The Dead-Hole in the Cellar: A Visit to a Dissection Room: 1887

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might have noticed a fondness for “slice of life” stories and interviews with practitioners of specialized professions like freak-makers. Today’s post offers a “slice-of-death” (in a literal sense) visit to the dissecting room of the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. We’ve heard before about the notorious William “Old Cunny” Cunningham, the star body-snatcher of that establishment, who is mentioned several paragraphs in as presiding over the college museum.

DEATH AND LIFE

The Scenes in a Medical College.

A Visit to the Dread Dissecting-Room by a Reporter.

How the Young Doctors Carry on the Necessary Work

A Sickening Odor Pervades the Place Where Science Operates

The Subjects Now on the Slabs and the Dead-Hole in the Cellar.

Skeleton of “Cunny,” the Grave-Robber, and Other Weird Features of the Place.

Death makes cadavers for dissection. The cadavers help to educate doctors. People must die. We must have doctors.

This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it. There is a mystery, a horrid fascination about the place, which ever thrills and at the same time repels mankind. Ever since medical science came to bless and protect the human race the doctor’s knife has been busy upon the dead to better understand how to save the living.

Dead men tell no tales.

The fate of being hacked to pieces grates upon the sensibilities of those in this world.

The dead can not feel.

If they could, the keen knife of the ambitious sawbones would be stayed in its course through the muscles and flesh and vitals of the helpless victims upon the stone slabs.

Soon another corps of young physicians will be turned loose from the medical colleges in this city.

The dissection-room work is nearly over. Since the 15th of October the students of the Ohio College, on Sixth street, have improved their time by becoming acquainted with the human anatomy. Every night by the glare of the jets they have worked diligently upon the inanimate forms of some poor creatures who had no friends to bury them.

Subjects have been very scarce this year. It has been found necessary by Dr. Cilley, demonstrator of anatomy, to place ten students on one “stiff,” instead of five, as formerly. The boys have kicked considerably against being so crowded, but to no avail.

Body-snatching has become dangerous. The risk of being shot or lynched is not relished by ghouls. The law is also very severe against grave-robbing because all paupers who die in public institution whose friends do not claim them are turned over to the doctors.

The subjects are handled by the Anatomical Association.

This is a Board composed of physicians who distribute them among the various colleges according to the number of students.

The Ohio gets the most, but that college has been compelled to stint its students in cadavers to practice on.

A dead body is worth $25.

That is the market price paid for stiffs at the medical college.

The villains Ingalls and Johnson, who murdered the Taylor family, sold their three victims for $35. [Beverly Taylor, an elderly, retired body-snatcher, his wife, Elizabeth, and granddaughter Eliza Jane Lambert were murdered in 1884 and their bodies sold to the Ohio Medical College.]

Now the doctors ask questions when any one wants to sell a corpse. Since that horrible atrocity the venders of dead people are rarer and more wary. The professional body-snatchers have moved away from Cincinnati.

An Enquirer reporter was permitted to visit the Ohio Medical College a few days ago.

He saw many horrible sights, but they are necessary to science.

The students were at the time of the call listening to a lecture and the reporter pursued his tour of inspection without observation or hindrance.

The college is not an attractive place.

It is dingy, dusty, and a horrid smell of penetrating force permeates the interior.

It needs a cleaning.

The museum, which contains a valuable collection of specimens of diseased humanity, and innumerable jars of preserved monstrosities, exhales a musty odor which would try the stoutest stomach. The dust is two inches thick on the floors, windows, glass-cases and grinning skeletons.

The bones of Old Cunny, the notorious body-snatcher, hang from the railing of the balcony. His skeleton is the most conspicuous object in the museum.

The old plug-hat adorns the skull.

In his mouth, between the teeth, is the pipe he smoked before he died. Cunningham was a great character. He was in his day the most extensive grave-robber in the country. While he was janitor of the Ohio College there was never a short supply of stiffs. The faculty of the institution could always depend on “Cunny” to find the most desirable subjects, for he never had any compunctions of conscience about the grave he despoiled. Before he died the body-snatcher ordered that his body be dissected. As a mark of respect to his memory for the service he had rendered, his bones were strung on wires and hung up in the museum

Stairways on either side of the College lead to that most loathsome of all places in the average man’s estimation—the dissecting room.

The reporter entered from the west door. The room is always kept locked and the janitor had the key.

Before the threshold was reached a most noisome smell struck the olfactories of the newspaper man.

Who can describe that odor?

It is infinitely more nauseating than a charnel-house. A slaughter-house is attar of roses compared with it. The desiccating company’s building at Delhi is as sweet clover or new-mown hay after catching a whiff of the aroma in the dissecting-room.

But there is no way to prevent it.

The young doctors soon become accustomed to the stink and pursue their work on the decaying human flesh with the utmost nonchalance.

Two of them were busily occupied when the reporter stuck his nose, which he held by his hand, in the open doorway.

