Original publish date: August 5, 2011
Last week, I told you a little about the macabre grave robbing profession and subsequent black market medical cadaver trade that once flourished in our capital city. What most Hoosiers don’t know is that Indianapolis has a Presidential connection to the dark art of body snatching. Former Ohio Congressman John Scott Harrison (October 4, 1804 – May 25, 1878) is the only man in American History whose father and son both became President of the United States. A former United States Senator in his own right, John Scott Harrison’s father was our nation’s ninth President William Henry Harrison and his son Benjamin Harrison became the 23rd President of the United States. Harrison was also the grandson of Benjamin Harrison V signer of the Declaration of Independence. Sadly, hardly anyone alive today has ever heard of John Scott Harrison or is aware of the story of his unquiet corpse.
On May 25th, 1878 John Scott Harrison died suddenly at his Point Farm estate located near North Bend, Ohio, about 16 miles west of Cincinnati. He was 73 years old. Funeral services were held at the Presbyterian Church in Cleves, Ohio on May 29th. His body was interred in the William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial in North Bend with his parents and other family members. The Harrison family plot was located on a hill in the Congress Green Cemetery that featured a commanding, panoramic view of the Ohio River Valley below.
The bereaved family filed past the open coffin to cast a last glance upon the man who had so frequently and so successfully influenced their lives. Among them was his highly successful lawyer / US Senate candidate son from Indianapolis Benjamin Harrison, who was already at the helm of the State’s Republican party and just 19 years away from becoming President.
But far from resting in peace, his corpse became the central figure in one of the most widely heralded and distressing examples of grave-robbery in the history of the United States. During Senator Harrison’s memorial service, as the funeral party walked to John Scott’s grave they could not help but notice that the nearby grave of 23-year-old Augustus Devin, a nephew of Benjamin Harrison who had died suddenly and been buried there just a week before, had been disturbed. Though placed in his grave only the Saturday before, it appeared that young Devin’s grave had been robbed by body snatchers. At first, family members thought that wild hogs had been at work uprooting the earth. However upon closer examination, it was revealed that indeed there had been a theft of the corpse.
The first order of business was to hide the fact from Devin’s widowed mother until the body could be recovered, and the second was to take precautions for safeguarding John Scott Harrison’s remains. Benjamin Harrison and his younger brother John carefully supervised the lowering of his father’s body into an eight-foot-long grave. At the bottom, they placed the state-of-the-art metallic casket into a secure brick vault with thick walls and a solid stone bottom. Three flat stones, eight or more inches thick were procured for a cover. With great difficulty the stones were lowered over the casket, the largest at the upper end and the two smaller slabs crosswise at the foot. All three of these slabs were carefully cemented together. The brothers waited patiently beside the open hole for several hours as the cement dried. Finally, with their father’s remains still under guard, a massive amount of dirt was shoveled into the hole and the brothers departed secure in the notion that their father would rest in peace for all eternity.
Benjamin Harrison took a train back to Indianapolis late that day so that he might have a few days to finish his address which would open the Republican State Convention on Wednesday, June 5th. The Harrison family saw Benjamin and his wife off at the depot and then all returned to North Bend except for the younger brother John. He remained in Cincinnati in order that he might begin a search in the morning for Augustus Devin’s body.
In the morning, John Harrison, his cousin George Eaton, and a couple of Cincinnati policemen began their search at the Ohio Medical College on 6th Street between Vine and Race on the city’s south side. It was common knowledge that “Resurrectionists” (the name the public gave to grave robbers) were in collusion with the medical school and routinely supplied research cadavers. A close search of the college was begun led by an obnoxious protesting janitor named A.Q. Marshall who toured the group around the building assuring them that they would find no bodies there. Thrusting their lantern into every dark corner of the building, true to the cranky janitor’s predictions, they found no trace of any body. As they were preparing to exit, one of the policemen noticed a rope stretched tight into a darkened well hole. Immediately he began to haul it up and it soon became evident that there was a heavy weight attached to the end of the rope. The tug-of-war continued until at last there emerged from the darkness a lifeless body with a cloth covering the head and shoulders of what was obviously the body of a very old man.
