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Resurrectionists and the Advent of the Burial Vault


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Long before undertakers organized themselves into the professional group of funeral directors, tradesmen undertakers and families battled a group of ghoulish men called resurrectionists who operated by the light of moon. The resurrectionists were body snatchers, yanking freshly buried remains from the earth and selling them to medical men. Body snatching was such an uncontrolled problem that it led to the invention of the burial vault, a device still used today.

The tipping point in the ghoulish behavior was a sensational body snatching splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper. The incident involved a president’s son and a future president, and it uncovered an organized network of people working in the illegal trade of cadavers. The public was outraged. As a result, the next year the burial safe was invented, and the year after, the burial vault.

John Scott Harrison died of suspected apoplexy—a stroke—at his farm on May 25, 1878. The former representative for the state of Ohio was seventy-three and the last surviving child of ninth president William Henry Harrison. Funeral services were held four days later at Cleves Presbyterian, a modest whitewashed structure, with burial afterward at Congress Green Cemetery about a mile from the church. The grave, next to that of his parent’s tomb, had been prepared. The grave was dug extra deep—eight feet—and a brick vault constructed at the bottom.

The funeral party—consisting of Scott Harrison’s six children, extended family, and community members, as well as local politicians given the Harrisons’ political ties; not only had the deceased been a major political figure but two of his sons were connected—arrived at the cemetery. Carter Harrison was a US representative for Illinois, and Benjamin Harrison was a prominent Republican Party member who’d conducted an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of Indiana two years prior. It was immediately apparent that the grave of Samuel Augustus Devin, who died the week prior and was buried near the Harrison family plot, had been “despoiled.” The thought that went through the brothers’ minds was Body snatchers are afoot, but not wanting to upset Devin’s mother, they passed the disturbed earth off to rooting hogs.

To prevent the same suspected fate as the Devin boy, the Harrisons ordered a large rock lowered on top of the vault that took the strength of sixteen men to lift into the hole, and the whole affair was covered in concrete. The concrete was given time to partially dry and the extra-deep grave was filled in. As an added protection, a guard was hired stand watch for the next thirty days.

Once the funeral party left the cemetery, John Scott Harrison Jr. and his nephew George Eaton opened Devin’s grave and made the startling, if not unsurprising, discovery. His coffin was smashed open and his body gone. Resurrectionists never went to the trouble to open the entire grave. Rather, they dug a small vertical hole at the top of the grave near the head end of the coffin. Digging was easy, as the earth had been freshly turned, and gravediggers at the time didn’t have plate compactors used in modern cemeteries to tamp the earth. Once at the level of the coffin, the resurrectionist cracked open a small section at the head end of the coffin and dragged the remains out by the shoulders. Skilled resurrectionists bragged they could have the deed done and the body secreted in their wagon in twenty minutes time, with the grave filled back in and nobody the wiser.

The trade of the resurrectionists helped increase the popularity of rural cemeteries with the public. Rural cemeteries were “a distance” from the urban center, fenced and gated, and typically employed night watchmen. These seemingly appealing security features actually made the rural cemeteries more tempting to the resurrectionists. The distance from town meant they could work in relative peace and privacy, the fences being no matter to scale. And a medium-sized cemetery such as Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, covering seventy-eight acres, meant it was difficult for two or three watchmen to make a regular, thorough inspection of the grounds in the middle of the night with nothing more than a lantern.

Poor Augustus Devin never stood a chance. Congress Green was little more than a private family burial ground. There was no fence, much less a night watchman. He’d been snatched for medical science.

Harrison and Eaton had a good lead. Thursday morning, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported a suspicious buggy had pulled into an alley off Vine Street around 3:00 a.m. and had offloaded a cargo at the Medical College of Ohio—driving off before they could be accosted. Along with Cincinnati Detective Thomas Snelbaker and two constables, and armed with a search warrant, Harrison and Eaton began a thorough search of the medical college. Led by the janitor, A. Q. Marshall, the group began scouring the five-story building, tearing apart piles of lumber and stone in the cellar in search of Devin’s body. They found nothing. As they worked their way to the top floor, Marshall, growing visibly nervous, announced it proper that college officials be present for the search and disappeared.