They were seated on stools under the glare of a gas jet which cast a lurid light on the ghastly cadaver, already mutilated beyond recognition by the skillful knives of the soon-to-be physicians. The students were on either side of the subject and looked up for a moment from their occupation to say, “how de do.” The strong light at the table made an intuitive contrast unpleasant with the gloomy aspect of the dingy room. It was not yet dark outside, but the dirt-stained windows would not admit a ray of sunlight. The ambitious and energetic students continued to examine the muscles and veins exposed by their dexterous wielding of the sharp steel.

“Pretty good subject, eh?”

“Very fair.”

The corpse, which was that of a middle-aged man, had been cut out of all shape. In fleshly places the bones protruded from the flesh.

“Nearly through with him?”

“Yes.”

Of course the votaries of science can’t stop their researches on account of sentiment for their purpose is to study the dead that the living may be preserved from untimely graves.

As the dissecting course is nearly over there is a dearth of stiffs in the Ohio College. The tables on which it is customary to lay the bodies have been piled up, and only seven of them are occupied. There is a sickening amount of debris scattered about the rooms. Bones, ribs, portions of legs, arms and headless trunks greet the visitor at every turn.

A colored boy, apparently about eighteen years old, lay stretched on his stomach across one of the slabs.

He is a fresh subject.

His arms and feet hung over the end and two or three incisions were all the marks visible upon his person.

“Rather too fat for a first-class stiff,” remarked the janitor. “The boys want lean people. Consumptives are the best. Very corpulent dead men or women are not received when we can get any other kind.”

“How many subjects have you had this winter?”

“Only ten, I think. We should have had forty to give all the students a chance to dissect the various parts. You see, when five men work on the same stiff one can dissect the arm, the second another arm, the third the head, and the other two a leg each. The boys, however, have done the best they could on the material offered. Here’s where they draw them up.”

The man walked over to a sort of elevator, where a chute extends clear to the pavement. By means of a pulley, the bodies are hauled into the dissecting-room. It was through this hole that the body of Scott Harrison was lifted to the repulsive place where it was found by his son.

Those days of horror are passed.

The college authorities will never take such chances again.

If the corpse of a prominent citizen gets within range of the knife and saw it will not be their fault.

Near this chute, connected with which are such terrible associations, was the body of a woman.

She was wrapped in a sort of bunting, but the hands and arms were exposed. It was a shapely arm, and her hands were soft and pretty.

Perhaps she was somebody’s sweetheart or wife. She could not have been more than thirty years of age. The little hand had become shriveled since death, which had occurred about one month ago.

The janitor knew nothing of her history. He believed she had come from the Hospital. If her friends had claimed the remains she would have received a decent burial.

It was impossible to tell the sex or age of any of the other subjects.

They were beyond all semblance of shape.

On a table in the east room was a pile of ribs which still held together.

Was it a man or woman?

No inexperienced, casual caller could tell what it as. The janitor said it once was part of a woman, but the doctors had completed their dissection, and before  school closed the ribs would be thrown into boiling water and the result would be a mass of bleached bones, which, with the other bones would be placed together and a skeleton would adorn some anatomical museum or a doctor’s office.

“Do you pickle bodies here in summer,” was asked of the janitor.

“Sometime; but it isn’t pleasant because we can’t keep the stiffs from smelling bad.”

The two young doctors were still examining the muscles of their subject when the reporter left the scene. The horrible odor seemed to follow them down stairs into the street. It was a welcome change…from the silence of the dead-room to the active, busy hum of life.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1887: p. 13

“This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it.” What a touching opening sentence–like a well-loved bedtime story!  Interviews with body-snatchers were, briefly, a popular feature of many nineteenth-century newspapers. No morbid detail was spared, although the article above is unusually emphatic about the smell. It is also a surprisingly less fluent piece than is normally  found in the pages of the Enquirer. One-sentence paragraphs are not typical of 1880s journalism.

In these interviews, the Resurrectionists often reiterated the idea that what they did was done in the name of Science and that they preferred to snatch the bodies of the poor and friendless. “Friendless” was the key word, for even the poor could cause a scandal or a riot by demanding their loved ones’ bodies. Janitors were frequently a reporter’s guide to the chambers of horrors. They knew the institutional workings inside and out and since they occasionally supplemented their income by collecting the odd cadaver, they could speak to the acquisitions side of the profession. As a completely random aside, medical schools today have the same aversion to overweight subjects.

Other interviews with body-snatchers? And I would kill for a photo of “Old Cunny’s” skeleton in the museum. No one I spoke to at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine knows what became of that gentleman’s earthly remains.

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.

The French Doctor’s Bride: 1830s

lighter shrouded corpse Rowlandson 1775
Grave-robbers interrupted by Death, Thomas Rowlandson, 1775 https://wellcomecollection.org/works/j7twdvrd

THE FRENCH DOCTOR’S BRIDE.

