Civil War, Creepy history, Medicine

Coughing up Bullets-A Civil War Tale for the Ages.

Bullet in eye

Original publish date:  April 4, 2019

So you say you have a scratchy throat? Runny nose? Nagging cough? Blaming all those hugs, handshakes and office hours for catching a bug? Well here’s a reminder that it could be worse. This reminder reaches all the way back to the Civil War and comes with a twist that extends to the present day.
Private Willis V. Meadors (erroneously identified as W.V. Meadows for decades) was a Confederate Veteran who served alongside his brothers and cousins in Company G of the 37th Alabama Volunteer Infantry. The 37th was involved in nearly every campaign of the western theater of the war between the states. Meadors was a sharpshooter with the Rebel army commanded by Lt. General John C. Pemberton posted at Vicksburg, the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. General Ulysses S. Grant’s army had besieged the city since May 25.
Z MEADOWSIt was July 1st, 1863, the day before the pivitol battle of Gettysburg commenced. After holding out for more than forty days, with no reinforcements and supplies nearly gone, things were getting desperate. While languishing in the trenches, Pvt. Meadors cobbled together a shield made of pig-iron. His crudely constructed armored bulwark had one hole to see through and another to fire his weapon. The shield worked well at first, allowing the Rebel sharpshooter to fire with impunity and relative security. Then, like a scene from a Hollywood movie, as the sharpshooter lined up his next shot, he was shot in the eye through his very own peephole. Miraculously, he survived.
Meadors was found and brought to a field hospital where Union surgeons probed for the bullet, but were unable to locate it. The bullet was resting perilously close to the soldier’s brain and the doctors didn’t feel it was safe to perform an operation. He was put aboard a POW ship and transported to a Union hospital. Later, he was paroled to a Confederate hospital, where he spent the rest of the war. In time, Meadors recoved well enough to serve as an aide at the Rebel hospital. His official medical records confirm that he’d been “severely wounded” in the head by a minie ball.
After the war, Meadors returned to his farm in Lanett, Ala., just east of the Georgia state line. The bullet cost Meadors his right eye and would remain lodged in his head for the next 57 years. He married, but had no children. He probably would have died in obscurity had it not been for a coughing fit in March of 1920. 78-year-old Willis Meadows had been steadily coughing all day long. His coughs soon turned to violent spasms. To Meadors, it felt like something was caught in his throat. Finally, with one great whoop, that something flew out of Meadors’ mouth and landed with a clatter on the floor a few feet away. It was the one-ounce bullet, trapped in Meadors’ head for over two generations.
Instantly, the “Coughs Up Bullet” story became headline news. It ran in every major newspaper in the U.S. When the story made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Meador’s story got even more unbelievable. Union veteran Peter Jones Knapp, who served at Vicksburg and Shiloh, saw the story and realized he was the one who fired the bullet that lodged near Meadors’ brain. In 1863, 21-year-old Knapp was serving with the 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. On July 1st, Knapp and three other Union soldiers of his Company were approaching from the east with specific orders to kill Confederate snipers. Knapp spotted Meadors, aimed his rifle at the boiler plate peephole and fired. Meadors fell to the side, blood running from his right eye. Knapp was sure his man was dead and the trio moved on.

Peter Jones Knapp

Knapp was captured a few months later at the Battle of Missionary Ridge and was held in a number of Confederate prisons, including the notorious Andersonville in Southern Georgia, where almost 13,000 Union soldiers died. After the war, he farmed in Michigan, married, and in 1887, moved to Kelso, Washington. Knapp contacted Meadors and when the two old soldiers compared notes, they made the connection. Once mortal enemies sworn to kill each other, now, the aging veterans would spend their last few years as friends, exchanging letters, photographs and wishing each other good health.
Willis V. Meadors died at his home on October 10, 1927. His obituary stated that his health had been exceptionally good until the past few months except for a cancer on his face, which caused his death. He is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Lanett, Alabama. Peter Knapp, the man who’d made that incredible shot at Vicksburg so many years before, preceded his target in death on April 13, 1924. His obituary states he died peacefully in the arms of his wife on April 13, 1924. His remains were sent to the Old Portland Crematorium. When Knapp’s wife Georgianna died in 1930, her remains also were cremated in Portland and placed next to those of her husband.

Peter Jones Knapp

You’d think, that was the end of this fascinating story. But it turns out that in 1990, the story takes an even more bizarre turn. A man named Henry Kilburn was doing some genealogy research. Mr. Kilburn has the personal diary of Peter Knapp. Kilburn circulates a photograph of the coughed-up bullet flanked by photographs of Willis Meadows and Peter Knapp, which rekindles interest in the story. Kilburn admits that he is no blood relative of Peter Knapp, which prompts the question, how did Henry Kilburn end up with those items?
Turns out, Peter Knapp and his wife, who were childless, adopted Henry Kilburn’s younger sister, Minnie Mae. Their mother had been divorced and abandoned by her husband. She must have decided that adoption by the Knapps would provide her daughter with a better life. It was Mae who gave the items to Henry. The story fades from the pages of history once again for another generation. In 2012, Alice Knapp, the wife of the 3rd great nephew of Peter Knapp is researching the Knapp family history. In particular, she was searching for the burial site of Peter and Georgianna Knapp. She finds an obituary for Peter stating he had been cremated but it made no ,mention of the final resting place. Fortunately, the Old Portland Crematorium is still in business as Wilhelm’s Funeral Home in Portland, Washington.

Peter Jones Knapp’s ashes

Alice contacted the crematorium and was told no one had ever claimed the cremains of Mr. & Mrs. Knapp. She was told that the couple’s ashes were still on a shelf in the back room where they had been resting for decades. Astonished at the news, she then made contact with the Oregon Military Department of Veteran’s Affairs. She reasoned that because Peter Knapp was a Veteran of the U.S. Army he deserved a military funeral. On April 13, 2012 he got it.
Peter Knapp was laid to rest in Willamette National Cemetery, the first Civil War veteran to be buried in Oregon’s largest military graveyard. Knapp received full military honors from the Oregon National Guard 88 years to the day of his 1924 death. The funeral also fell on the 151st anniversary of the Confederate victory at Fort Sumter, S.C., which ignited the Civil War.