Snelbaker, not trusting Marshall, sent one of the constables to follow him.

Instead of heading for the administration offices, the constable watched Marshall scamper upstairs to a deserted dissecting room in the southeast corner of the building. Lit by gaslight, the room contained four empty porcelain tables, a stove in the corner, an overhead rainwater tank, and two slop sinks. There, the constable found Marshall hacking at the rope of the windlass, essentially a block-and-tackle system for hoisting things into the dissecting room.

“Stop!” the constable commanded, rushing into the room.

He quickly alerted the others and they hurried upstairs where Snelbaker began cranking the handle of the windlass.

Out of the gaping abyss emerged the nude form of a “heavy and large . . . old man,” the rope looped under one arm and around the neck, his face hooded by a cloth—certainly not young Devin, who died frail, his body wracked with consumption. Snelbaker urged Harrison to look at the body, so there’d never be any doubt that it wasn’t Devin. They moved the trapdoor into place and lowered the nude form onto the floor. Harrison removed the hood and recoiled with horror, crying,

“It’s Father!”

It was almost inconceivable that this was how John Harrison’s search for Augustus Devin ended. It had been less than twenty-four hours since the Harrison brothers watched their father lowered into the ground and to now find him hanging from a rope—and mutilated. Scott Harrison’s beard, which reached nearly to his waist, had been shorn, his hair too, and blood leaked from a cut on his neck where embalming fluid had been injected to preserve him for the students. Additionally, Harrison’s face was cut and discolored from being dragged from his coffin and then suspended from a rope.

The firm of Estep & Meyer—sworn to secrecy—was summoned to bring a coffin and take the remains away. The Harrisons attempted to keep the whole affair a secret. The story leaked immediately, and news of the grave robbing was splashed across Friday’s papers. The public was beyond outraged. The son of a US president and a two-term member of Congress had been snatched for scalpel fodder. Citizens called for vigilante action against the doctors who created the demand for this ghoulish supply. Their rage reached a fever pitch when bail—$5,000, a hefty sum at the time—for Marshall, the janitor, was posted by Dr. Whitaker on behalf of the medical community. The bail posting solidified a clear link between resurrectionists and medical men in the public’s mind. Benjamin Harrison called for cooler heads and legal action. The Boston Post best summed up public sentiment, writing, “No one but a beast, even though in man’s shape, could perpetrate such an outrage, which at once grieves, shocks, disgusts and terrifies society.”

How had Scott Harrison been taken from an all but burglarproof grave?

How had Scott Harrison been taken from an all but burglarproof grave? The Harrisons had exercised an abundance of caution, even hiring a watchman. Surely he’d been bought off. While bribery can’t be ruled out entirely, the fact is the watchman had been hired to check the grave every hour, not stand constant vigil. An hour was more than ample time for an experienced resurrectionist to open a grave—even with the additional precautions. The large stone that took sixteen men to lift had only been big enough to cover the top portion of the vault. Two smaller stones covered the foot end. The men opening the grave had dug down at the foot end of the grave, opposite the normal procedure, drilled through the smaller slabs enough to lift them, smashed the glass (inner liner) of the metallic coffin, and dragged Harrison out by his feet. The hole was filled in and the body snatchers long gone before the watchman’s next round. The chilling fact remains that the men knew to dig at the opposite end of the grave, almost guaranteeing that someone present at the graveside sold the information.

Detective Snelbaker, spurred on by intense public scrutiny and political pressure, managed to shine a light on the larger network that Scott Harrison’s remains had become ensnared in and bring the whole unsavory saga to a rather unsatisfying conclusion.

After an exhaustive investigation, Devin’s body was found June 14 at the medical college in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Based upon information from the janitor of Miami Medical College, Snelbaker learned the resurrectionist Charles Morton had been operating in the area. Morton’s notoriety was so well known the one newspaper simply referred to him as the “famous ghoul.” By bribing the janitor, Morton had been using Miami Medical College as a base of operations in the spring of 1878. Morton shipped the subjects to medical schools in barrels bearing a false company name: Quimby & Co. Under Snelbaker’s interrogation, the janitor gave it up that Morton had shipped a lot of barrels via American Express to the University of Michigan Medical College.

