Central Ohio’s Sordid History of Grave Robbing
September in Columbus can be magical. Students have returned to school with fresh optimism for the upcoming year. The heat and humidity of the Ohio summer have wound down and, as a majority of the city’s population prepares to scream themselves hoarse cheering on the Buckeyes, so draws to a close the city’s summer festival season.
For many this is marked by last weekend’s Greek Festival in the Short North, where the scent of delicious food filled the air and ouzo flowed freely as happy revelers twirled to the sounds of bouzouki music under warm festival lights. Few of those in attendance, however, were likely aware of the secret that lurks just steps away, buried beneath the asphalt in the area surrounding the North Market.
It is there, on land now populated by bubble tea vendors, sushi restaurants and nightclubs that grim processions of dark-clothed residents from the city’s earliest days once gathered to bury their dead. Founded in 1813, the North Graveyard (as it was known) wasn’t only a place where grieving families would bid farewell to their loved ones and commit them to the ground. It was also a place that was continually stalked by ghouls.
Throughout its existence, capital improvements, sloppy attempts to relocate the cemetery, modern construction and development have proven this old graveyard has never been a place where the dead could rest easily.
Just 25 years after its creation, City Council received a report of graves in the North Cemetery having been “frequently opened and the bodies stolen!” At one point even roaming cows and hogs plagued the boneyard so thoroughly that a new fence was installed to keep them out.
But that’s not the “meat” of this article.
That story begins in 1838 when Sally Dodge Cram Green, a “respectable woman” from Marietta, was committed to the State Lunatic Asylum here in Columbus following a bought of melancholia brought on by a quick succession of family deaths. While it’s not certain whether it was life in the asylum or grief that got the better of Sally, she succumbed to her situation and died here on November 28 of that same year.
Because of bad roads and worse weather the unfortunate woman’s family had difficulty getting to Columbus. By the time her son arrived to retrieve the body, he was informed that she had already been buried in a pauper’s section of the North Graveyard. So, like any good son, he set out with shovel in hand to bring mother home.
Once there, the young man’s mournfulness gave way to horror as he discovered that several graves, including Sally’s, had recently been plundered, undoubtedly in an effort to supply nearby medical schools with cadavers.
Suspicion in this grave robbing incident immediately fell upon the Worthington Medical College, which had long-been rumored to source its “anatomical materials” from the cemeteries surrounding both Columbus and Delaware.
Soon an angry mob gathered and descended upon the school and the body of Sally Dodge Cram Green was discovered, crammed beneath the floorboards, awaiting its turn on the dissection table.
Following this discovery, City Council hired an extra security guard for the cemetery, the medical college was forced to close its doors and one very determined young man set out on a long and dismal journey home, accompanied by the partially dissected body of his dead mother – a figurehead in the struggle between respect for the dead and the quest for knowledge that would plague Central Ohio for the remainder of the 19th century.
Over the next 60 years there was hardly a cemetery in the area surrounding Columbus that escaped the shovel of marauding ghouls and an estimated 5,000 dead Ohioans unwittingly donated their bodies to the advancement of science.
This wasn’t just the work of medical students or opportunistic criminals who realized a small fortune could be made in the cadaver trade. Some of the city’s most prominent physicians would take to the night procuring “specimens” for the classroom. As long as their quarry were those deemed by society as lower class, there were less chances of getting caught, and even if they did, the repercussions seemed slight.
This became evident in 1844 when a gun fight broke out between two groups of body snatchers attempting to steal the corpse of a criminal that was hung near the intersection of Second and Mound Streets, just south of the Columbus Cultural Arts Center.
While the identities of the two groups who came to blows over the toe tagger were never disclosed, Dr. Ichabod Jones, head physician for the Ohio Penitentiary at the time, wound up in possession of one of the condemned man’s feet, which he proudly displayed in a jar on his office desk for years to follow.
In November of 1864 a well-known doctor by the name of Joab Flowers got into a bit of trouble after it was discovered that he had snuck into Camp Chase Cemetery, dug up seven recently deceased Confederate soldiers and sold them to a medical school in Cleveland. When pressed on the matter, he exclaimed, “The bodies were those of rebels who were fit for nothing but dissection!” In lieu of jail time, Dr. Flowers was elected to serve on Columbus City Council.
Fourteen years later, Dr. Flowers was able to use his position on City Council to defend Dr. Ervin Heyl, another prominent physician whose reputation would be infamously connected to grave robbing in Central Ohio. Strangely enough, Dr. Heyl would also be credited with thinking up one of the most unusual devices to prevent such crimes.
A month earlier the doctor narrowly escaped trouble after he ordered the hasty burial of a woman in his care at St. Francis Hospital (where Grant Hospital now stands) whom he assumed to be a pauper. When her husband showed up the next day and the coffin was found empty, Dr. Heyl had a lot of explaining to do. Somehow he talked the grieving widower out of pressing charges.