Peter Jones Knapp’s ashes

The burial attracted a mix of veterans, historians, Civil War re-enactors and people who were simply curious. Eras collided as cellphone and digital cameras recorded men and women dressed as Union soldiers and civilians marching alongside Patriot Riders holding 50-star American flags perched on shiny Harley Davidson motorcycles. The hearse carrying the twin gold boxes containing the ashes led the procession. The speakers largely focused on what Peter Knapp endured as a soldier, his incredible reunion with the man he shot and his commitment to his wife of more than 53 years.
The Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War performed a ritual for the dead based on a Grand Army of the Republic ceremony from 1873. The funeral also included a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace,” a bugler who performed “Taps,” and culminated with the laying of wreaths. Following a musket salute, a folded U.S. flag was presented to Alice Knapp. And, despite his connection to one of the strangest incidents of the Civil War, there was not a Confederate in sight.z knapp stone

Creepy history, Criminals, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Medicine

Grave Robbing in Indiana. John Scott Harrison-The Unquiet Corpse. Part II.


Grave robbers part II

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.


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Death of President William Henry Harrison.

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.

z McConnellJGraverobThe 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.

z grave_robbingJohn 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.

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Benjamin Harrison

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.

Herman Webster Mudgett aka H.H. Holmes (far left)

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.

Creepy history, Criminals, Ghosts, Indianapolis, Medicine

Grave Robbing in Indiana. Part I.

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Original publish date:  July 29, 2011

I speak often about America’s first serial killer, the evil Dr. H.H.Holmes, and his demonic doings in 1894 Irvington including his habit of selling the cadavers of his victims to Chicago area universities for $ 75.00 each. Today, these stories elicit gasps and disbelief from all who hear them. However, there was a time when grave robbing in our capital city was a very real threat indeed.
The act of grave robbing was so common that perpetrators began to look upon themselves as businessmen providing a much needed service rather than the night creeping, gutter crawling slags of humanity that they truly were. Often these ghouls ruled the nightlife scene holding court in local bars and taverns while regaling customers with their tales of dread from the boneyards of our dear city, with no real fear of retribution, much less prosecution, for their dastardly deeds. After all, their skill and services were in demand by uber-educated medical school professors, upper-crust physicians and high-bred college students from all four corners of the city, no questions asked.

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University students working on a cadaver.

In January 1875, a reporter for the Indianapolis Herald newspaper interviewed one such ghoul for an article on grave robbing titled, “How the Business is Managed at Indianapolis. Twelve ‘Resurrectionists’ engaged in it.” Sadly, the name of the intrepid reporter is lost to history, but his words live on and are offered here as proof that this gruesome occupation did in fact exist. Here is the article as it appeared almost a century-and-a-half ago.
A reporter for the Indianapolis Herald recently fell in with a resurrectionist, or body snatcher, who relates the following story: “Yes, I know it’s a shameful business. But I have no longer any capacity for shame. This (holding up his glass) has done the business for me. It has made me what you see me. Once I was a reputable physician with a diploma from ——– College, and a fair practice, and now I am a body snatcher, sneaking through the graveyards by night, and spending the proceeds of grave robbery in low down thief kennels by day. You don’t often see me here. Hunger-hunger for whiskey brought me here tonight, because I am more apt to sponge a drink or two among such tipplers as you than I would be among ruffians of my own sort. As I said, I have no shame, but I know how low it is. I know that a man capable of grave robbing for gain is cutthroat enough at heart to do murder if he were not too cowardly. Why don’t I reform? That’s a good joke. I look like it don’t I? I tell you it’s impossible. There’s no retreat for me. The only road open to me is in front, and it ends in hell. Another drink …..and a big one, to settle these grinning devils that have been dancing around me all night, and I will tell you all about the business. As the season is over and Dr.——– has promised to buy me a ticket to Memphis, I don’t care.”