Devin was found jammed in one of three vats of brine, along with forty-eight other cadavers in various states of decomposition, in the basement of the college. In an exchange at which the Detroit Free Press was present, an administrator at the college tried to explain to B. J. Devin, Augustus’s brother, and Eaton that “their endeavor here was to get bodies of paupers . . . and of persons who had no friends. But they had to rely on their agents to obtain these bodies, and it was of course impossible to know exactly where they [sourced] each body.”

Augustus Devin was laid to rest a second time on June 17, but not before the coffin was opened at the train depot and an estimated 150 citizens, including the future president Benjamin Harrison, filed by to view. Scott Harrison was kept for a year and a half in a secret location— the Jacob Strader family vault in Spring Grove Cemetery—until being quietly reinterred at Congress Green in December of 1879.

The same year Harrison was reinterred, Indiana and Ohio hastily adopted laws that allowed for citizens who would be buried at public expense to be turned over to medical schools. Indiana’s and Ohio’s acts were steps in the right direction, but the reality was that at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Medical College of Indiana had a student body of four hundred with only six cadavers. How was the college going to reconcile the shortfall? Probably in the local cemetery.

Despite the medical men trying to get their subjects “responsibly” sourced from the poor and destitute, the public had had enough of their cemeteries being emptied. It was time to stop relying on the lawmakers to protect their dead. Men such as Philip Clover decided to not simply passively defend against their kin’s bodies being snatched but to mount a vigorous, active defense. The same year as the Harrison debacle, Clover was issued a patent for a “coffin-torpedo.” The objective of his patent application was to “successfully prevent the unauthorized resurrection of dead bodies,” which was achieved with deadly force. Clover’s invention worked like a shotgun. A barrel packed with gunpowder and metal balls was secreted in the trimming (i.e., lining) of the casket by the undertaker and a series of wires were attached to the arms and legs, so that any disruption of the remains tripped the trigger and set off the shotgun-like device. Clover went as far as to stipulate the barrel should be secreted in the head area of the casket, the area typically broken open by the resurrectionists, to maximize its effectiveness.

Several years later, a former probate judge from Ohio, Thomas N. Howell, filed a patent for a “grave-torpedo” that operated like the recent wartime invention called “land torpedoes,” now known as land mines. Howell’s invention operated when a contact point disturbed by “the slightest movement” exploded the shell.

The Norfolk Virginian, in commenting on the recent sensational body snatching of Alexander T. Stewart, one of the wealthiest men in America, pointed out the major drawback to such lethal devices: “This invention is intended to have a moral, rather than a practical effect, for it is difficult to see how it can explode without demolishing the dead body.” For many families, the choice of having their dead pulverized by a bomb blast was a more dignified fate than the scalpel of the medical men. Though Howell’s invention stipulates to bury the charge “several inches” of earth above the casket to “prevent injury to the coffin.” Howell may have been an expert in the law but not in explosives. There was a good chance the charge—as his design appears more akin to a grenade exploding than a directional blasting device—would radiate downward with enough force to pulverize (or, at the very least disturb) the contents of the coffin.

It’s unknown how many of these deadly inventions were deployed, but enough were used that it worked—at least once. Three men attempting to rob the fresh grave of Russell O’Harrel’s daughter near Gann, Ohio, met with a torpedo. The blast killed the ringleader; man named Dipper, and severely wounded another—as evidenced by the blood in the snow. The lookout was able to get the wounded man into their sleigh and get away. They were never caught. The event was widely published, not only because it was a sensational bit of news but to serve as a warning to body snatchers.

It’s likely Dipper was killed by Clover’s device as the thwarted body snatching happened in January 1881 and Howell’s invention wasn’t patented for almost another year. And while well intended, these devices were more or less permanent, despite the fact they were only really needed for a week or so until decomposition set in. They were more likely to kill an unsuspecting gravedigger opening the grave next to the booby-trapped grave or during a legitimate disinterment years later. Which begs the question: How many booby-trapped graves are still out there and functional?

