tells the bizarre and gruesome story of an undertaker’s revenge.

The story began innocently enough in Ironton, Ohio in 1933, when Dr. Joseph Lowry was found dead in his bed. He was thought to have had a stroke and was laid to rest next to his late wife in his $40,000 mausoleum in Woodland Cemetery. His estate amounted to around $300,000.

Official suspicions were first aroused when a key to a safe deposit box was found in the Lowry house, but the box could not be located. It was whispered that several of Lowry’s strong boxes had been emptied by his sister Alice Barger and nephew Clark, who were said to have borrowed money from Lowry in the past. An autopsy was ordered, but on the exhumation morning when the authorities needed a key to the mausoleum, the Bargers were nowhere to be found. Eventually the authorities burned a hole through the heavy metal doors with a welding torch.

Dr. Lowry’s body was autopsied at a local funeral home. There was no sign of a stroke. In addition to previously unnoticed marks of asphyxiation, a surprise awaited. …

But Mrs Daffodil will let the author tell the story in her own discursive way:

Many years ago I ran across a story called “The Coffin with the Plate Glass Front or The Undertaker’s Revenge” by Jean Dolan, which was part of the Ohio Valley Folk Research Project, a collection of locally-collected folk-tales. Part of the story concerned a doctor disemboweled by an undertaker, which, as I am a lover of the grim and gruesome, I filed away for future reference, assuming it was just a folktale.

Then, as I was writing Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, I spoke with a genealogy librarian from Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton, Ohio. She told me about some of the hauntings at the library and mentioned something about a disemboweled doctor who had formerly lived on the site.

Alarm bells went off. I had assumed the story was just a story, but the librarian graciously sent me newspaper clippings about the sensational story to prove that it wasn’t a fake.

Was he murdered? Why were his insides removed? Here we enter into the realm of conjecture. What follows is entirely speculative, based on local hearsay, gossip, and innuendo, sometimes a more reliable source of truth than the most carefully sworn testimony:

The story goes that when Dr. Lowry’s wife Sarah died in 1931, he ordered a very expensive, custom-made polished wood coffin. When it arrived, it had a slight scratch. Dr. Lowry noticed it at once. The undertaker murmured that it could easily be repaired. The French polisher could be on the job within the hour….

Dr. Lowry cut him short. It wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t be imposed upon with shoddy, second-rate goods. He insisted on being shown the coffins in stock and selected one, a top-of-the-line model, to be sure, with the genuine imitation mahogany veneer but a good deal less costly than the custom-made coffin. Dr. Lowry knew perfectly well that the custom coffin could be fixed but perhaps he was having second thoughts about the Dear Departed, or it may have been one of those minor economies that keep the rich richer than you and me.

The undertaker had not insisted on payment when the order was placed. He went home with a splitting headache and his wife put cool cloths on his forehead while he railed against the miserly doctor. He was his usual unctuous professional self by the time he next saw the doctor at the funeral. But he had the coffin taken up into the loft of the carriage house and covered with a horse blanket. On sleepless nights he brooded over the unpaid coffin invoice.

So when the news came that Dr. Lowry was dead, the undertaker danced a little jig of delight. He had sworn that Lowry would go to go his eternal rest in that expensive casket but it had been made for the Doctor’s wispy little wife and the dead man’s bulging midsection made it impossible to close the lid. Piece of cake, said the undertaker, preening himself on his ingenuity.  He simply scooped out the internal organs, shoveled in a few handfuls of excelsior, stitched up the now much‑diminished belly, and voila! Not only was the coffin a perfect fit but the old man looked trimmer than he had ever looked in life. The heirs congratulated him on how well the old man looked. Only a few people seemed puzzled by the corpse’s diminished height. Oh well, they went away thinking, the dead always look smaller… It had been a simple matter to take up the old man’s legs a bit so the undertaker could cram him into the coffin crafted for the five-foot Sarah.

Soon, however, rumors began to fly around the town that the old man’s death wasn’t altogether a natural one. There was some suspicion that someone had helped the old boy along—either by poison or a pillow over the face.

Dr. Lowry was removed from his $40,000 mausoleum in his plate-glass-fronted coffin. The autopsy revealed a startling secret, but not the one expected. When questioned, the undertaker admitted that he’d taken a few liberties with the old man’s innards. Motivated entirely by spite, he said cheerfully. The undertaker led the authorities to the place he’d buried the remains of the Doc, but the parts in question were too far gone to be analyzed for poison.  Any possible case against the heirs was dismissed for lack of evidence.

It is said that Dr Lowry haunts the Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton—the site of Dr Lowry’s former home where he was found dead….He has also been seen roaming the cemetery in search of his missing insides.

Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is grateful for her guest’s ghost story contribution. Another story involving a doctor, poison, a ghost, and entrails, may be found at the Haunted Ohio blog. One wonders if the disemboweled Dr Lowry’s ghost could have been placated by the substitution of ersatz entrails: trimmings from a local slaughterhouse perhaps or bits of an opossum run over by a motor-car?

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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. 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

The Charming Widow Worked the Mourning Racket: 1885

Womens mourning ensemble 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 29 August 2021, <https://ma.as/75188&gt;

THE CHARMING WIDOW
How She Worked the Mourning Racket on the Dry Goods Manager.

Burlington Hawkeye

She was pretty and sweet, so much so that the several clerks nearly broke their necks in struggling to see who would be the one to wait on her, but she ignored them all, and, sitting down on a stool, drew from her pocket a handkerchief which she held in readiness for application to her eyes, and sent for the manager. He soon came up to the lady, who, with the handkerchief to one eye, flashed the other brilliant or at his and told her story thusly:


“Mr. B___, Charley, my husband (sob), is dead, and I have no suitable (sniffle) mourning. I came down to see (gulp) if you would trust me for a (sob) mourning outfit” (sniffle). Here the other eye was hid behind the handkerchief, while a kind of cold chill shudder passed over her.