BY VICTOR LECOMTE.

Twenty-five years ago I entered the medical college at F__ as a student. I was then quite young, inexperienced, and inclined to be timid and sentimental; and well do I remember the horror I experienced, when one of the senior students, under pretence of showing me the beauties of the institution, suddenly thrust me into the dissecting room, among several dead bodies, and closed the door upon me; nor do I forget how my screeches of terror, and prayers for release from that awful place, made me the laughing-stock of my older companions.

Ridicule is a hard thing to bear: the coward becomes brave to escape it, and the brave man fears it more than he would a belching cannon. I suffered from it till I could stand no more; and wrought up to a pitch of desperation, I demanded to know what I might do to redeem my character, and gain an honourable footing among my fellow students.

“I will tell you,” said one, his eyes sparkling with mischief; “if you will go, at the midnight hour, and dig up a subject, and take it to your room, and remain alone with it till morning, we will let you off, and never say another word about your womanly fright.”

I shuddered. It was a fearful alternative; but it seemed less terrible to suffer all the horrors that might be concentrated into a single night, than to bear, day after day, the jeers of my companions.

“Where shall I go and when?” was my timid inquiry; and the very thought of such an adventure made my blood run cold.

“To the Eastern Cemetery, to night, at twelve o’clock,” replied my tormentor, fixing his keen, black eyes upon me, and allowing his thin lips to curl with a smile of contempt. “But what is the use of asking such a coward as you to perform such a manly feat?” he added, deridingly

His words stung me to the quick; and without further reflection, and scarcely aware of what I was saying, I rejoined, boldly, “I am no coward, sir, as I will prove to you, by performing what you call a manly feat.”

“You will go?'” he asked quickly.

“I will,” was my response.

“Bravely said, my lad!” he rejoined, in a tone of approval, and exchanging his expression of contempt for one of surprise and admiration. “Do this, Morel, and the first man that insults you afterwards makes an enemy of me.”

Again I felt a cold shudder pass through my frame, at the thought of what was before me; but I had accepted his challenge in the presence of many witnesses—for this conversation occurred as we were leaving the hall, after listening to an evening lecture—and I was resolved to make my word good, should it even cost me my life: in fact, I knew I could not do otherwise now, without the risk of being driven in disgrace from the college.

I should here observe, that in those days there were few professional resurrectionists; and as it was absolutely necessary to have subjects for dissection, the unpleasant business of procuring them devolved upon the students, who, in consequence, watched every funeral eagerly, and calculated the chances of cheating the sexton of his charge, and the grave of its victim.

There had been a funeral, that day, of a poor orphan girl, who had been followed to the grave by very few friends; and this was considered a favorable chance for the party whose turn it was to procure the next subject, as the graves of the poor and friendless were never watched with the same keen vigilance as those of the rich and influential. Still, it was no trifling risk to attempt to exhume the bodies of the poorest and humblest—for not unfrequently persons were found on the watch even over these; and only the year before, one student, while at his midnight work, had been mortally wounded by a rifle-ball; and another, a month or two subsequently, had been rendered a cripple for life by the same means.

All this was explained to me by a party of six or eight, who accompanied me to my room—which was in a building belonging to the college, and let out in apartments to some of the students; and they took care to add several terrifying stories of ghosts and hobgoblins, by way of calming my excited nerves, just as I have before now observed old women stand around a weak, feverish patient, and croak out their experience in seeing awful sufferings and fatal terminations of just such maladies as the one with which their helpless victim was then afflicted.

“Is it expected that I shall go alone?” I inquired, in a tone that trembled in spite of me, while my knees almost knocked together, and I felt as if my very lips were white.

“Well, no,” replied Belmont, my most dreaded tormentor; “it would be hardly fair to send you alone, for one individual could not succeed in getting the body from the grave quick enough; and you, a mere youth, without experience, would be sure to fail altogether. No, we will go with you, some three or four of us, and help to dig up the corpse; but then you must take it on your back, bring it up to your room here, and spend the night alone with it!”

It was some relief to me to find I was to have company during the first part of my awful undertaking; but still I felt far from agreeable, I assure you; and chancing to look into a mirror, as the time drew near for setting out, I fairly started at beholding the ghastly object I saw reflected therein.

“Come, boys,” said Belmont, who was always, by general consent, the leader of whatever frolic, expedition, or undertaking, he was to have a hand in; “Come, boys! it is time to be on the move. A glorious night for us!” he added, throwing up the window, and letting in a fierce gust of wind and rain: “the very d__l himself would hardly venture out in such a storm!’” He lit a dark-lantern, threw on his long, heavy cloak, took up a spade, and led the way down stairs; and the rest of us, three besides my timid self, threw on our cloaks also, took each a spade, and followed him.