Andrew Van Bibber of Ohio came up with a safe alternative the same year Clover unveiled his deadly grave sentinel. His “burial safe” was a cage made of a latticework of welded iron bars. The casket was placed in the cage, the cage locked, and then the earth filled in. The door on his burial safe was secured with padlocks on the side of the cage, which theoretically could be picked, but they weren’t readily accessible on the top of the cage. The thought was the resurrectionists would target the low-hanging fruit—the unprotected caskets.

Van Bibber’s invention was similar to the mortsafe, a popular device in Scotland where body snatching was rampant. The mortsafe was a cage made of iron bars (sometimes weighted with a ledger stone) placed on top of the freshly filled-in grave. The idea was that the mortsafe could be moved off the grave once enough time had passed and reused, whereas Van Bibber’s burial safe was designed to be completely subterranean and permanent.

The following year, George W. Boyd, another Ohioan obsessed with grave security, patented his grave vault advertised in trade magazines as “burglarproof.” In an 1882 advertisement in the Columbus Coffin Company’s catalog, Boyd employs a none-too-subtle tactic, reminding undertakers of “the almost daily reports of the devastation of grave robbers.” Boyd’s vault was made with steel plates riveted together to form a vaulted cover that snapped into a bottom metal plate. Once snapped together, the two pieces couldn’t be undone without a torch. The Sunnyside clarified exactly how secure: “Even if the ghouls succeeded in excavating the earth and reaching this vault . . . it cannot be opened, excepting by cutting the top casing entirely open which would take a skilled mechanic at least twenty-four hours.” Boyd’s invention operated on the principle of an air seal, making it waterproof as well as burglarproof. His invention was relatively light, and the arched dome lid made the vault incredibly strong and prevented grave collapse over time, something cemeterians took notice of.

One of the first instances of a burial vault in the style such as Boyd’s being put into practical use was the vault for President Ulysses S. Grant who died in 1885. Undertaker of the rich and famous, Rev. Stephen Merritt of New York City ordered an arch-top metal vault from Franklin Iron Works in Troy, New York. Made from half-inch tempered steel, the entire contraption weighed seven hundred pounds, and ensured the former president’s grave couldn’t be burglarized. Unlike Scott Harrison who was stolen for anatomical study, there was concern that there could be a politically motivated body snatching of the ex-president. A few years prior, the Secret Service had foiled a plot to steal Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom.

Shortly after metal vaults entered the marketplace, Leo Haase, a German immigrant, began manufacturing concrete vaults. Made of two pieces, much like a shoebox, the bottom gets placed in the hole to receive the casket and then a lid is lowered on top. The whole unit, empty, weighs about a ton, a formidable obstacle for a resurrectionist. The demand for Haase’s concrete vaults took off during the Spanish flu pandemic, and the company, Wilbert Funeral Services, is now the US’s largest provider of burial vaults.

In 1883 the Pennsylvania Legislature passed Senate Bill 117 enacting an anatomy act that was unlike any before it. This act, in response to yet another grave robbing scandal involving Jefferson Medical College and its chief anatomist, Dr. William Forbes, was different in that physicians drafted it. And instead of allowing the state to turn over unclaimed bodies, the law required the state to turn over unclaimed bodies to a newly created anatomy board, which would equitably distribute the cadavers. The act would solve a multitude of problems by relieving the public of the cost of burying indigents, keeping a supply of research material flowing to Pennsylvania medical schools, and most importantly to the public, keeping the graveyards filled. Over the next few decades, other states adopted anatomy acts similar to Pennsylvania’s, and coupled with the newly invented burial vault, instances of grave robbing began to disappear from newspaper headlines.

Despite the newly adopted laws, there was a lingering fear with the public of having their corporeal remains misappropriated by ghouls. When George Pullman died in 1897, he was buried in an eight-foot-deep grave covered with asphalt, concrete, and steel bars. Once it was filled in with earth, another twelve-inch layer of asphalt was placed on top of the grave, making it “impossible for any earthly power to remove the casket.”

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Excerpted from LAST RITES: The Evolution of the American Funeral, by Todd Harra. Sounds True, August 2022. Reprinted with permission.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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