“But, my dear madam, I don’t know you. I would be rather departing from our rules to comply with your request,” replied Mr. B___, politely. “How much of a bill did you wish to buy?”
“I want (sob) everything as nice (sniffle) as I can get (sob)—about two (another sniffle) two hundred dollars, I (sob) guess.”

“I am sorry, but as you are a stranger to me I shall have to decline unless you can furnish security or come recommended by someone know to us.”
“Do you (sob) know Mr. (two sobs) Mr. Richfellow?” (Two sniffles.)

“Yes, madam, I know him. Do you think he would guarantee the payment of the bill?”
“I don’t (sob) want (sniffle)—want you to (sniffle) ask him (sniffle), because I am going (two sniffles) to marry him (sob) when my (sob) mourning has expired.” (Sob.)

“Well, in a case of that kind, of course we will trust you; we can present the bill to him after your marriage.”

“Oh thank you (brightening up), thank you; indeed that will be all right. Now I want a box of black gloves, number six and a half; fourteen yards of cashmere, thirty yards of crape cloth, twelve yards of veiling, two boxes of black silk hose (number eight), and the necessary trimmings. Please fix it up nice. Don’t you think I will look nice in mourning?”
Mr. B___ looked into her eyes, his heart began to jump, and, thinking discretion the better part of valor, he assured her that her order would be filled, and the lady departed smiling. Mr. B__, after the lash of the pretty widow’s eyes, would have filled a thousand dollar order and paid it out of his own pocket. He is bald-headed.

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 May 1885: p. 11

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

What the Cemetery Superintendent Sees: 1896

Forest Hills Cemetery gateway, Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1905

QUEER THINGS IN SILENT CITIES

What the Superintendent Sees.

Pathetic, humorous, and strange incidents are continually occurring in cemeteries. The public never hears of them because the cemetery superintendent isn’t often a talker. He doesn’t tell things unless he is asked. The stories of some happenings he declines to relate, regarding them as professional secrets. Above all, he of course never mentions names. The burying ground is one of the greatest places on earth to study character. The superintendent knows it and he is a most proficient student. His practiced eye detects the alleged mourner who simulates his grief, and in a moment he spots the financial skinner who is either cheese-paring expenses or making a spread to impress funeral participants to such a great extent that the display may be a sort of financial investment. In most cases friends and relatives who are not sincere mourners make strong and clever attempts at deceiving observers. Some, however, do not care, and family feuds are ofttimes carried to the side of the grave.

There was recently an instance of a woman laughing and chatting like a parrot a few minutes after the burial of a child. Then there are cases in which the wounds of sorrow made by the deaths of friends or relatives are so deep that the bereaved ones never recover. Some of this class visit and decorate the graves of their dead every day in the year, rain or shine. There are others, however, wounded just as deeply, who cannot bear the cemetery, but sit at home and suffer in silence.

The Curious and Superstitious.

The bane of a graveyard is the curiosity-seekers and the superstitious. People of the former class have a morbid love for funerals that is ghoulish. They gloat over the grief of the mourners, and feast their eyes on the face of the corpse if they get an opportunity. The abnormal appetite of these people seems never satiated. Their faces are so familiar to cemetery-keepers that they are missed if they neglect to attend a single funeral. Superstitious people are still plentiful. They wouldn’t enter a burying ground at night for a million dollars, and many of them wouldn’t go into a vault even in the daytime, not even if they were accompanied by an electric arc light and a cannon. A few days ago a remarkable superstition came to light at Graceland. One of the managers was walking in a driveway when he was approached by an old woman, tottering and bent with age. In one hand she carried a crumple strip of paper. Approaching, she said: “I’m looking for an open grave, sir. Can you tell me where to find one?”

“Yes, there is one right straight north of here—the seventh lot,” was the reply. “But why do you want to find an open grave?”

‘Well, you know, one of my granchillern’s got the scarlet fev’r, an’ I’ve writ the name of the disease on this here piece of paper. If I kin just drop the paper in an open grave, where it’ll git buried, the disease’ll leave the chile an’ go down in the grave.”

When asked for a look at the paper, she unfolded it and held it out. On the scrap was scrawled in a lead pencil, “skarlit fevr.” When the old woman was handed back her slip she hurried to the grave. The man watched her. When she reached the hole she stopped for a moment, and seemed to be muttering some incantation over the opening. Then she stretched her arm out straight over the middle of the grave, with the back of her hand down. In a moment her fingers, which had been tightly closed, opened. The light breeze lifted the “skarlit fevr” charm from her palm. It fluttered in the air an instant, and fell into the grave. The poor old creature was satisfied. With a contented, feeble smile, she turned and hurried away as fast as possible.

Wax Flowers and Coffin Plates.

Very frequently the family of the deceased removes the name plate from the coffin and has the flowers which were used preserved by dipping them in wax. The flowers are made in the form of a wreath. The silver plate is placed in the middle and the whole is placed in a glass case to be hung In the parlor. Then, after some one comes along and makes the remark that it is “mighty bad luck to have such a thing in the house,” the relatives take down the case and carry the plate to the cemetery and ask the superintendent to have the body taken up that they may put the plate back on the coffin. This has happened so often at every cemetery that the employes do longer smile when the superstitious man with the plate wants a coffin exhumed.

At Oakwoods cemetery there is a remarkable and apparently inexplicable mystery, for many years the authorities there have been finding candles just inside the great high iron fence which surrounds the grounds. In every instance the candle has been lighted and extinguished at once before any of the tallow has melted. Sometimes three candles are found bound together by a strip of a linen handkerchief. They are always found so close to the fence that whoever left them evidently reached between the iron bars and dropped them within. Scores of the candles have been found, and Superintendent Drew always has a fresh drawer full in his office. Many guesses have been hazarded as to the cause of the strange practice. The theory which seems most plausible is that it is a hoodoo charm performed by negroes the night of the burial of one of their kin.

Is the Grave Secure?