We took a roundabout course, to avoid being seen by any citizen that might by chance to be stirring; and in something less than half-an-hour we reached the cemetery, scaled the wall without difficulty, and stealthily searched for the grave, till we found it, in the pitchy darkness—the wind and rain sweeping past us with dismal howls and moans, that to me, trembling with terror, seemed to be the unearthly wailings of the spirits of the damned.

“Here we are,” whispered Belmont to me, as we at length stopped at a mound of fresh earth, over which one of our party had stumbled. “Come, feel round, Morel, and strike in your spade; and let us see if you will make as good a hand at exhuming a dead body as you will some day at killing a living one with physic.”

I did as directed, trembling in every limb; but the first spade-full I threw up, I started back with a yell of horror, that, on any other but a howling, stormy night, would have betrayed us. It appeared to me as if I had thrust my spade into a buried lake of fire—for the soft dirt was all aglow like living coals; and as I had fancied the moanings of the storm the wailings of tormented spirits, I now fancied I had uncovered a small portion of the Bottomless Pit itself.

“Fool!” hissed Belmont, grasping my arm with the gripe of a vice, as I stood leaning on my spade for support, my very teeth chattering with terror; “another yell like that, and I’ll make a subject of you! Are you not ashamed of yourself to be scared out of your wits, if you ever had any, by a little phosphorescent earth? Don’t you know it is often found in graveyards?”

His explanation re-assured me; though I was now too weak, from my late fright, to be of any assistance to the party; who all fell too with a will, secretly laughing at me, and soon reached the coffin. Splitting the lid with a hatchet, which had been brought for the purpose, they quickly lifted out the corpse; and then Belmont and another of the party taking hold of it, one at the head and the other at the feet, they hurried it away, bidding me follow, and leaving the others to fill up the grave, that it might not be suspected the body had been exhumed.

Having got the corpse safely over the wall of the cemetery, Belmont now called upon me to perform my part of the horrible business. “Here, you quaking simpleton,” he said, “I want you to take this on your back, and make the best of your way to your room, and remain alone with it all night. If you do this bravely, we will claim you as one of us to-morrow, and the first man that dares to say a word against your courage after that, shall.find a foe in me. But hark you! if you make any blunder on the way, and lose our prize, it will be better for you to quit this town before I set eyes on you again! Do you understand me?”

“Y—ye-ye—yes!” I stammered, with chattering teeth.

“Are you ready?” Y-ye-ye—yes,” I gasped.

“Well, come here! where are you?” All this time it was so dark that I could see nothing but a faint line of white, which I knew to be the shroud of the corpse; but I felt carefully round till I got hold of Belmont, who told me to take off my cloak; and then rearing the cold dead body up against my back, he began fixing its cold arms about my neck-bidding me take hold of them, and draw them well over, and keep them concealed, and be sure and not let go of them, on any consideration whatsoever, as I valued my life. Oh! the torturing horror I experienced, as I mechanically followed his directions! Tongue could not describe it!

At length, having adjusted the corpse so that I might bear it off with comparative ease, he threw my long black cloak over it, and over my arms, and fastened it with a cord about my neck, and then inquired, “Now, Morel, do you think you can find the way to your room?”

“I—I—do-do—don’t know,” I gasped, feeling as if I should sink to the earth at the first step.

“Well, you cannot lose your way if you go straight ahead,” he replied. “Keep in the middle of this street or road, and it will take you to College Green, and then you are all right. Come, push on, before your burden grows too heavy; the distance is only a good half-mile!”

I set forward with trembling nerves, expecting to sink to the ground at every step; but gradually my terror, instead of weakening, gave me strength; and I was soon on the run—splashing through mud and water—with the storm howling about me in fury, and the cold corpse, as I fancied, clinging to me like a hideous vampire.

How I reached my room, I do not know—but probably by a sort of instinct; for I only remember of my brain being in a wild, feverish whirl, with ghostly phantoms all about me, as one sometimes sees them in a dyspeptic dream. But reach my room I did, with my dead burden on my back; and I was afterwards told that I made wonderful time; for Belmont and his fellow student, fearing the loss of their subject—which, on account of the difficulty of getting bodies, was very valuable— followed close behind me, and were obliged to run at the top of their speed to keep me within hailing distance.

The first I remember distinctly, after getting to my room, was the finding myself awake in bed, with a dim consciousness of something horrible having happened—although what, for some minutes, I could not for the life of me recollect. Gradually, however, the truth dawned upon me; and then I felt a cold perspiration start from every pore, at the thought that perhaps I was occupying a room alone with a corpse. The room was not dark; there were a few embers in the grate, which threw out a ruddy light; and fearfully raising my head, I glanced quickly and timidly around.

And there—there, on the floor, against the right hand wall, but a few feet from me—there, sure enough, lay the cold, still corpse, robed in its white shroud, with a gleam of firelight resting upon its ghastly face, which to my excited fancy seemed to move. Did it move? I was gazing upon it, thrilled and fascinated with an indescribable terror, when, as sure as I see you now, I saw the lids of its eyes unclose, and saw its breast heave, and heard a low, stifled moan.