HOW STIFFS ARE RAISED: “A ressurectionist’s kit is not very expensive, sir. All he needsz Grave_Robber is a rope with a hook at one end, a short crowbar, and a spade and a pick. He generally has a “pard,” as it is easier to hunt in couples. He is notified of the “plant” (body), and by personal inspection makes himself familiar with all the surroundings, before the attempt is made. The pick and spade remove the earth from the grave as far as the widest part of the coffin, and with the crowbar, the coffin is shattered, and the rope with the hook end fastened around the cadaver’s neck, when it is drawn out through the hole without disturbing the earth elsewhere. As soon as the cadaver is sacked, the earth replaced, and the grave made to look as near like it was as possible. There are some bunglers however, who have been guilty of leaving the grave open, with fragments of the cadaver’s clothing lying around. They are a disgrace to the profession, and have done much to foster an unfriendly public sentiment in this city.”
HOW A SALE IS NEGOTIATED: “No, there’s not as much difficulty in negotiating the sale of a stiff as you would imagine. The resurrectionist has no dealings with any member of the colleges. They are too smart for that. The janitor does the business. A wagon with two men in it drives up in front of a college. Maybe the streets are full of people….maybe not. It makes no difference any way. The wagon barely stops a moment, and one man shoulders the sack containing the stiff and shoots into the college basement, and the wagon drives off. Police? (The resurrectionist here shook like a mass of jelly with inward chuckles.) Why, bless your simple soul, there is no more danger of being interrupted by the police than there is of me dying a sober man. The police on the college beats are friendly to science. They wouldn’t, for two dollars a stiff, make a row about it, you bet. So all the digger has to do is put a mask on his face and slip in to see the janitor, who is provided with funds, and shells out without being too particular about identification.”
THE NUMBER OF RESURRECTIONIST: “There are at least a dozen diggers engaged in anticipating the tooting of Gabriel’s horn in this city. Some of them are working for other cities. There is Mr. ——-, a tall man, with long, dark hair, seedy clothes, and a sinister expression of countenance. He’s a man of education, and has respectable connections in the city. What brought him to it? What brings us all to it? Whiskey, of course. He works with Mr. ——-, a lanky, long haired fellow, with rebel looking clothes, and long, light, lousy looking hair, mustache, and goatee. Yes, it was him that was kicked out of the boarding house for talking “stiff” at the table. Then there is the brother of a well-known doctor, and a doctor out in the country, and others too tedious to mention. Some of the students, too, raise their own stiffs as a matter of economics. Material is getting costlier every year.”
z Milwaukee-Journal-August-3-1903THE MOST FRUITFUL FIELDS: “The most of the stiffs are raised at Greenlawn cemetery (in Franklin, south of the city), at the Mt. Jackson cemetery (on the grounds of Central State hospital), and at the Poor Farm cemetery (Northwest of the city). So far as I know Crown Hill has never been troubled. Many of the village cemeteries in the neighboring counties are also visited, however, and made to contribute their quota to the cause of science. Some of these village cadavers are those of people who moved in the best society, and besides their value in material for dissection, are rich in jewelry, laces, velvets, etc. The hair of a female subject is alone worth $25. Nothing is wasted, you may be sure. Even the ornaments on the coffin lids are used again..”
SMART ALECKS: “There is a good joke on the Marion County Commissioners. You may remember that, on account of so many complaints against body snatchers, these Smart Alecks had a vault built, in which to deposit bodies, and put a padlock on the door. You may believe the resurrectionist didn’t stop long for a common padlock. It didn’t take long to get an impression with a piece of wax, and any darn fool can make a key that will unlock a padlock. And the vault business saves a heap of hard digging. Many a stiff has been cut up in our colleges without having been buried at all. I know of one case where it came pretty near making a rumpus, and there was lively skirmishing for a time, I tell you.”
FURTHUR (sic) PROSPECTS: “Allred? Him? Why he could not stop a worm. He is devoted to science, and if he wasn’t, all we’d have to do would be to get him a bottle of Rolling Mill rot gut, and he would neither see nor hear. Do you s’pose that there could have been so much resurrection in Greenlawn, right in the heart of the city almost, if somebody hadn’t been fixed? I don’t know. Do you?” (Allred was apparently the superindendent of Greenlawn cemetery)
A MEAN TRICK: “Now I’m goin’ to tell you about what I call a mean trick. A stiff had been raised out of grounds supposed to be the peculiar property of one of the colleges, and sold to another. It wasn’t much of a stiff, a poor, miserable, emaciated Negro, that didn’t weigh more’n ninety pounds……but it made the faculty of ——– college madder’n hornets to think that a stiff out of their ground had been sold to a rival college. You know they hate each other like pizen anyhow. Well, Tuesday night of this week they broke into the college vault and stole the stiff, and the next day a Professor of the rival college lectured over it. Go to the law about it? Not much. They know how to leave well enough alone. But they were not about it, you better believe. Goin’, are you? Well, good night. The chances are that we’ll never meet again, an there’s nothing doing here, and I want to get to a warmer climate. Good night, Sir.”
z PhotoDeskThe night was a graverobber’s best friend. He lived in it, worked in it, played in it and hid in it. Late at night, these ghouls would steal into cemeteries where a burial had just taken place. In general, fresh graves were best, since the earth had not yet settled and digging was easy work. Laying a sheet or tarp beside the grave, the dirt was shoveled on top of it so the nearby grounds were undisturbed. Most body snatchers could remove the body in less time than it took most people to saddle a horse. They would carefully cover the telltale hole with dirt again, making sure the grave looked the same as it had before they came. Then hurriedly take the body away via the alleyways and sewers of the city, finally delivering the anonymous dearly departed to the back door of a medical school. In time, several of these ghouls began to furnish fresh corpses for sale by murdering the poor, homeless citizens of the city who once stood silent vigil in the alleys as the graverobbers crept past with their macabre cargo in tow.
Many tactics were employed to protect the bodies of relatives, mostly to no avail. Police were engaged to watch the burying grounds but were often bribed or made drunk. Spring guns, or “booby-traps” were set in the coffins but was an option available only to the wealthier citizens. Poorer families would leave items like a stone or a blade of grass or a shell at the head of the grave to show whether it had been tampered with or not. During this era, “Burglar proof grave vaults made of steel” were sold with the promise that loved ones’ remains would not be one of the 40,000 bodies “mutilated every year on dissecting tables in medical colleges in the United States.” Despite these efforts, body snatchers persisted.
Grave robbers part IIn the late 1800s in Indiana, it has been estimated that between 80 to 120 bodies each year were purchased from grave robbers to be used for medical instruction at medical schools and teaching facilities in Indianapolis. An end to the “big business” of grave robbing came as a result of twentieth-century legislation in Indiana which allowed individuals to donate their bodies for this purpose. In 1903, the Indiana General Assembly enacted legislation that created the state anatomical board that was empowered to receive unclaimed bodies from throughout the state and distribute them to medical schools. The act was “for the promotion of anatomical science and to prevent grave desecration.”
Before that landmark 1903 legislation, Indiana medical schools had access to only one type of corpse for dissection — the bodies of executed criminals, which provided a fairly small pool of available subjects. Only 9 people were executed in Indiana from 1897 to 1903, not nearly enough to supply the medical schools of the city. Strangely, there were 41 lynchings over the same period (26 whites and 15 blacks). As the number of medical students in Indiana grew, the demand for bodies for dissection became greater. As there were simply not enough bodies legally available, medical schools resorted to back door arrangements with resurrectionists. Occasionally, the grave robber was a doctor, teacher or medical student. For the most part, the medical community wrestled with the morality issues surrounding the procurement of corpses for dissection purposes, but it cannot be denied that the practice yielded dividends. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States led the world in advances made by anatomical studies through the use of the cadaver appropriation system.
By the way, on special occasions during the Irvington ghost tours, I sometimes bring along a battered, faded sepia-toned cabinet photo from the 1880s. In this photo, several University of Michigan medical students are posed standing around an emaciated, nearly naked corpse splayed out on a wooden table. The students pose somberly for the camera but one of them, a handsome derby hat wearing young man with a large walrus style mustache, stands with one hand behind his back and the other with fingers resting on the table surface near a pocket knife that he has obviously just pulled from his pocket. His expression seems to say, “Hurry up and snap that photo so I can cut into this body.” The subject, Michigan medical student Herman Mudget, better known as H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.
Next week: An Indiana body snatching connection to the United States Presidency and Irvington.

Indianapolis, Medicine, Politics

First Lady Caroline Harrison. Death in the White House.