Quite frequently people ask cemetery superintendents to open the graves so that they may see if the corpse has not been stolen or disturbed. This is especially the case when graves are very much sunken. It is very seldom that the authorities will listen to the request. The suspicions are almost invariably groundless and explanations are made to the friends showing them the uselessness of disinterment. Body-snatching is almost unknown in in these days. The only cases that may occur are when the deceased has been taken away by some unusual disease which scientist would like to investigate. For all ordinary scientific study the hospitals and poor-house furnish an abundance of bodies. Sometimes before the coffin is lowered into the grave some mourner is already figuring on having the corpse exhumed before very long to see if it has been disturbed. One day at Oakwoods a mourner, who was unwilling to trust the records, walked the fence and scratched a cross on the railing opposite the grave which was in the single grave section. In a few weeks he came back and wanted the grave opened. He was so persistent that Superintendent Drew consented. The man wanted the grave opened which was exactly opposite the notch. The records and chart showed the grave of the gentleman’s relative was next to the one which he wished opened. He kicked up a great row, but the superintendent stood by his records and opened the grave indicated on the chart. It was the right one. The mourner had not been careful in making his mark, and had placed it a little to one side and directly in front of another grave, only a foot away. The coffin was taken up. The dead had not been disturbed and the man was satisfied.

Flower Thieves.

The only kind of thieves and robbers that bother the burying ground is the flower thief. She, for this brand of thief is almost invariably of the feminine gender, comes with the blossoms in the springtime and she haunts graveyards all summer long unless she is detected. Decoration day before last, at Mount Greenwood Cemetery, two enterprising flower sellers and stealers had a narrow escape from being mobbed. A man drew up a wagon filled with potted plants near the station. Great crowds were getting off the train and he sold flowers right and left. Although he was selling them by the dozen on every hand, for some strange reason his supply seemed no smaller at the end of an hour than when he began. Presently, when the salesman’s wife was caught stealing flowers in the cemetery, his never-decreasing supply of floral goods was no longer a mystery. As fast as the purchased flowers were placed on graves the wife stole them and carried them back to the wagon. When caught she was surrounded by a crowd of a thousand people and came near receiving rough treatment.

Superintendent Rudd of Mount Greenwood is one of the oldest and most experienced cemetery managers in Chicago. The many years he has been in his present position have given him great experience with the general public.

“I could tell you things which you would scarcely believe,” said Mr. Rudd.

“Incidents transpire in cemeteries which if told exactly as they occurred would receive little credence. One thing which would occasion great surprise is the little real sorrow and grief caused by death.

Grief Arithmetically Measured.

 “Most husbands are not hurt very much by the death of their wives. I don’t think over 20 per cent really feel badly wounded at heart when they hear the clods fall on the coffin lid. Wives are less heartless. About 40 per cent of wives, twice as many as the husbands, care considerably when their life partners are buried. Very few care when old people die. But when a mother leaves her child in the ground there are few instances when her heart is not almost broken. We once had a striking exception. A mother had just buried the third of her children who had died in quick succession of scarlet fever. The husband and wire had come from the grave to my office and were waiting for some papers. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, but the woman laughed and talked as if she were at a reunion in a beer garden. Finally the poor man could bear it no longer. Raising his clinched fist and cursing her, he advanced toward his wife and told her if she didn’t shut her mouth he would shut it for her.

“I remember one young man whose grief at the burial of his wife was heartrending. He screamed and cried until be could be beard clear across the hill. He threw himself on the coffin, and when it was lowered he tried to jump into the grave. Friends held him, and he was taken away almost fainting. Within a month the young man married again.

No Waking the Last Sleep.

“Very often in the winter husbands place their dead wives in the vault, and In the spring bring out wife No. 2 to see No. 1 put in the ground. Once an undertaker had occasion to open a coffin which was in our public vault. It was in the depth of winter, and the thermometer was below zero. The corpse looked very life-like, and after the undertaker went away he made some little remark about it. The little remark was repeated. It grew like a weed. It was enlarged and exaggerated until it was told over the entire neighborhood that a woman in a trance lay buried in the vault. The gossips did not stop to think that the body had been frozen solid for nearly a month. These stories, by the way, about people being buried alive are mostly manufactured for sensational purposes. I never heard of an authentic case, and I never met any one else who ever did.

Tricks of the Social Faker.

“Some queer and peculiar things are done out here by money ‘skinners.’ Who are thinking of saving every penny as much as they are of their grief. Two or three of the mourners will come out before the funeral and express their doubts as to whether we have a lot good enough for them. Then they conclude to place the remains in the vault temporarily.

The day of the funeral everything is imposing. The coffin is rosewood, or covered with plush or broadcloth, and there is a long line of fine carriages. Some time after the funeral the mourners will slip out to the cemetery, buy a single grave in the poorest, cheapest spot, and, without buying the $3 pine coffin-box, bury the casket in the ground. I remember well a heart-broken husband who came out to the cemetery to buy a lot and make arrangements for his wife’s funeral. The poor fellow could not restrain his feelings. Two big tears glistened in his eyes, and his voice quivered. He looked up at me through his glistening tears and said:

“‘Yes. It’s hard to (sob) bear. An’ it’s an awful (sob) trial (sob) to come out (sob) here and select this (sob) lot. I was wo-wonderin’ if you (sob) co-couldn’t gimme a little discoun-count for cash.’ (Long-continued sobbing.)

“I had another experience with a mourner of much the same character. ‘Now, I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘there are going to be a lot of swell, rich people out here at my wife’s funeral tomorrow. They don’t any of ’em own lots here, but when they come out tomorrow and see what a magnificent place you’ve got they may buy. Well, you know, of course I’m sort of bringing ’em out here, and maybe you might sell ’em some lots several, perhaps and well. I didn’t know but you might feel like giving me a little commission on all the lots you might sell to any of em.”

Repentance and Black Stockings.