“Great God!” I shrieked, and fell back in a swoon.

How long I lay unconscious I do not know; but when I came to myself again, it is a marvel to me, that, in my excited state, I did not lose my senses altogether, and become the tenant of a madhouse ; for there—right before me-standing up in its white shroud—with its eyes wide open and staring upon me, and its features thin, hollow and death-hued—was the corpse I had brought from the cemetery.

“In God’s name, avaunt! ” I gasped. “Go back to your grave, and rest in peace! I will never disturb you again!”

The large hollow eyes looked more wildly upon me—the head moved, the lips parted, and a voice, in a somewhat sepulchral tone, said, “Where am I? where am I? Who are you? Which world am I in? Am I living or dead?”

“You are dead,” I gasped, sitting up in bed, and feeling as if my brain would burst with a pressure of unspeakable horror; “you were dead and buried, and I was one of the guilty wretches who this night disturbed your peaceful rest. But go back, poor ghost, in heaven’s name! and no mortal power shall ever induce me to come nigh you again!”

“Oh! I feel faint!” said the corpse, gradually sinking down upon the floor, with a groan. “Where am I? Oh! where am I?”

“Great God!” I shouted, as the startling truth suddenly flashed upon me; “perhaps this poor girl was buried alive, and is now living!”

I bounded from the bed, and grasped a hand of the prostrate body. It was not warm—but it was not cold. I put my trembling fingers upon the pulse. Did it beat? or, was it the pulse in my fingers? I thrust my hand upon the heart. It was warm—there was life there. The breast heaved—she breathed—but the eyes were now closed, and the features had the look of death. Still it was a living body—or else I myself was insane. I sprung to the door, tore it open, and shouted for help. “Quick! quick!” cried I. “the dead is alive! The dead is alive!

Several of the students sleeping in adjoining rooms came hurrying to mine, thinking I had gone mad with terror, as some of them had heard my voice before, and all knew to what a fearful ordeal I had been subjected.

“Poor fellow!” exclaimed one, in a tone of sympathy; “I predicted this!”

“It is too bad,” said another; “it was too much for his nervous system!”

“I am not mad,” returned I—comprehending their suspicions; “but the corpse is alive!—hasten and see!”

Hey hurried into the room, one after another; and the foremost, stopping down to what he suppposed was a corpse, put his hand upon it, and instantly exclaimed, “Quick a light and some brandy! She lives! she lives!”
All now was bustle, confusion, and excitement, one proposing one thing, and another something else, and all speaking together. They placed her on the bed, and gave her some brandy, when she again revived. I ran for a physician (one of the faculty), who came and tended upon her through the night; and by sunrise the next morning she was reported to be in a fair way of recovery.

And recover she did; and turned out to be a most beautiful creature, and only sweet seventeen. But that is not all: for she turned out an heiress, and married me!

Yes: that night of horror only preceded the dawn of my happiness; for that girl—sweet,
lovely Helene Leroy—in time became my wife, and the mother of my two boys.
She sleeps now in death, beneath the cold, cold sod, and no human resurrectionist shall ever raise her to life again!
 Frank Leslie’s New York Journal, 1857: p. 85-6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A most grim, gothic, and grewsome tale, in the florid French vein of the Gallic tabloids, but Mrs Daffodil does so like a happy ending, even one that sums up an entire lifetime of important events in a paragraph or two.

Mrs Daffodil will not quibble over how a friendless orphan girl was transmuted into a beautiful heiress, but perhaps on the dark and stormy night, the medical students mistook the grave.

 

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.

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.

Corpse Contracts: People who Sold Their Own Dead Bodies

body snatchers with rotted corpse 1865

The sun is shining, the weather is clement, the birds are chirping in the shrubbery, and it is altogether a grand day to be alive. On such a lovely day, one’s thoughts must, inevitably, turn to bodysnatching. 

It is a sinister fact that, before the passage of the various Anatomy Acts, the doctors of the past paid for stolen corpses for their dissecting rooms. What is less well-known is that various individuals in what might be termed the “pre-corpse stage” sold their own bodies to the anatomists, assigning legal title to their mortal remains with an official document.  One wonders if such contracts were valid if not signed in blood?

 The temperate found many morals to point in these transactions.

THE BIRD OF DEATH DEAD

Demise of a Man Who Sold His Own Body to Buy Drink

Vienna, July 15. A man known as the “Bird of Death,” employed in the Vienna general hospital, met with a singular fate in the discharge of his gruesome duties. His name was Alvis Paxes. He was about 55 years old, and of herculean physique. For 33 years he carried all the corpses from the mortuary chamber, hence his weird name, which the hospital jesters gave him. He died to-day of blood poisoning caused by handling the body of a patent who died from an infectious disease.

Some years ago he sold for cash his own body to a museum manager and spent the money in drink. To-day his body was handed over to the purchaser. Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 16 July 1890: p. 1

I expect the original German had the connotation of something like “carrion crow.”