Original publish date: October 20, 2013

121 years ago this Friday, America lost it’s first lady, Benjamin Harrison lost a wife and two weeks later, he lost the Presidential election. Caroline Scott and Benjamin Harrison were married on October 20, 1853. The newlyweds lived at the Harrison family home at North Bend, Ohio for the first year until Benjamin completed his law studies and they moved to Indianapolis and set up his first practice.
During the first few years of their marriage, the couple rarely spent time together, as Benjamin worked to establish his law practice and became active in fraternal organizations to help build a network. In 1854, their first child Russell Benjamin Harrison was born. Not long after, a fire destroyed the Harrison home and all their belongings. Benjamin took a job handling cases for a local law firm and the family managed to recover financially. In 1858, Caroline gave birth to Mary Scott Harrison. In 1861 she gave birth to a second daughter, who died soon after birth.
While Benjamin Harrison’s star rose rapidly in his profession, Caroline cared for their children and was active in the First Presbyterian Church and Indianapolis orphans’ home. Benjamin’s long hours at the law office and his pursuit of a living drove a wedge between the young couple and although Caroline did not complain, the strain showed.
At the onset of the Civil War, both Harrison’s sought to help in the war effort. Caroline joined Indianapolis groups that raised money for supplies to help care for wounded soldiers. In 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for more troops, Benjamin recruited a regiment of over 1,000 men from Indiana. When the regiment left to join the Union Army at Louisville, Kentucky, Harrison was promoted to the rank of colonel, and his regiment was commissioned as the 70th Indiana Infantry.

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Brigadier General Benjamin Harrison of the XX Corps, 1865

In May 1864, the 70th Indiana regiment joined General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and moved to the front lines, and Harrison was promoted to command the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the XX Corps. Harrison’s brigade participated in the brutal Battle of Nashville in December 1864, considered by historians to be the “Gettysburg of the West”. On March 22, 1865, Harrison earned a promotion to the rank of brigadier general.
The horrors of the Civil War taught General Harrison what was really important in his life and the tone of his letters to Caroline during the war are filled with a deep passionate tone. When he returned home, she would never again reproach him for neglect. His law practice and his fame grew, and he became a political force.
After the war, Benjamin Harrison spent the next decade practicing law and getting involved in politics. He ran for governor of Indiana in 1876, but lost. The Harrison home on North Delaware Street was built in 1874-75, and soon became a center of political activity. Her husband’s election to the Senate in 1880 brought Caroline to Washington, DC, but a serious fall on an icy sidewalk that year undermined her health. In 1883, she had surgery in New York that required a lengthy period of recovery. She had also suffered from respiratory problems since a bout with pneumonia in her youth, and did not participate much in Washington’s winter social season.
In the fall of 1887 Harrison was nominated for President by the Republican Party. In the campaign, Caroline was a definite asset. Her natural charm and open manner offset her husband’s chilly reserve (He often wore gloves to protect him from infection from others, and it bothered him to shake the hands of White House visitors), and the press loved her. In November 1888, Harrison defeated the incumbent Grover Cleveland.

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First Lady Caroline Harrison.

Caroline Harrison was 56 years old when she became first lady. Historians regard her as one of our most underrated First Ladies who, in contrast to her husband’s conservative policies, was earnestly devoted to women’s rights. She became known for her many “firsts” as First Lady. Caroline was the first first lady to deliver a speech she had written herself after she became the first president of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Caroline’s sister died in early December 1889 at the executive mansion and Mrs. Harrison decided to have the funeral in the east room of the White House. It would be the first funeral in that room since Abraham Lincoln in 1865. In spite of the family tragedy, Caroline went ahead with her plans to raise the first Christmas tree in the White House that same month. She had John Phillip Sousa and the Marine Band play and, for the first time since Sarah Polk was First Lady, there was dancing in the White House.
Perhaps her biggest first came when she had electricity installed in the White House, even though she was terrified by the new technology. Seems that President Benjamin Harrison received a shock from an Edison dc current light switch, after which his family feared touching the switches. Mrs Harrison rarely operated the light switches herself, choosing instead to sleep with the lights on when neither she nor her husband were willing to touch them for fear of electrocution. Servants were often made to turn the lights on and off for the Harrison family.
The First Lady was noted for her elegant White House receptions and dinners, but she is most remembered for her efforts to refurbish the dilapidated White House. She was horrified at the filth and clutter and thought the White House was beneath the dignity of the Presidency, describing it as “rat-infested and filthy.” She brought in ferrets to eat the rats, and lobbied to have the White House torn down and replaced with a more regal Executive Mansion. Instead the old building was refurbished from basement to attic, including a new heating system and a second bathroom. The old, sagging worn-out floors were replaced.
She hated the crowded living area and the tourists made it impossible to use the first floor. In 1889 Caroline Harrison found fault with the “circus atmosphere” in the mansion when she found visitors wandering uninvited into the family quarters. Harrison complained about the lack of privacy on the White House grounds, saying, “The White House is an office and a home combined. An evil combination.” She was the first to suggest the addition of office space to the Executive Mansion when she made up very detailed plans to add an East and a West Wing so that the original mansion could be used for entertaining and the family’s living area. Caroline Harrison’s plan was the first to move the office spaces out of the house.
As she worked to remodel the White House, Caroline was careful to inventory the contents of every room. She cataloged the mansion’s furniture, pictures and decorative objects, working to preserve those that had historical value. Caroline unearthed the chinaware of former presidential administrations found hidden away in closets and unused attic and basement spaces. She personally cleaned, repaired and identified which pieces belonged to which past President. She used their items to create a popular museum display case that remains in the White House to this day.
Artistically talented, Caroline taught classes in painting to anyone who wanted to learn and became the first First Lady to design her own White House china. She wanted new china that would be “symbolic and meaningful to Americans.” The first lady placed the Coat of Arms of the United States in the center ringed by a goldenrod and corn motif etched in gold around a wide outer band of blue. The corn represents Mrs. Harrison’s home state of Indiana and 44 stars, one for each state in the Union at the time, made up the inner border.
In the winter of 1891-1892 while she tried to fulfill her social obligations, Mrs.Harrison was frequently ill with bouts of bronchial infections. In March of 1892 she developed catarrhal pneumonia, followed by hemorrhaging of the lungs and was moved to a three-bedroom cottage on Loon Lake in the Adirondack Mountains in July. Following a brief rally, her doctors diagnosed her condition as tuberculosis, which at the time had no known cure or treatment other than rest and good nutrition. Although she briefly recovered at the mountain retreat, she suffered a setback in September and asked to be returned to the White House.

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The Death of First Lady Caroline Harrison in the White House.