Things got a little stickier on January 20, 1878 when Charles Morton, a University of Michigan medical school dropout and notorious ringleader in the grave robbing business, was caught in Toledo transporting corpses in large vats labeled “pickles.” While imprisoned, police questioned Morton, who loosely mentioned having spent several months prior working in Columbus with the good Dr. Heyl.
Shortly after this confession, Morton was handed a letter confirming that the medical school in Ann Arbor had received his recent shipment of 60 bodies from the Columbus area. He tried to burn the note before anyone could read it, but a quick-thinking prison guard salvaged the paper from the flames.
As word spread of the scale on which Morton conducted his nefarious operations, public outrage and the threat of mob violence loomed. Before he could be brought to justice, however, the villain secretly covered himself in Croton Oil – a corrosive substance that causes pustules and lesions which mimic the dreaded disease smallpox.
This tricky little maneuver prevented him from becoming the victim of an angry, but grossed out, mob. It also forced officials to transfer him to a much less secure quarantine, or “pest house” as they were called at the time.
From there Morton easily escaped his cell and went on to shock the world a few months later when he stole the body of John Scott Harrison, the son of U.S. President William Henry Harrison.
When John Scott died at his home in North Bend, Ohio on May 25, 1878, grave robbing in the state was at its zenith. In an effort to see that his dignified bones rested peacefully, Harrison’s family pulled out all the stops to protect his remains.
They placed the body in a metal coffin, surrounded the casket with 8 inch thick marble slabs, covered the whole mess in concrete, bricked it up into a crypt and hired a security guard who was supposed to watch over the grave for a period of 30 nights.
Unfortunately, the man they chose for this job was afraid to be alone in the cemetery after dark. Thus Harrison’s corpse was left vulnerable to any pilfering phantom that happened to saunter past.
That phantom happened to be Morton. On the night of Harrison’s burial he broke into the crypt, stole the body and delivered it straight away to the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. It almost seems like he was showing off.
The next morning word came to the Harrison family that a carriage was seen delivering a package to the medical school overnight. This, they assumed, was the body of a family friend whose grave had recently been robbed.
Within a few hours, one of Harrison’s sons had obtained a search warrant and was scouring the Medical College in search of his friend’s corpse.
Once he reached the top floor of the building, he found a shrouded form hanging in a chute that led to the basement. As John Jr. hoisted the body up and threw back the hood, he was aghast to find that rather than uncovering the head of his dead friend, he was face to face with the grim visage of his own father, whom he had just laid to rest hours before!
Up until then, little had been done to address the trouble of body snatching. It was thought to be something that happened to other people’s deceased family members and not the sort of thing the upper crust or influential had to worry about. The desecration of Harrison’s tomb changed that. Suddenly it seemed that no dead person was safe.
A few days after this atrocity, Dr. Heyl was having lunch in downtown Columbus with his friend, artist Phillip K. Clover, when the conversation turned to tomb raiding. Perhaps in an effort to make himself look less guilty, Dr. Heyl tasked his friend to draw up a design for a sort of gun that could be incorporated into the casket that would fire bullets at any person who attempted to molest the grave.
He described the device as something that should have a barrel which affixed near the head of the corpse and a firing mechanism that ran across the chest.
This mechanism would cause the weapon to discharge whenever the body was lifted, ideally killing the offending party. Once completed, they would call this device a Coffin Torpedo.
Clover, unaware of his friend’s penchant for tinkering amongst the tombstones, liked the idea and immediately set to work on the project.
By October, the Phillip K. Clover Coffin Torpedo had hit the market, and the enterprising Dr. Heyl, a silent partner in the business, was quite literally taking people’s money both coming and going.
Despite brisk sales of the Coffin Torpedo, Dr. Heyl was back to his old corpse-stealing ways within a month, and in late November of 1878 was found guilty of engaging in a grave robbing scheme with two other men in Zanesville. Each were fined $1,000 and given a sentence of one year in jail.
Fortunately for the doctor, his connections in the medical community proved useful and half way through his stint, Dr. Heyl was pardoned and returned to his practice in downtown Columbus. As far as can be known, he never dug up another dead body again.
Three years later the state legislature passed the Ohio Anatomy Law of 1881, which allowed medical schools to legally obtain bodies for educational purposes. That same year a man known only as “Dipper” was killed when he inadvertently detonated a much less refined, and much more destructive, version of the coffin torpedo while robbing a grave in the small village of Gann, just east of Mount Vernon.
Eventually, legal access to cadavers, along with grave robbing deterrents such as the Clover Coffin Torpedo and the impenetrable Clark Grave Vault (another hometown invention), brought the reign of these defilers of the dead to a close. Today, the only things threatening the eternal slumber of those that remain in the once hallowed grounds of the city’s first cemetery are real estate developers and the occasional passing pedal wagon.
To see a schedule of Columbus Ghost Tours’ upcoming events, including tours featuring the city’s former urban cemeteries and a more in-depth history of grave robbing in Central Ohio, visit columbusghosttours.com.