 This squib weighs whether the drink or the selling of his aged mother’s body was the greater sin. Whisky seems to have won out. 

Sold His Body for Whisky

Cincinnati, Nov. 17. John Winkler, an old rag picker, who was found dead in his hovel, 608 West Sixth Street, this morning, was a peculiar example of the depths of degradation to which a human being may sink. For many years he was a familiar figure in the West End. For 10 years past it is very doubtful if he drew a single sober breath. He lived in the utmost filth and squalor, and when found dead in his bed had his clothes and boots on. Four years ago his aged mother died, and Winkler sold her body to a medical college. He also sold his own body to be delivered after death and squandered the money in whisky. The Somerset [PA] Herald 23 November 1887: p. 2

 Some had seller’s remorse. 

Trying to Buy Back His Own Body.

This queer story comes from Massachusetts: A man who lives in a suburb of Lowell is seeking to have a deed given by him twenty years ago recovered. The deed conveyed his body to a surgeon now practicing in Great Falls, N.H., for the sum of ten dollars and other considerations, possession to be taken on his death. Since the deed was made the giver has made a fortune in South America and has decided that he would like a Christian burial. The deed provides that the body shall be dissected and the skeleton articulated and presented to a medical university. The lawyers have decided that the deed holds good and that the only alternative is to buy off the doctor. The giver of the deed has made a big offer, but it has been refused. Hartford Courant. Daily Nevada State Journal 16 January 1892: p. 1

 Others imposed on good-hearted physicians. 

TWO HEARTS BUT NO CONSCIENCE

Police of Naples Looking for a Man Who Sold his Own Body to Physicians

NAPLES, April 3. The police of this city are looking for Giuseppe di Maggio, a freak possessed of two hearts, but, evidently, no conscience. Some time ago a medical institute of New York bought Maggio’s body to be delivered after death, for $8,000. With this money Maggio settled down in Naples and lived merrily on his capital, which was soon spent. He ingratiated himself into the favour of a wealthy landowner, whose sister he promised to marry. He pretended that he was to receive a large sum of money from America and supported his story with a fraudulent cablegram. On the strength of his story he borrowed money right and left, including his prospective brother-in-law, and then skipped.

Now a warrant is out for his arrest. The Evening Statesman [Walla Walla, WA] 3 April 1906: p. 2  

Given the date, we may be permitted to doubt the strict veracity of this item. 

Strange Freak to Get Money

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 5. Milton Clark, who is employed at the University of Louisville, medical department, to take care of the dead bodies brought to the place for examination, sold his own body yesterday for the thirty-third time to physicians for dissection. Whenever he is sore need of money he visits a physician interested in one of the various medical colleges and sells his body. Lawrence [KS] Journal World 5 December 1898: p. 2 

Still others, like this sad lady, with the “checquered past,” sold their bodies to clear a debt. I have not yet found Annie E. Jones’s grave in Bridgeport, but Dr. John Cooke was a luminary of the Eastern Ohio Medico-Chirurgical Society. 

A Singular Suicide

There has lived on Glenn’s Run and about Martin’s Ferry and Bridgeport, for the past few years, a queer, gnarly-looking little old French woman, named Annie E. Jones. Her past history has been varied, checquered and not altogether reputable. She had several children, all dead or wandering. She was twice married—the last time to a negro. By some of her children there came a granddaughter named Agnes Racine, a white girl, of rather prepossessing appearance, and together she and her grandmother lived at Martin’s Ferry, till a colored man, named Boggs, essaying to be a Baptist preacher, living in Bridgeport, concluding his Christian duty was to discard his wife and make love to Miss Racine. The tender emotion was reciprocated by Agnes, and Boggs quit preaching, began to vote the Democratic ticket—kicked his old wife out of doors, and took old Mrs. Jones, her granddaughter Agnes, and the illegitimate young one by her, to his home on top of the hill, south of Bridgeport, on Vincent Mitchell’s place, where they have since nestled. Having voted for Hancock, he next, it is alleged—so the old woman said to us the evening she suicide—he began to abuse her terribly, knocking her down and otherwise showing his high appreciation of his—grandmother—by his baby. It seems Agnes lent a helping hand also when necessary to keep the old woman in proper subjection. Time flew apace, and the old woman—who by the way, was rather a good French scholar and more perhaps than ordinarily intelligent—grew tired of her rations of abuse, and soured and sickened of life. This Boggs, as many of the Chronicles’ readers know, was charged with a tried for adultery with this Racine girl in St. Clairsville, and much to the regret of our people, was acquitted; since which time he has been living, it is alleged, in open criminality with the girl, though he claims to be married to her.