On September 20, she returned to her favorite pale green and silver bedroom in the White House. It was sometimes used as a music room, furnished in pale green plush. One account states that Mrs. Harrison’s bedroom was: “Daintily appointed in pale green and silver, it stands just as Mrs. Harrison left it, and like the rest of the beautified White House, is a memorial to her refined and artistic taste.” Caroline must have been fond of the pale green palate as many of the multi-colored fabric pieces are done in green tones.
Caroline did not live to see her husband’s defeat for a second term as President. On October 25, 1892, Caroline died at the age of sixty of Typhoid fever. It was an election year, and out of respect for the president’s lady, after her death neither Harrison nor Cleveland actively campaigned for the presidency. Two weeks following her death, Harrison lost his bid for reelection. Daughter Mary Harrison McKee was already living at the White House with her family, and she took up the responsibilities of first lady for the last few months of Harrison’s term.
After private services were held in the East Room, the family brought her back to Indianapolis for interment. An official funeral service was held at the First Presbyterian Church. After the service, the cortege proceeded past the Harrison’s Delaware Street home before going on to Crown Hill Cemetery for burial.
Caroline Harrison’s legacy has proved to be historically important. The current architectural plan of the White House, in particular the East and West Wing, reflects the plan suggested by her in 1889, and the White House china room is certainly a testament to her historical sensitivity in rescuing, repairing and identifying artifacts from previous administrations. Caroline Harrison was not able to use the china she had ordered. She died before it was delivered. It arrived at the White House in December of 1892.


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Benjamin Harrison home at 1230 North Delaware Street in Indianapolis.

You can honor Caroline Harrison’s memory with a visit to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site at 1230 North Delaware Street. The home offers tours daily. Another option, perhaps more consistent with the season, would be to visit her final resting place at Crown Hill Cemetery at 3402 Boulevard Place. Tour Guide and historian Tom Davis will be reprising his popular “Skeletons in the closet” tours (there are 2 different) on October 24, 25, 26 and November 2. Check their web site for specifics. Although I don’t think Caroline’s gravesite is particularly featured on Tom’s tours, I’m pretty sure he’ll take you there if you were to ask him. After all, Tom knows where all the bodies are buried.

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Benjamin Harrison Grave in Crown Hill Cemetery.
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Caroline Harrison Grave in Crown Hill Cemetery.
Abe Lincoln, Medicine, Pop Culture

Mary Lincoln-Opium Addict?

Mary Lincoln drugsOriginal publish date: January 17, 2011

In last week’s article, I described how author Harry E. Pratt’s research incorrectly pegged our 16th President as a cocaine user shortly before he was elected in 1860. However, Pratt cannot be blamed entirely because other historians found evidence that the Lincoln family had purchased other powerful drugs in 1853 and 1854 from the same drug store . The ledgers showed that one of the drugs purchased was opium. More specifically, “camphorated opium tincture” used at the time for its anti-diarrheal and pain relief properties. The main ingredient in this drug was Morphine, a highly addictive and dangerous drug.
It must be noted that in the Antebellum Era little was known about drugs and their side effects at the time. Drugs that we know today to be addictive, at least. and life threatening, at worst, were prescribed in Mid-19th century for everyday maladies treated today by aspirin and mild pain killers. In part one, I described how Abraham Lincoln suffered and dealt with his dark moods and depression throughout his life. It should come as no surprise to learn that Mary Lincoln experienced depression, mood swings, and hallucinations after witnessing her husband’s murder. But in truth, Mary dealt with her personal demons long before she met her husband. And like her husband, Historical pundits would claim that many of these symptoms were due to her drug use.
One contemporary of Mary Lincoln’s claimed to witness her use of paregoric, whose principal active ingredient is powdered opium, making the claim that Mary Lincoln had become addicted to this drug. The evidence can be found in a manuscript housed at the Lincoln library in Springfield. The pertinent paregoric passages from the handwritten document wildly claims that the “Hoy & James” drug store ledger show that the Lincoln family used four gallons of paregoric during the year 1854, and only seven quarts of brandy over the same period. The pen & ink document is backed up by an unattributed newspaper clipping from the same time frame as the handwritten account.
The newspaper clipping reads in part: “Abraham Lincoln used four gallons of paregoric in his home during the year 1854, and only seven quarts of brandy over the same period”. The paregoric statement in the handwritten manuscript reads: “De Missy [Mary Lincoln] raised the paregoric bottle and drank from it. Ah know that bottle was a plumb gallon” These accounts were used as reference material for nearly every article and book written about Mary Lincoln after their discovery in the late 1800’s. As with the Lincoln cocaine allegation, 20th century historians would prove that these 2 research materials were wildly inaccurate with respect to the quantities of paregoric purchased by the Lincolns.