“A widower came to my foreman once with a proposition that had never been heard of before. Several months previous the man had buried his wife. He was a cheese-parer on money matters, and, I guess, he saved all he could on funeral arrangements. At the funeral, of course, only the face was exposed. The rest of the body could not be seen, and no one but the widower knew how well or how poorly it was arrayed. Evidently he got to thinking the matter over and decided he hadn’t given his dead wife a square deal. Well, sir, he came to my foreman with a long pair of black stockings, and wanted his wife taken up so that be could put them on her.”

All of the large cemeteries have had more or less experience with people who have been so unfortunate as to lose a limb. One day a man from Pullman appeared at Mount Greenwood with a tiny coffin, about nine inches long, under his arm. He had in the coffin two of his fingers which had been cut off by a buzz saw. Instead of throwing them away or burying them in his back yard he brought them to the graveyard, purchased a lot, and buried the fingers. Several years ago a woman, living on the South Side, had a leg amputated. It was buried in a family lot. Recently the woman died. Her relatives had the leg taken up and placed in the coffin. They said they did it so that she would be perfect in heaven.

Some Recent Legislation.

Cemetery people all over the state are laughing at the ridiculous law passed by the Legislature in regard to the use of wire designs for holding flowers. The law makes it unlawful for these designs to be used in any way a second time.

“It is one of the most laughable things 1 ever heard of,” said Superintendent Rudd. “I presume the law was passed on the theory that the wire might become infected with contagion. Of course that is preposterous, especially if the designs are repainted. I guess if the truth were known it would be found that some manufacturers had some new design they wanted to get on the market. Perhaps they persuaded the Legislature to cripple the old designs.”

Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL[ 21 June 1896: p. 23

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Hist Went the Corpse: 1889

Baltimore and Ohio Employees magazine 1912 wake poem

A Wonderful Escape

“When I first went on the police force,” said the fat policeman to a Philadelphia North American man. “I was lucky. One of my assignments was a queer one, and I’m not likely to forget it. I was sent to the house of a man who had just died. He was well known and belonged to a good many lodges. It was a big crowd at the funeral. I was stationed at the foot of the coffin to preserve order. The shutters were closed and the gas burned dimly. The coffin lid was off and the body exposed. No one besides myself and the ‘stiff ‘ was in the room. After I’d been there awhile I began to grow uneasy. I kept looking at the dead face. I’d take my eyes off, and the first thing I’d be gazing at the body again. Suddenly the eyes opened. I thought I was dreaming. Then the left eye winked. Holy smoke!”

“’Hist went the corpse.’”

“My teeth chattered.

“‘Say, officer.’

“Goodness! The corpse sat up. ‘Ain’t you dead?’ I gasped.

“’Me, me dead?’

“’Yes.’

“’Oh, no.’

“’What are you doing there?’

“’That’s only a dodge.’

“’Dodge?”

“’Yes. I’m just now a dodger. A kind of an Artful Dodger. See?’

“’I’ll call the folks.’

“’Heavens, no. I’ll tell you. You see I wasn’t feeling well. I’ve got a mother-in-law who is a holy terror. Worse than ten parrots and the hydrophobia. Well, I’ve been trying for ten years to get rid of her. Now, I told my wife that I would simulate death, get put in a vault, be taken out again right away and sneak west. She liked the idea. I’ll be taken out tonight, go to a hotel, and I’ll meet my wife in St. Louis. In that way we’ll shake the old girl. Well, here’s a dollar. I wish you could send out and get me a little spirits’ reviver.’

“Pretty soon the folks began to come in. The supposed corpse looked as natural as life everybody said. People always say this at funerals. There is no use saying it at weddings or balls. The mother-in-law sobbed. Then she leaned over and kissed the corpse.

“’Why, John smells of whisky,’ she said.

“‘John was a beautiful drinker,’ explained the wife.”

Aberdeen [SC] Daily News 10 September 1889: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Possibly in connection with the 19th-century’s idée fixe about premature burial, we find many stories, some amusing, some grim, about corpses “waking up” or the watchers at a wake fearing that they have wakened up, such as The Corpse Sat Up, by that grave person over at Haunted Ohio. There is also an entire genre of stories about persons pretending to be dead, for example, The Corpse Counted the Coins, in which a similar scam was worked for a more mercenary reason than was admitted by John-the-beautiful-drinker above, or to induce a cruel father to relent and give his blessing to a young couple, as in The Resurrection of Willie Todd.

We can only hope that the Artful Dodger and his wife found an earthly paradise in St. Louis and that the mother-in-law did not disinherit her newly-widowed daughter when she decided to go west to Forget.  Mrs Daffodil fears that a woman worse than ten parrots and the hydrophobia would be capable of anything.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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.

Frauds on Undertakers: 1883

 

bangham and company funeral furnishers letterhead 1860

Bangham & Company, Funeral Furnishers, letterhead, c. 1860 https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk

FRAUDS ON UNDERTAKERS.

A man named Henry Russell has lately confessed how he victimised undertakers, an English paper gives the following details About four o’clock one afternoon in May, 1883, Russell, dressed in deep black, walked into the shop of an undertaker in Willesden and asked the assistant if his master were in. The assistant explained that his master would be but a short time, and asked the future customer to be seated. Whilst waiting; for the arrival of the master the assistant engaged the customer in conversation, and, to put it briefly, during the space of about twenty-five minutes Russell simply “pumped” the assistant and made himself master of certain facts and details of the business which proved very useful. The undertaker arrived, and Russell explained in a most becoming manner that his brother-in-law had died that morning, and he had been recommended to place the arrangements for the burial in the hands of Mr __ by Miss J__ who spoke highly of the manner in which he had carried out the funerals of her two sisters whom she had unfortunately recently lost. In this way Russell quite charmed the undertaker, and in the result, having explained the kind of grave, coffin, and funeral he wanted, desired the undertaker to give him a price for the whole thing.