The old woman had contracted a bill with Dr. Cook, amounting to $17 for herself and Agnes. She had no money, and though Boggs abused it, she claimed to own, in fee, her mortal body—65 years old, not very comely, and weighing, perhaps, 80 to 100 pounds. She wanted to pay her debts, so she came to see her creditor, Dr. Cooke; he was not in, she went home, leaving a message for him to come up at once. He went, and she asked the doctor “what bodies were worth for dissection?” He replied it depended on certain contingencies. She then informed him she meant to deed him her body, after death, and as she meant to be honest, she would give him the paper just then. The doctor informed her such a transaction such as that must be regularly drawn up and acknowledged, and referred her to  R.J. Alexander as a suitable person to “draw up the papers and make them full and strong.” So she proceeded to wash her clothes and her person, and all things being in readiness she visited Mr. Alexander at his office, when Mr. McDonald, Alexander’s partner, drew up at her request and had acknowledged the following deed:

Know all men by these presents, That I, Anna Eliza Jones, for and in consideration of seventeen dollars in hand paid, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledge from Dr. John Cook, of Bridgeport, Ohio, do hereby give grant and convey to said Dr. John Cooke my body after my death, to be disposed of as said Dr. John Cooke may desire, either for dissection by any medical college, or for his own private use for dissection. Said Dr. John Cooke to have immediate possession and control of my body as soon as life therein shall be extinct and wherever my body may be at that time.

It is hereby witnessed that the real considerable of this deed is the release by said Dr. John Cooke or his claim against me for medical professional services, for myself and granddaughter, Agnes Racine, which amounts to seventeen dollars above mentioned, and by accepting this deed said Dr. John Cooke released said claim.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 25th day of March 1881

Anna E. Jones

The signing and sealing of the above was witnessed by the undersigned at the request of said Anna E. Jones

W.W. Conoway

J.E. MacDonalds

State of Ohio, Belmont County ss: before me, F.C. Robinson, a Notary Public and for said county, personally appeared the above named Anna Eliza Jones and acknowledge the signing of sealing of the above instrument to be her voluntary act and deed, this 25th day of March 1881.

T.C. Robinson, Notary Public.

It was now late in the evening of Friday, and having all things in readiness, she presented the Dr. with his “deed,” receiving therefor his receipt in full for his bill, and the old woman mounted the hill by the aid of a lantern “to deliver the goods.”

Reaching Boggs’, she called for writing materials, wrote a letter to a Mrs. Berry, in Martin’s Ferry, saying among other things, that “ere that reached her the writer would be dead,” &c., Giving this to Agnes, with orders to mail it, she kissed the baby, called for the keys of the door, which at first were refused her, but then given her, she took a chair  in hand and mounted it beside a post in the yard to which was fastened a clothes line—fastened one end of the rope around her neck, the other to the post, and pushed her old bark off, into the darkness and eternity. She informed Boggs & Co., that she meant to hang herself—but, as he alleges, she had threatened to destroy herself with pistols and by starvation before, he paid no serious attention to it. When morning came, however, Boggs & Co. saw the old woman hanging by the neck dead. The alarm was given, Coroner Garrett summoned, and after hearing the facts as related, he decided Anna E. Jones came to her death by her own hand, and of premeditation. The goods were delivered. The old woman was a good as her word. Setting a wholesome example to many creditors, to either “pay up” or “go and do likewise.” We can but revere the old woman’s memory for her determined purpose to pay an honest Dr. bill. Oh! That others we know of would profit by the old woman’s example—pay their bills we mean—or—or—well, a “word to the wise is sufficient.” Dr. Cooke waived all present claim to the old woman: her body was taken in charge by the Township Trustees, and by them buried on Sabbath afternoon, at Bridgeport Cemetery. A solitary vehicle alone formed the funeral cortege, with not a mourner to drop a tear for the strange determined old suicide.

As they rattled her bones over the stones,

The old dead woman that Dr. Cooke owns.

Belmont Chronicle [St. Clairsville, OH] 31 March 1881: p. 3

The rhyme at the end comes from a much-quoted poem called “The Pauper’s Drive” attributed to Thomas Hood. It has the refrain

Rattle his bones over the stones

He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns. 

Ohio was home to some of the giants among bodysnatchers. Yet even the “Prince of Ghouls,” probably knowing that his body would be stolen anyway, decided to profit from it when alive.

 The man about whom more graveyard stories have been told than about any other “resurrectionist,” was “Old Cunny,” the prince of ghouls, who in his day was known to every person in this part of the country, at least by name. He was the bogyman for all ill-behaved children. He was popularly called “Old Man Dead.” His real name was William Cunningham. He was born in Ireland in 1807. He was a big, raw-boned individual, with muscles like Hercules, and a protruding lower jaw, a ghoul by vocation, a drunkard by habit and a coward by nature. His wife was a bony, brawny, square-jawed Irish woman, with a mouth like an alligator. Both had a tremendous appetite for whiskey. Cunny had sold his own body to the Medical College of Ohio. When he died of heart trouble in 1871, the body was turned over to the college. Mrs. Cunningham, the bereaved widow, managed to get an additional $5 bill for the giant carcass of her deceased spouse. The skeleton of “Old Cunny” is to this day the piece de resistance in the Museum of the Medical College of Ohio. Daniel Drake and His Followers, Otto Juettner (Cincinnati, OH: Harvey Publishing Company, 1909): p. 395

 Cunningham’s apprentice and eventual partner followed Old Man Dead’s example.