John Harrison shrugged off the discovery knowing that his cousin Augustus Devin, the subject of their search, was a very young man. Still, the body was lain flat on the floor and the cloth was cast aside with the aid of a nearby stick. As the dead man’s face was revealed, John Harrison gasped in horror that the dead body was none other than that of his father, John Scott Harrison.
The terrible sight sickened him physically and tortured him emotionally. He had came looking for a widow’s son, and found instead the corpse of his own father, whom he had personally entombed less than twenty-four hours before. The scene was surreal, his illustrious father’s body hung by a rope around his neck swaying back-and-forth in a black hole in the Medical College of Ohio right in downtown Cincinnati. In his daze the youngest of the Harrison’s thought only of the family and how, above all else, this must be kept secret.
Secrecy proved impossible, then as now, when an event like this took place, word was bound to get out. A Cincinnati Commercial newspaper reporter heard the story from the members of the fire department located next to the medical college. The reporter tracked down Harrison, Eaton, and the two policemen, but they weren’t talking. The undertakers had been sworn to silence and would not even admit that a corpse had been discovered. However, before long the news leaked out from three relatives from North Bend who had visited the Harrison tomb and found that the grave had been disturbed. Apparently, the ghouls had broken the glass seal and unceremoniously dragged the body from the box out feet first.
Benjamin Harrison had just arrived in Indianapolis when he was urgently called back to Cincinnati. Before “Lil’ Ben” arrived, his brother Carter swore out a warrant for the arrest of A.Q. Marshall the surly janitor at the Ohio Medical College. The janitor was arrested on the charge of receiving, concealing, and secreting John Scott Harrison’s body which had been unlawfully and maliciously removed from its grave. The medical school posted the $5,000.00 bond for the janitor’s release, andering the citizens of Cincinnati even more. Things went from bad to worse when the Medical College took the position that the adverse attention was hurting the school’s chances of obtaining additional cadavers for dissection. All of which made fantastic headlines for the local press.
Reports of the horrific crime brought out curious crowds who milled about the alley behind the medical school hoping to peer into the macabre cadaver chute. Local reporters interviewed as many people as possible quickly fueling the hysteria among Queen City citizens who wondered, “If this can happen to such an illustrious hero as John Scott Harriosn, what is to become of our loved ones?
Above all else, what became of Augustis Devin’s body? That question would go unanswered for another three weeks. On June 14th a janitor from the nearby Miami Medical School confessed that a notorious resurrectionist named Charles Morton (alias Dr. Gabriel, alias Dr. Morton, alias Dr. Christian, and alias Dr. Gordon) had bribed him to use the medical building basement as headquarters for preparing and shipping bodies to nearby cities. It was an excellent hiding place, for except for two hours each day, no member of the faculty was ever near the school. This veil of secrecy allowed Dr. Morton to work unmolested for nearly a month and in that time Augustus Devin and John Scott Harrison were two of his victims. The janitor’s confession basically indicted the entire medical profession across the United States.
The janitor revealed that most of the misappropriated bodies were shipped from Cincinnati to the Medical College at Ann Arbor, Michigan in barrels reading: “Quimby and Co.” The police left for Ann Arbor immediately and found a vat of brine containing several bodies already prepared for use in the fall and winter school sessions. Soon, the police identified one of the cadaver’s as that of Augustus Devin and a telegram was sent immediately to the family in North Bend. Young Devin’s remains were sent home and the body was reburied. The Harrison’s, including Benjamin, were counted among the one hundred and fifty prominent citizens assembled to pay final tribute to young Devin four weeks to the day after it was buried the first time.
In December, 1879 the body of John Scott Harrison was reburied without fanfare in the Harrison family tomb where he rests peacefully to this very day. Benjamin Harrison never publicly spoke of the incident. However, an interesting footnote to the story with yet another tie-in to Irvington? Remember those bodies packed in pickle barrels from “Quimby & Co.” sent to the University of Michigan Medical School mentioned earlier? One of those Michigan students who undoubtedly participated in the dissection of those wayward cadavers was non-other than Herman Webster Mudgett, a graduate of the school in 1873. You might know Mudgett better by his alias, Dr. H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.