opium-bottleUnder close examination the paregoric account in the newspaper clipping begins to unravel. It smacks of a garbled interview by a careless reporter using a badly informed source. Contrary to the clipping, there was no Hoy & James drugstore in Springfield when Lincoln resided there. Lincoln left Springfield, never to return alive, for Washington on February 11, 1861; the Hoy & James drugstore did not begin operations until 1902.
Historians believe that the handwritten account, although not questioning the veracity of the claims to a personal relationship with Mary Lincoln, were written after the newspaper account came out. It is believed that the witness who wrote the account included the erroneous information, probably believing it to be true, as a way of “spicing” up her memoirs for inclusion in one of the many Lincoln books that were now appearing on a regular basis. Therefore, the handwritten account was based on a contaminated source to begin with. Conversely, future historians would also use this source to fabricate a whole line of outrageous accounts of Mary Lincoln’s use of the opium-based narcotic in future publications. To definitively prove this fabrication, scholars simply look to the history of Springfield drugstores in Lincoln’s time.
The Diller family operated a drugstore on the east side of the square in Springfield for over sixty years. The store began in 1839 as Wallace & Diller, founded by Jonathan Roland Diller and William Wallace, Mary Lincoln’s brother-in-law. When Diller died in 1849, his cousin Roland Weaver Diller and druggist Charles S. Corneau formed a new partnership known as Corneau & Diller Drug Store at this same location. Lincoln patronized the firm of Corneau & Diller from the time it was established until he left for Washington to become president. Luckily the records of drugstore survived because they show purchases by it’s most famous customer, Abraham Lincoln. The Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield has all of these records that include three day-books, three ledgers, and one blotter.
These records show all of the Lincoln drug purchases at Corneau & Diller from August 10, 1849, to November 9, 1860. The Lincoln purchases from Corneau & Diller are carefully listed in a chart by date, item, and cost. The narcotics purchased over this eleven year period are as follows: April 29, 1853-Paregoric 10 cents…July 25, 1853-Paregoric 10 cents…March 22, 1854-Paregoric 60 cents and October 12, 1860-Cocoaine 50 cents. A far cry from the “four gallons of paregoric” claimed by later scandal seeking Mary Lincoln biographers. to use the vernacular of the era, “A preposterous amount!” The inflated claims that Mary Lincoln was addicted to paregoric are nonsense, poppycock, balderdash!
The purchase of 80 cents’ worth of this “paregoric” drug over a period of eleven years is far from an addiction. After all, the Encyclopedia Americana describes paregoric as “a narcotic drug composed of opium, camphor, benzoic oil, oil of anise, honey, alcohol, and water. At one time widely used to quiet colicky babies, quiet coughs and ease stomach pains.” Not unlike many over-the-counter cough & cold medications and none of which carry a stigma of addiction today.
Nevertheless this fabrication has become part of the Mary Lincoln mythology. Mary Lincoln and others of her generation were prescribed paregoric y physicians who believed that the medication would cure them. Ironically for Mary, while the medication gave her a temporary “high”, it was quickly followed by a deeper depression. Undoubtedly, these small doses of paregoric contributed to Mary’s frequent mood swings, from her temper tantrums to what Lincoln called her “stupor.” But she was by no definition addicted.
Lincoln authority Lloyd Ostendorf once explained Mary’s temper tantrums and anger this way, “Perhaps she can be forgiven for this side of her nature since she unknowingly took paregoric medication to calm her nerves. Neither she nor her doctors knew, at the time, the awful side effects of what she prescribed for herself. It occasionally caused her to lose control, and Lincoln had his own way of dealing with her. To her credit, she later regretted her outbursts and tried to make amends.”
380px-apothecary_vessel_opium_18-19_centuryAnother Lincoln scholar, Walter Oleksy made things worse when he claimed Mary Lincoln was a heavy user of paregoric and had become addicted. Oleksy wrote, “Mary Lincoln was troubled most of her adult life with emotional and psychological problems. In Springfield, to calm her nerves…Mary took paregoric, a popular drug sold in pharmacies in the nineteenth century… Little was then known about the drug’s side effects. For Mary Lincoln the side effects were depression, mood swings, and hallucinations and believed she could communicate with her dead sons.”
Deaths in the family and Mary’s well documented mental and emotional instability combined with a very troubled and tragic family life to form what most saw in Mary Lincoln as a difficult woman. But did she deserve this? I’ve always believed that Mary Lincoln got a bad rap and an undeserved reputation as a drug addict by revisionist historians. To this day, Mary gets no respect. Who among you hasn’t heard the joke, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” Drug addiction rumors notwithstanding, Mary Lincoln might just be the saddest woman this country has ever known.

