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 Dead. She 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 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.