Rapidly the undertaker totalled up the whole cost, which he said would come to £20. “Very well,” said Russell, I will just consult my poor sister, and call upon you later in the evening, when doubtless I shall have a cheque from my brother for you.”

According to his promise Russell called and asked the undertaker to make out the account, and receipt it.

“Ah!” said Russell, “I am very sorry. My brother thought I said £30, and has given me a cheque for that amount, but it matters little; just give me the difference, £10, in gold, will you?

The address of the deceased was in the very best part of Willesden, and the undertaker made not the slightest objection, and promptly handed “Mr James Le Royt” the £10 in sovereigns. Towards nine o’clock Mr Undertaker paid a visit to the address given, and to the servant who answered the door he explained his object in calling. The servant, in turn, called her mistress, to whom the undertaker expressed his regret for the loss of so excellent a husband.

The lady had some doubts about the sanity of her visitor. She told him that he must have mistaken the house, and that her husband was on the premises, alive and well. The undertaker showed her the address given by Russell. and said he felt sure that he had made no mistake. The lady then called her husband, who was having dinner, in order that the undertaker might have ocular proof of the truth of her statement.

Hardly had the first undertaker been gone half-an-hour before another knock was heard, and again the lady of the house was requested to conduct undertaker No. 2 to the death chamber for the purpose of taking the necessary measurements for a coffin. Again the master was shown to be in the flesh— much, we feel bound to say, to the horror of the undertakers, who now realised that they had been the victims of a very clever fraud, both the cheques being worthless.

Whilst talking to the assistant of undertaker No. 1, Russell learned that Mr__ who kept a public-house in the immediate neighbourhood, had often changed his master’s cheques, and before quitting Willesden Russell succeeded in inducing the landlord to cash a cheque of the undertaker’s for £20, which he (Russell) stated had just been paid to him for cloth he had brought down. The signature was, of course, obtained from the receipt for the funeral expenses which Mr__ had given Russell. Russell was very pleased with his visit to Willesden, which, he informed his companion, had resulted in a net gain, after deducting expenses, of £38.

Russell next paid a visit to Bedford; and, just as the assistant of one of the undertakers of the town was closing the shop, Russell, in a very hurried manner, walked up to him and asked him if he could direct him to Messrs B__ and Co., undertakers.

“Yes,” said the assistant, “this is the shop.”

“l am so glad,” said Russell. I have been hurrying all the way from the other end of the town. Is your master in?” The young man replied in the negative, and seeing Russell was overcome, and appeared as if about to faint, he augmented they should adjourn to the hotel bar near, and partake of some brandy. Russell thanked the young fellow and accompanied him to the hotel, where be soon became himself, thanks to the brandy. Russell again thanked the young man, and placed half a-crown in his hand. A conversation ensued, during which Russell learned the name of his master’s bankers and the names of some of his master’s friends in London, and other details, which served him in good stead. Russell then made an appointment for the next day to arrange for the funeral of his sister, who had just died, and who was an old maid, explained Russell, “with a nice long stocking.”

Next day Russell saw the undertaker, and explained that he had been called down from London owing to the death of his maiden sister, which had taken place some two or three days previously.

“When I got to the house,” said Russell, “I found that they had made some arrangements with Mr S__ and that he had actually made a coffin. Well, I find he is a very small man, and I don’t think, considering I am one of my sister’s executors, that I can allow him to carry out the funeral. I come to you because I know a Mr Balman, and having mentioned that my sister at Bedford had died he recommended me to you, as he was a friend of yours, but I don’t see my way clear at all. What am I to do with the other man now he has made the coffin?”

“Oh,” replied the undertaker, “just tell him that you are going to make other arrangements, and then ask him what he wants for the coffin and the trouble he has been put to, and then pay him— that is what I should do.”

“Very well,” replied Russell, “I’ll go down and do so at once, and come back to you.”

A little later Russell appeared, and exhibited to the undertaker his rival’s receipt for £6, the price of the coffin, &c. It may be as well here to tell the story of how he obtained the receipt. Russell went to another undertaker in a small way of business, and explained that his sister had just given birth to a stillborn child, and he would so very glad if he would make a small coffin, see Dr __ and make arrangements for the burial. Russell then asked him whether he had a book showing the different styles of coffins, and whilst the undertaker was hunting for his pattern book Russell managed, to abstract from a case on the counter several printed memoranda forms and envelopes. Then Russell suddenly remembered that he had an appointment to keep in the town, and hurriedly left the shop, promising to come again later in the day. It was on one of the memoranda forms that Russell wrote “Rced. of W. Wesson, Esq., the sum of £6 for coffin for Miss A. Wesson, No. 21, ___, Bedford.”

The production of the receipt, of course, inspired confidence: first it established the fact that a Miss Wesson had died and, secondly, that she was in her coffin. It also showed that Russell was desirous of placing business in the way of Messrs Russell then described the kind of funeral he wanted, with feathers, palls, &c, and asked how much it would come to. “£15,” replied the undertaker. “Very well; make out a bill and I will pay you. I have just got a cheque from my cousin, James Wesson, for £20. The account was duly made out, stamped, and receipted, while Russell said, “I must send £5 back to London to-night, so I think you had better give me your cheque for the balance, and it will save me getting a post office order. Don’t cross the cheque, as it is going to a poor relative to buy black with, and they will want to change it in London.”

The undertaker gave “Mr Wesson” the cheque for £5, and after having fixed the date on which the funeral was to take place and partaken of a glass of wine at the before-mentioned hotel, Mr Wesson bid the undertaker good day. Half an hour later a cheque was presented at the Bedford branch of the Bank for £50, and Mr Wesson requested that the money should be paid in gold. The £5 had been cleverly turned into £50, and a nought placed after the £5. This fraud Russell always pointed to with great pride, and “Undertaker Jimmy,” was never too tired or too busy to tell this story, of course to an admiring circle of selected friends.

Star [Christchurch NZ], 26 November 1891: p. 2

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.