Abe Lincoln, Medicine, Pop Culture

Abraham Lincoln-Cocaine Addict?

abraham-lincoln unruly hairOriginal publish date:      January 10, 2011


In the fall of 1860, just one month before becoming president, Abraham Lincoln walked into the Corneau & Diller drug store in Springfield, Illinois and purchased Cocaine. The statement is a fact that cannot be denied but asking a Lincoln buff for clarification is akin to asking, “So, do you still beat your spouse?” The quickest response is undesirable and its natural opposite reply is even worse.
Author Harry E. Pratt discovered this startling Lincoln trivia while researching his book, “The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln” around 1943. Pratt traveled to the Lincoln library in Springfield and studied the original Corneau & Diller’s handwritten order books. The author was astonished to find that on October 12, 1860 an order was filled for Lincoln in the amount of 50 cents for Cocaine.
Really? Abraham Lincoln bought Cocaine? That seems so…modern. Was Cocaine even around back then? Well the answer is yes, Cocaine was first synthesized in pure form by German chemist Albert Niemann. In 1859, he extracted pure cocaine powder from the leaves of the coca plant. Soon after it was isolated, cocaine was promoted as a cure for almost every illness and malady known to man. It wasn’t long after the isolation of pure cocaine until people became aware of the addictive potential of the drug. As for chemist Niemann, not much is known of him except that he died of undisclosed causes at the age of 27 on January 19, 1861, less than a year after he announced his discovery. Judging by the evidence, Abe Lincoln was one of the first Americans to use the new drug.
Today, Presidential revelations of that nature could wreck a political career and are usually only found in the pages of an Oliver Stone film script. But in the 19th Century, cocaine was legal. In 1885 the U.S. manufacturer Parke-Davis (a subsidiary of today’s Pfizer pharmaceutical company ) sold cocaine in various forms, including cigarettes, powder, and even a cocaine mixture that could be injected directly into the user’s veins with the included needle. The company promised that its cocaine products would “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.” Cocaine was the active ingredient in products like Cocaine Tooth Drops, “Forced March Pills” and Coca-Cola.
Drugstores back then offered a cornucopia of now illegal or controlled substances. In just one three month sampling of the Corneau and Diller’s ledger lists Lincoln’s Springfield neighbors buying morphine, laudanum, chloroform, quinine, opium pills, mercury, and belladonna (from the deadly nightshade plant).
Would be pundits note that the purchase took place in October 1860, less than a month before the presidential election. Lincoln was surely exhausted with the rigors of the campaign, the challenges of his busy law practice and demands of keeping up with his mischievous boys, he probably needed a boost, right? Not to mention, Lincoln was well known for his battles with depression. Lincoln himself said, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.” Historians argue that Lincoln’s chronic funks gave him the tools he needed to be an effective chief executive during a difficult era.
Still other historians theorize that Lincoln contracted mercury poisoning from taking too many “blue mass pills,” which contained the toxic metal. Blue mass pills were often prescribed in those days for melancholy and other maladies, and Lincoln is widely known to have taken them in the 1850s. Since Lincoln took mercury pills to ease his blues, is it not a far stretch to think he used cocaine too? The Lincoln cocaine connection has been addressed by no less authorities than the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the National Park Service, which oversees the Lincoln Home.
Simmer down before your head starts spinning, a closer examination of the pharmacy ledger has sniffed out the real dope. The real truth is hidden in plain sight on the brittle pages of the drugstore’s original ledgers, kept painstakingly wrapped and stored under lock and key at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. There, in the intricate flowing handwriting that seems lost to today’s generation, the ledger reveals several purchases (on credit) to the family of “Abraham Lincoln” on Oct. 12, 1860, including one for “cocoaine.”
burnetts150_medIs this a clerical error, a simple misspelling? After all, the word “cigars” is spelled as “segars” in the same ledger. 20th century logic assumes that researchers viewed the ledger term “cocoaine” as a misnomer for cocaine. 20th century logic would be wrong.
It took an Antique bottle collector, whose name is sadly lost to the pages of history forever, to unravel the mystery. Several years ago this unnamed antiquer and Lincoln collector found a bottle embossed on the sides with the name “Burnett’s Cocoaine”. This collector asked the dealer what was that bottle for? The dealer glibly replied that all he knew about was that it made your hair “very happy”. Antique dealers are known for their eccentricity and our intrepid subject purchased the bottle thinking that it might have contained cocaine.
Upon further research it was learned that, despite the intriguing name, the strangest ingredient of “Burnett’s Cocaine” turned out to be cocoa oil. It was made by Joseph Burnett in Boston from the oil of cocoanuts (an alternative spelling of coconuts), hence its drug-like name. The Jan. 23, 1862, Chicago Daily Tribune advertised Burnett’s could also be used for chapped hands and Burnett’s hair tonic quickly became popular nationwide. “I have used the contents of one bottle, and my bald pate is covered all over with young hair, about three-eighths of an inch long, which appears strong and healthy, and determined to grow,” said a customer testimonial in a Nov. 21, 1863, Harper’s Weekly ad.
The antique hair tonic bottle went up on the bathroom shelf where it lay undisturbed until its owner found a copy of a book about Lincoln that claimed he had purchased Cocaine at his local drugstore. The bottle’s owner contacted the Lincoln museum in Springfield and suggested a closer look at the pharmacy ledgers and author Harry Pratt’s mistake was discovered. So contrary to previously published reports, Lincoln was not seeking a boost for his psyche, he was seeking a boost for his unruly hairline. Simply stated, “Cocoaine” was a remedy for dandruff and baldness in Lincoln’s day. It seems that instead of a closeted drug user, Honest Abe had a vain streak we didn’t know about.
a06442241c2bd19ff8365219ee74ab33However, did Lincoln’s family drugstore sell the product at the time of Lincoln’s purchase? Well, the October 11, 1860 front-page of the Springfield “Illinois State Register” newspaper carried an ad from the drugstore read, “Cocoaine-Burnett’s, for the hair At Corneau & Diller.” This ad appeared one day before Lincoln’s purchase. The hair tonic must have been a good seller, because another Springfield store also advertised it.
So, rest easy ye Lincolnites, your hero’s halo remains untarnished for all evidence shows that Abraham Lincoln didn’t buy cocaine; he bought hair tonic. After all, friends, family, historians and even Lincoln himself often commented on his unruly hair. Contrary to our 20th century conspiracy minded authors and armchair historians, our rail-splitter president wasn’t a drug addict, he just wanted to look good for the public.
As a footnote, apparently the Cocoaine didn’t work and Lincoln decided to go in a different direction. Four days after his purchase, on Oct. 15, 1860, Lincoln received a letter from an 11-year-old girl from Westfield, New Jersey names Grace Bedell telling Lincoln, in part, “if you let your whiskers grow…you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.” The photographic evidence shows that indeed, over the next 4 years, Lincoln’s “whiskers” did grow but his his hair remained unruly.

Next week, Part II of the Lincoln family drug myth.

Creepy history, Medicine

The last of the Radium Girls.