 PICKLED

CHARLEY KENTON, THE RESURRECTIONIST,

GOES BACK ON THE PROFESSION

HE SELLS HIS OWN BODY TO THE DOCTORS

AND IS CARRIED FROM THE DEATH-BED TO THE PICKLING VAT

  Last Friday night a coffin containing the dead body of a colored man was driven to the Ohio Medical College, taken from the wagon and carried up the stairs, with little, if any, effort at concealment. Arriving in the “dead-room” the body was taken from the coffin, the large artery in the side of the neck cut, the blood removed, and the arteries filled with a preservative fluid, after which the body, divested of its clothing, was tumbled, with no further ceremony, into the “pickling tub,” along with a couple of dozen others which had been quietly accumulating during the past month. There was a peculiar lack of the secrecy which accompanies most of the operations of this sort by which dead bodies are transferred to the dead-room of the college, and a business-like air about the whole transaction which indicated that it was somewhat different from the ordinary cases of grave-robbing and body-snatching. A little inquiry into the case showed that it was a peculiar one—that, in fact, the body was that of one of the most notorious body-snatchers of the city, and that the lack of secrecy in the matter was from the fact that it was merely the carrying out of a plain business transaction, that the dead man had in his life sold his body to the college for dissection after death, receiving the payment, and that in accordance with this agreement his body was thus being removed to the dissecting room for that purpose.

Charley Keaton, the dead man, was in his life one of the most active body-snatchers in this city, and from his hands have hundreds of “stiffs”—bodies from many of the burying grounds in the city and vicinity, somebody’s loved ones to whose memory tears have fallen and marble shafts aspired heavenward—been sent down through the terrible “chute,” and upward through the death shaft to the dissecting room.

Keaton was a colored man of about forty, and had been for more than ten years in the business of body snatching, making good money at it, and coming to rather enjoy it than otherwise. To him there was nothing more in the handling of stiffs than in so many bolts of cloth or sacks of grain, and no more in dissection than in the business of the butcher or meat vender.

He began his work with “Old Cunny,” the noted resurrectionist, and followed it through all seasons and all weather, until only a few weeks before his death. In it he encountered all sorts of weather and exposures, and so contracted colds and a cough which finally led to bleeding of the lungs, and so his life among the dead ended in death, whose presence was as familiar to him as the days of his years of manhood.

To him the medical college, the chute, the dead-room, the pickling-vault, and even dissection had no horrors; familiarity with these had deprived him of that feeling of repugnance so common to mankind, and especially to his race, and as a result he had expressed a willingness in life that his remains after death should be submitted to the dissecting knife “in the interest of science,” as he said, as he considered his business and that which he supplied, inseparably interwoven with the science of anatomy and medicine, and as a result he had sold—deliberately sold during his life-time–his body to the college professors, receiving the usual price, $35 cash in hand, and giving a receipt and statement that his body should become the property of the college after dissection.

Indeed, he seemed rather to prefer that his skeleton should stand beside that of old “Cunny” in the museum of the college than to mold to nothingness in the dark, damp earth, and in life he frequently contemplated Cunny’s skeleton as it stands, spade in hand, in the college, evidently reflecting that he would someday stand beside it, and keep the “ole man” company through the many years that the college shall stand, instead of being consigned to the changes and final nothingness of the Potter’s field grave.

  So when old Charley died on Friday last, the college authorities were notified, his wife, who had accompanied him on many of his nightly expeditions, and is herself an expert anatomist, prepared the body for dissection, and after the brief funeral service, it was removed from the house on Barr Street, where he lived and whence he had sallied forth for many nightly excursions in the homes of the dead, and taken directly to the college, where it was prepared and put in pickle. It is pronounced “excellent material,” being well developed and obtained without serious delay after death.

  Whether this is strictly “professional,” as viewed from a body-snatcher’s stand-point, seems extremely doubtful. A system which takes the body with the consent of all parties concerned direct from the death-bed to the dissecting-room, and upon an agreed-upon and already paid price, seems to be one which must undermine the business of the profession, and therefore should be frowned down by every patriotic body-snatcher. Hawarden [IA] Independent 14 August 1878: p. 2   

I’ve asked the librarians and archivists at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine (the successor to the Medical College of Ohio) if Cunningham and Kenton’s mounted skeletons are still in their collection, but no one seems to know. If you have any answers, sack ‘em up and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. 

Mrs Daffodil posted about a unique method of Burking by Snuff,.   Look for similar joy and jollity in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.

 

 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.