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.

The Broom Corn Seed Funeral Swindle: 1866-7

Sarah Bernhardt shamming death in her coffin.

Who among us has not fantasized wistfully about faking their own death and disappearing? Hands?

Recently this helpful article about faking death for various, mostly criminal, reasons, sent me to my files of vintage insurance fraud for some amusing and perhaps instructive anecdotes. Just don’t tell anyone you heard it here…

Obviously the art of disguise figures heavily in faking death. Mrs Daffodil posted recently on a Victorian urban legend about a funerary scam in which the “corpse” was nicely painted to simulate death’s pallor. The peerless master in this next story, however, not only impersonated the corpse, but his own widow, leaving us gasping at the audacity and applauding his self-reliance.

A REMARKABLE INSURANCE FRAUD.

A most remarkable fraud is that of the man Kumf, who was recently imprisoned in Germany for collecting insurance money on his own life. This man was a skilful impersonator, and, disguised as a woman, he applied for an insurance on his own life. As the husband of the applicant he presented himself for medical examination, was accepted, and the policy issued. In course of time he feigned sickness, and was attended by a short-sighted old physician he had selected as a man easily to be duped. One day during his spell of sickness he got up quietly, disguised himself once more as his wife, went to the insurance office, paid a premium about due, and tearfully announced the grievous sickness of the insured. The company seem to have suspected that this illness was not at all genuine, for, having casually asked the name of the attending physician, they sent to that gentleman, whose replies to their questions, however, allayed their suspicions. One day this doctor was called in great haste and told that Kumf was dead. The old fellow does not appear to have been very conscientious or painstaking. On his arrival at the house, he was met by Kumf, this time disguised as the wife or alleged widow, and taken to a darkened room in which lay a corpse. His examination of this must have been nominal, for in a short space of time he quitted the house, leaving behind him the required death certificate. As the bereaved widow, Kumf attended the interment of what purported to be his own body. Still as the widow of himself, he obtained the insurance money on his own life, and his little plot had answered admirably. Unfortunately for him, however, he got intoxicated, first with success and then with liquor, whereupon he neglected to keep up the disguise, went about as the dead man redivivus, was detected, and now languishes in gaol.

The Daily Democrat [Huntington, IN] 17 August 1889: p. 3

Well, he was brilliant up to that last bit. It is disheartening that someone who had taken such pains was, in the end, so careless. Why, if you wanted to appear to be dead, wouldn’t you stay the hell away from places you are known? A disappointing lapse in an otherwise flawless plan.

As the Bloomberg article on faking your own death suggested, the scheme might be more appealing than bankruptcy to those with a large amount of debt.

BRINGING A ‘CORPSE’ TO LIFE.

An ingenious female, living in the Boulevard de Rochechouart (says the Paris correspondent of the Daily Telegraph), lately failed in business, and a writ was issued for the sale of her effects. On Saturday an officer of the Court, or huissier, went with a police inspector to the woman’s abode, in order to seize her goods, but he rang the bell of her door in vain. As the key of the dwelling, however, was in its place, the inspector turned it and the pair then entered the rooms of the debtor, in one of which a strange and sombre scene was presented to their startling sight. On a bed in the centre of the room was the apparently dead body of the female fraud, laid out in all the trappings of woe, and ready for the French equivalent of a wake. Around the presumed corpse were ranged six tall candlesticks, with lighted tapers therein. The huissier, deeming that he had to deal with a genuine dead body, instantly prepared to withdraw with his writ, but the police inspector, more inquisitive and suspicious than the process server, went over to the bed, and, attracted by the extraordinary plumpness of the arms of the corpse, pinched them with considerable vehemence. There was an instantaneous bringing of the dead to life. The corpse chalked carefully as to its face —sat up in its shroud, spoke words to the effect that the trick had failed, and confessed all. The candles were quickly snuffed out, the mourning drapery pulled down, and the process-server proceeded speedily to confiscate everything appertaining either to life or death in the domicile of the deceitful female debtor. 4

Auckland [NZ] Star 31 May 1890: p.

Life insurance was the more usual motive in these cases. I suspect that this is the story that inspired the plot of The Thin Man.

“THE DEATH GAMBLE.”

SUPPOSED INSURANCE FRAUD.

NEW YORK, August 3

When it was disclosed that Henry Schwartz, of San Francisco, an inventor, who was supposedly killed by an explosion in his laboratory, carried a life insurance of 180,000 dollars, the authorities became suspicious. Examination of the body by a dentist showed that the teeth in the dead man’s head were not Schwartz’s. Later, the wife of a labourer, named Rodrigeus [sic], reported that her husband was missing. She inspected fragments of the body and believed that it was her husband. A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Schwartz, on a charge of murder.

Press, 5 August 1925: p. 9

Ah, there’s the snag: procuring that all-important body for insurance purposes. In the old days, you could probably just pick up a plausible-looking corpse lying around in graveyard, back alley, or medical college, but the end of bodysnatching meant that murder was the only option.

LIFE INSURANCE FRAUD.

MURDER AND MUTILATION.

Vienna, October 28. In order to perpetrate a life insurance fraud a chauffeur named Toman murdered an unknown man, removed the eyes and nose, to prevent recognition, and dressed the body in his clothes, containing personal letters. Toman has escaped.

Dominion, 30 October 1911: p. 5

Of course, if you were actually fond of the soon-to-be-corpse, there was always that old standby: bricks in the coffin.

Audacious Attempt to Defraud an Insurance Company.