Radium girls             Original publish date:  January 2, 2015

2014 has come and gone and along with it, the passing of many notables whose time on this earth has run out. Lost among them is a woman you may have never heard of. Mae Keane died this year. She was the last of the radium girls.
On December 21, 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the radioactive element radium after extracting it from uraninite. Five years after that, they won a Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery, making her the first woman to win one. She went on to win a second Nobel Prize in 1911; this time in chemistry, for isolating radium, making her the first person to win two.
Radium was soon all the rage: bottled radium water was used as a health tonic, radium filled facial creams were used to “rejuvenate the skin”; the Radium Institute in New York City was giving radium injections to all who could pay for them; some toothpastes started to include Radium; high-end spas began adding radium to the water of their pools and some hospitals were using radium as a treatment for those who had cancer after it was observed that exposing tumors to radium salts would shrink them. Although the latter sounds admirably feasible, the former should sound shocking when you consider that radium is highly radioactive.
Additionally, it was found that when radium salts were mixed with zinc sulfide and a glue agent, the result was a glow-in-the-dark paint. During World War I the advent of trench warfare necessitated the invention of many things. Trenches were dark, damp and dirty. A single match lit by a soldier hunkered down in a pitch dark trench might be the spark to draw enough enemy fire to wipe out an entire company of soldiers. Time dragged on endlessly; when you couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face, you had no hope of seeing the hands of a clock face.
Not only were soldiers crawling and wading around in the mud unable to see their watch dials at night, their pocket watches weren’t suitable for this environment. Soon, watchmakers created men’s watches with straps designed to be worn on a wrist rather than placed in a pocket. Before the great war, wrist watches were primarily worn only by women, with men favoring pocket watches. By November of 1915, British soldiers were putting dots of radium paint next to the hour numerals to make them visible at night. The dimness of the glow was beneficial as they could tell the time without giving away their position.
Of course, at this time, the dangers of radioactivity were not fully understood. Enter Mary “Mae” O’Donnell Keane and the radium girls. In the early 1920s, the hot new gadget was a wristwatch with a glow-in-the-dark dial. Their ads extolled “the magic of radium!” And according to some, radium was magic. Salesmen promised that it could extend your life, pump up your sex drive and make women more beautiful. Doctors used it to treat everything from colds to cancer. In the Roaring Twenties, women earned the right to vote, got the urge to smoke and marched to work in factories alongside their male counterparts.
Young women ranging in age from the mid teens to the early 20’s were employed to apply the paint to clock dials and watch faces. The job was promoted as ideally suited for delicate female hands. The work was easy, the wages high and most dial painters were typically single and living with their parents. Over the first 10 years about 4000 women were employed at 3 locations: Orange, NJ, Waterbury, CT and Ottawa, IL.
The first dial painters came from the china painting industry. These seasoned workers used a technique called lip-pointing which involved wetting their camel hair paintbrushes between the lips to bring it to a sharper point. The practice was passed on to the radium painting industry whose products required fine brush work. In 1924, 18-year-old Mae Keane was hired at the U.S. Radium Corporation factory in Waterbury Connecticut. The pay was $18 a week for a 40-hour work week, and 8 cents a dial. A pretty good salary for a woman back then.
Twelve numbers per watch, 200 watches per day-and with every glowing digit, the radium girls swallowed a little bit more poison. Mae said that on her very first day, she decided that she didn’t like the taste of the gritty radium paint. “I wouldn’t put the brush in my mouth,” she recalled years later. During breaks and at lunchtime, it was a popular pastime of the radium girls to paint comic faces on each other, then turn out the lights for a laugh. “The girls sneaked the radium out of the factory to paint their toe nails and teeth to make them glow,” Keane said.
Mae couldn’t remember what led her to work at the watch & clock factory but did remember that she disliked the work more than she liked the paycheck. Luckily, she was not as fast as her supervisor wanted her to be. “I made 62 cents one day,” Keane once said, which translates to a high of 8 watches in a day. “That’s when my boss came to me and said I better find another job.” That poor performance probably saved her life. She worked in the dial painting room for eight to nine weeks, then transferred to another job at the company. “I often wish I had met him after to thank him,” Keane said, “because I would have been like the rest of them.”
The dial painters would become some of the earliest victims of radioactive poisoning. By the late-1920s, they were falling ill by the dozens, afflicted with horrific diseases. The radium they had swallowed was now slowly eating their bones away from the inside out. “We were young,” Mae told The Hartford Courant in 2004. “We didn’t know anything about the paint. I don’t think the bosses even knew it was poison. The foreman would tell us it was very expensive, and to be careful. We had no idea. But when they did find out, they hid it.”
Reports of maladies afflicting the radium girls began to bubble up to the surface. Dial painters began to suffer from a variety of illnesses, often crippling and frequently fatal as a result of ingesting radium paint. One account describes a woman (Frances Splettstocher) visiting her dentist to have a tooth pulled only to have her entire jaw yanked out in the process. Soon, her gums and cheek rotted away, ultimately resulting in a hole in her cheek. Her health continued to deteriorate and she was dead within the month.
Other radium girls had their legs snap underneath them and more still had their spines collapse. Dozens of women died, many while still in their 20s. Ingested radium is known to deposit permanently in bone structures damaging bone marrow. In all, by 1927, more than 50 women had died as a result of radium paint poisoning. Many of them developed cancerous tumors, honeycombed and fragile bones, and suffered painful amputations. At a factory in New Jersey, 5 of the women sued the U.S. Radium Corporation for poisoning. The trial would have a profound impact on workplace regulations.
Ironically, many in these factory towns blamed the women for the loss of jobs during the Great Depression. Furthermore, it would be discovered that U.S. Radium had paid off doctors and dentists to claim the girls were suffering from the sexually transmitted disease syphilis (often having this listed as the cause of death when the girls died), with the hope that it would not only shield the corporation from litigation, but also sully the girls’ reputations.
At every turn U.S. Radium sought to delay the trial as much as possible with the hope that all the women in the case would die before an outcome could be reached (in fact all five of the original radium girls were dead by the mid-1930s). With the company asking for delay after delay, the trial crawled along at a painful pace. Marie Curie herself chimed in on the issue, but had little comfort to give the radium girls by stating, “I would be only too happy to give any aid that I could, [but] there is absolutely no means of destroying the substance once it enters the human body.” Curie herself would die on July 4th, 1934 from leukemia; likely caused by her long term exposure to radium.
By the time the girls finally got a chance to testify in January of 1928, none of them were able to raise their arms to take the oath, and two were bedridden. After their testimonies, the case was once again postponed for a few months for no good reason. The case was settled in the fall of 1928, before it could be deliberated by the jury, and the settlement for each of the radium girls was $10,000 ($135,000 in 2014 dollars) and a $600 per year annuity while they lived, and all medical and legal expenses would also be paid by the company. Many of the victims would ultimately end up using the money to pay for their own funerals. The lawsuit and resulting publicity was a factor in the establishment of occupational disease labor law. Most importantly, the trial proved that the injuries suffered by the radium girls were completely preventable.
As part of the settlement, the girls agreed not to hold U.S. Radium liable for their health problems. So what was U.S. Radium’s official position in the aftermath? They stated they didn’t settle because they were wrong, but rather because the public was biased against them and they couldn’t have received a fair trial. U.S. Radium’s president, Clarence Lee, stated: “We unfortunately gave work to a great many people who were physically unfit to procure employment in other lines of industry. Cripples and persons similarly incapacitated were engaged. What was then considered an act of kindness on our part has since been turned against us.”
But these radium town’s plight didn’t end when the case was settled in court. The chemical element found its way into the soil and groundwater, contaminating residential and commercial properties around the towns. The dangers of radium no longer was isolated to those who worked in the radium dial plant, it now threatened the populace. The factory sites became EPA Superfund cleanup sites in the 1980s. The plight of the radium girls was now known to, and shared by, everyone.
But Mae Keane was a proud survivor. Over the years, she had some health problems: she developed numerous skin ailments and eye problems, suffered from migraines and had two bouts with cancer. “The doctor wanted to give me chemotherapy,” Keane said. “I told him ‘no.'” Keane lost all of her teeth in her 30s and suffered pain in her gums until the day she died. “I was left with different things, but I lived through them. You just don’t know what to blame,” she said. The only prescription medication she ever took was to control her blood pressure. Despite her ailments, Mae admitted, “I was one of the fortunate ones.”
Keane, a Red Sox fan, was once asked about her secret to longevity. “I’m lazy,” Keane said, adding she never smoked, loved to walk and dance, and enjoyed caramel candy, chocolate and an occasional apricot sour or Bailey’s Irish Cream. “I didn’t get old until I was 98,” she once said.” She was 107 when she died on March 1 in Middlebury, CT.; the last living participant in one of the darkest moments in American industrial history.