A Hungarian count, named Enling, found himself lately in New York with a curious household upon his hands, consisting of a wife ten years older than himself, and a handsome mistress, whose position was recognised by Mrs Enling without annoyance. He was also almost destitute, but found money enough to take out a policy for 10,000 dollars upon the life of his mistress, who fortunately soon after fell sick. A doctor who was called in, who seems to have been a very incompetent physician, and after the farce had been played a short while, the girl shammed death, deceived the physician, and successfully lay for inspection by friends for about an hour. Then the coffin came, and full arrangements were made for the funeral. After the obsequies, Enling lost no time in making his claim upon the insurance company. Something in the case, however aroused their suspicions, and they got an order from the Board of Health to exhume the coffin, which, upon inspection, proved to contain nineteen bricks carefully held in place by some slips of board. The undertaker has since confessed to having shared in the business for a bribe of 250 dols, and Enling and the woman have both been arrested. Great interest is shown by the public in the case, and Barnum, whose monster show is to open very soon, has bought the coffin and eighteen surviving bricks—for one of the nineteen has been stolen by a curiosity hunter—for 1000 dollars.

Star 27 July 1874: p. 3

Here we see again the importance of the Incompetent Physician, a pivotal figure in domestic poisonings or pseudocides.

In this next case, how different things would have been if Dr. Bassett’s wife could have recognized his extra-domestic interests without annoyance.

A New Way to Get Rid of a Wife.

We announced on Saturday, that Dr. Bassett was drowned from the Southerner, on her way from Cleveland to Detroit. It now seems there is a little romance in the story, and Dr. Bassett is still alive and kicking. A gentleman came on board of the Southerner, and purchased a ticket for himself, calling his name Morse. The clerk gave him a state room and told him he should be compelled to put another man in the room with him. All satisfactory. Mr. Morse was very indifferently dressed. In a very short time, a person very genteelly dressed called for a ticket under the name of Dr. Bassett. The clerk gave him a berth in the state room with Mr. Morse. In the passage up, the story was started by Morse, that Dr. Bassett had fell overboard, while in the act of vomiting. All credited it. After a few moments, the Captain came to the conclusion, that it was singular that no other person than Mr. Morse saw the accident, and some surmised foul play. Dr. Bassett’s baggage was looked for in his room, but nothing but an old russet leather valise, with his name on it, could be found. This appeared rather singular for so genteel a traveller, who at least would require a change of linen. Thus matters remained until after the boat’s arrival at our wharf, and Mrs. Bassett was telegraphed that she was a widow.

On reviewing the whole circumstances, it was concluded that Mr. Morse ought to be arrested and an investigation had. Accordingly, a warrant was obtained and an officer took charge of him. Mr. Morse and Dr. Bassett, from the story of the prisoner, are one and the same man, and the unfortunate plot was a stratagem to rid himself of his wife at the east. He tells the story thus: When he got the ticket, he wore an old suit. As soon as he got the key of his state room, he entered at once, and placed upon his person another suit of clothes and a pair of false whiskers and went to the clerk for another ticket, as Dr. Bassett, which he says is his real name. The drowning scene was got up for the eastern market, where he has a wife, and desires it for home consumption.

But here again, is the dilemma. The doctor is a stranger here and the last we heard from him, he had not been able to prove that he was himself, or in other words, that he was the identical Dr. Bassett, and the police still hold him a prisoner, until he can make satisfactory evidence, that Dr. Bassett is not now a drowned man in Lake Erie.

Pittsburgh [PA] Daily Post 18 September 1850: p. 2

If you were Mrs. Bassett, called upon to identify the scoundrel, what would you do? I suppose it would have depended on whether she was the beneficiary of any will or life insurance policies.

Our final tale has some instructive points: the introduction of the cholera motif; the purchase of chloride of lime; the creation of the speedily-doomed McFadden. But the elaborate plot quickly collapsed under the sheer weight of numbers…

THE SHAM DEATH AT LEBANON

Mayor of Eaton the Dead Man.

Attempt to Realize $20,000 on Life Insurance.

Arrest of all the Parties to the Fraud.

[From the Cincinnati Gazette 20th.]

All the facts and incidents connected with the reported sudden death of a man near Lebanon, Ohio, and his hasty burial at Eaton, seem to have came to light, and we present them below in detail. The whole affair reveals a long premeditated plot of fraud, on the part of heretofore respectable citizens of both Eaton and the vicinity of Lebanon; and although the parties implicated may not be convicted of crime, their criminal intentions seem very strikingly manifest, and no one will envy them the reputation they have made for themselves in this matter.

On Monday, the 24th, a man, who gave his name as W.T. McFadden, rode out from Cincinnati in the omnibus driven by Abner L. Ross, and got out at Frank Richardson’s near Lebanon, having complained of being sick on the way out. In the evening Frank Richardson went into Lebanon, reported that McFadden had died of cholera within twenty minutes after stopping at his house, telegraphed Mary McFadden, care of B.M. Batchelder, Eaton, that her husband was dead, and bought a coffin which he took home with him. The undertaker wished to go with him and encoffin the corpse, but his services were persistently declined. It has been ascertained also that Mr. Richardson purchased some chloride of lime and peppermint drops, when he was town after the coffin, the use of which will appear in the sequel.

On Tuesday morning, when everybody was supposed to be absorbed in Christmas festivities, Mr. Richardson called in a few neighbors, as they supposed, to lay out the corpse, but they found the coffin closed and they were only asked to help lift it into a spring wagon. On asking to see the corpse, their attention was directed to the offensive smell coming from the coffin, and warned of the danger of catching the cholera, and the lid was not removed.

Dr. N.S. Richardson, brother of Frank Richardson, formerly surgeon of the 12th Ohio cavalry and a practicing physician of Eaton, was the only person present during the reported death of McFadden. In reference to his part in the affair, it is said that on Monday he left Eaton with the declared intention of meeting McFadden at Lebanon, to close a contract for the sale to him of a tract of land in the West.

On Tuesday Dr. Richardson returned to Eaton, and stated that he met McFadden according to agreement, but that immediately after his arrival upon an omnibus at Frank Richardson’s, he was taken violently ill with an attack of cholera and died.

Dr. Richardson then engaged an undertaker to go to Lebanon with a horse, to bring the coffin containing the remains to Eaton for interment. He also visited a clergyman, and requested him to hold a brief burial service at the Methodist Episcopal church in the evening, which, owing to other engagements, the minister was unable to perform. The undertaker started for Lebanon, and when four miles beyond Middletown met Frank Richardson with the coffin said to contain the corpse, in a spring wagon. The coffin was transferred to the hearse, which was driven rapidly to Eaton, B.M. Batchelder, who accompanied the undertaker, urging him to apply the whip. The coffin arrived in the evening, about 6 o’clock and Dr. Richardson, securing the assistance of three or four citizens, had the supposed remains conveyed immediately to the burial ground and interred.

A woman personating Mrs. McFadden was present when the corpse arrived, and was loud in her passionate cries to see her dead husband, but the stench from the coffin and the danger of contagion were urged upon her, and the gratification of her wishes was denied.

On account of the suddenness of the reported death, and the secrecy with which the corpse was encoffined and removed, suspicion was aroused in the minds of the citizens of Lebanon that there was something wrong in the affair. They telegraphed to parties in Eaton, and officer Wampler and an assistant started over to Eaton, with warrants to arrest Dr. Richardson and Batchelder. They arrived about midnight, and learning the circumstances of the interment, their suspicions were strengthened, and they made the arrests. Early on Wednesday morning the undertaker was sent to disinter the remains. Upon opening the grave, it was found that other parties had preceded them; the coffin had been broken open and its contents removed during the night. Here was more mystery, which was not solved till Dr. Richardson, seeing the plot would all come to light sooner or later, made a confession the same day, to the Prosecuting Attorney, that McFadden held a life insurance policy in favor of his wife for $20,000, that Batchelder, who is an agent for a life insurance company, McFadden and himself had entered into a plot to publish McFadden’s death, while McFadden should secrete himself, and thus secure the $20,000, which was to be divided among them, that the coffin contained broom corn seed, [cheaper than bricks?] which they had removed after the interment, so that, should the insurance company institute a search, this evidence of their guilt would not exist. The story was confirmed by finding the broom corn seed where Dr. Richardson said he deposited it.

Where was McFadden? The statements of Dr. Richardson and Batchelder in regard to his whereabouts were not satisfactory. But during the day Mr. Ross, who drove the omnibus in which McFadden rode to Lebanon, arrived in Eaton, and in one of the little crowds he met about town, talking over the strange affair, he espied the missing McFadden, and who should he prove to be but his Honor the Mayor of Eaton, Mr. [Luther C.] Abbott. When charged by Mr. Ross with being his late sick passenger, he stoutly denied it, but on being taken into the presence of Dr. Richardson he had to give up. Whether he has been arrested or not we do not know. Frank Richardson, however, was arrested, and in the same spring wagon in which he drove away the full coffin, he was compelled on Thursday to ride back with the empty coffin, beside an officer. As the wagon was driven along the streets of Lebanon an immense crowd, mostly of boys, followed, crying out, “Where’s your broom-corn seed?” “What’s the price of broom-corn seed?” He and his brother; the doctor, and Batchelder, are now lying in the jail at Lebanon, waiting further developments.

The Dayton journal, in its account of the affair, says:

It appears that policies for $20,000 insurance in the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of Brooklyn, of which B.M. Batchelder, of Eaton, was agent for that place were taken for W. T. McFadden, who seems to have been a fictitious personage. A policy for $5,000 was taken in the same interest in the Mutual Benefit in Dayton of which Mr. I.H. Kiersted is agent, and $5,000 in the Connecticut Mutual, of which Dr. Jewett is agent.

We understand that Frank Richardson disclaims any participation in the plot, until after the enacted death in his house, but the fact that the family were all opportunely absent on that interesting occasion; that he had borrowed the spring wagon; and had it there in readiness before McFadden arrived, and had also borrowed sacks to hold the broom-corn seed, seem to indicate special preparations for the part he was to perform.

The charge of murder against these parties will, of course, have to be withdrawn, as no murdered man can be found, and what crime can be substituted in its place will puzzle the prosecuting attorney to determine.

Louisville [KY[ Daily Courier 31 December 1866: p. 1

Top tip: The fewer people involved in your insurance fraud, the better.

Alas, the conspirators seem to have undone themselves by their cleverness. Even though quick burials were mandated for cholera deaths, the undue haste aroused suspicions of murder. This apparently was not their first funeral scam:

We learn from the Eaton Democrat that “others matters have been brought to light, which go to show that this was not the first operation of the kind, in which these gentlemen have been engaged, and as they have realized money on some of them, they will be, or have been arrested on charges which come within the power of the law. The arrested parties were Dr. Richardson, and Bachelder, of this place, and Frank Richardson of Lebanon. L.C. Abbott, the most honorable Mayor of our city, is the man who personated the McFadden, who was reported dead, and it also turns out that McFadden is a myth, there being no such man, and the wife who was so broken-hearted at the news of his death, a “woman of the town,” from New York. The man who passed examination for insurance under the name of McFadden, is said to be a Mr. Blake, a resident of Kentucky.”

The Daily Empire [Dayton, OH] 7 January 1867: p. 3

And what inspired the Mayor of the county seat of Preble County, who was also a lawyer and former Prosecuting Attorney, to participate in such a plot? Bad business investments? Tapping the public till? Eaton was a rather unlucky little town, decimated first by cholera in 1849 and by a massive fire in 1859. Perhaps Mayor Abbott did not have fire insurance.

I am at a loss to understand how he escaped arrest and prosecution; he was re-elected Mayor (to much adulation in the local papers) and was still practicing law in Eaton in the 1870s.

Other fake-death insurance frauds?

I have the borrowed broom-corn seed sacks waiting. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

[Thanks to Michael Robinson for the initial link about faking death.]

Undine of Strange Company shares two brilliant cases of insurance fraud: The Wrath of Walburga and Give the Howards a Hand! Thanks, Undine—your posts are always a jaw-dropping pleasure!

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.