CLOSE
Original image
wikimedia commons (harrison) / istock (cemetery)

The Body-Snatching Horror of John Scott Harrison

Original image
wikimedia commons (harrison) / istock (cemetery)

John Scott Harrison, onetime Ohio congressman and gentleman farmer, is the only person who was both the son and father of U.S. Presidents: father William Henry was the ninth, while son Benjamin was the 23rd. He also bears the more ignominious distinction of having his body stolen from its grave and sold to a medical school for dissection, igniting a national scandal.

After dying in his sleep the night of May 25, 1878, Harrison's mortal remains were put to rest in North Bend, Ohio on May 29. During his burial, attendees noticed that the grave of Augustus Devin, who had died 11 days earlier of tuberculosis, had been robbed. Horrified and concerned, Benjamin and his brothers John and Carter saw to it that their father's grave—already brick vaulted—was reinforced with three large stone slabs over the casket and covered with cement. After the cement had dried, the grave was filled and the Harrisons paid a watchman $30 to guard the grave for 30 nights.

The next day, John and his cousin George Eaton, armed with a search warrant and backed up by three Cincinnati policemen, began looking for Augustus at the Medical College of Ohio. Medical schools were prime suspects in grave robbing cases back then, as they were notorious for stocking their anatomy classes with "materiel" sold by resurrection men. That morning's edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that at 3:00 a.m., a buggy drove into the alley between Vine and Race Streets next to the Medical College, from which "something white was taken out and disappeared" before it "left rapidly."

"The general impression," stated the Enquirer, "was that a 'stiff' was being smuggled into the Ohio Medical College."

The party was met by janitor A.Q. (sometimes J.Q.) Marshall, who escorted them as they searched the building. In the cellar they found a chute connected to a door in the alley, which also connected to a vertical shaft running the height of the building. Elsewhere they encountered boxes of assorted body parts, a student "chipping away" at the breast and head of a black woman, and the body of a 6-month-old baby, but no Augustus Devin. Finally, Marshall insisted that he needed to alert the faculty, so Detective Snelbaker let him go—but put a deputy on his tail. Marshall unwittingly led them to an upstairs room with a windlass and rope running into a square hole in the floor. That hole opened into the shaft they had seen in the cellar; the windlass, it seemed, was used to lift cadavers to the upper stories.

Snelbaker noticed that the rope was taut. He turned the windlass crank and slowly pulled up the naked body of a man whose head was covered by a cloth. John dismissed it at first. The body was that of a relatively robust old man, not the emaciated 23-year-old consumptive they were looking for. Snelbaker suggested that he check nonetheless, so Harrison lifted the cloth.

The blood drained from John's face. "It's Father," he gasped. John Scott Harrison, whose burial his sons had attended less than 24 hours before, had been dumped down the chute at 3:00 a.m.—not Augustus Devin. (Devin's body was later discovered in the pickling vats of the University of Michigan.)

Relatives visiting the Harrison grave also discovered the robbery. The stones at the foot of the coffin were displaced, the casket was drilled into, and the lid had been pried up so the body could be roped by the feet and pulled out. The thieves must have witnessed the measures taken at Harrison's burial, or they would have gone for the head and been foiled by the much larger and heavier slab covering that end. The watchman had no explanation.

George Eaton's brother, Archie, and Carter Harrison went to Cincinnati to tell their families of the outrage. Carter told John that their father's body had been snatched; John told Carter that he already knew, because he had found it. They had the janitor arrested for receiving and concealing the unlawfully removed body of their revered father, but his sojourn behind bars would be brief because the college faculty posted the $5000 bond.

The Medical College was excoriated in the press, but the faculty was boldly unrepentant. Oh sure, they were sorry so august an individual had found his way into their dissection rooms, instead of the usual paupers, but that, they insisted, was the cost of competent doctoring. On Saturday, June 1, Dr. Robert Bartholow, Dean of the College (who four years earlier had killed a patient named Mary Rafferty by inserting electrodes deep into her brain for an experiment), published a statement in the Cincinnati Times denying knowledge of the theft or responsibility for an anonymous resurrectionist taking "this means to replenish his exchequer." That afternoon, Benjamin Harrison published his anguished and furious rebuttal in an open letter.

Your janitor denied that it laid upon your tables, but the clean incision into the carotid artery, the thread with which it was ligatured, the injected veins, prove him a liar. Who made that incision and injected that body, gentlemen of the Faculty? The surgeons who examined his work say that he was no bungler. While he lay upon your table, the long white beard, which the hands of infant grandchildren had often stroked in love, was rudely shorn from his face. Have you so little care of your college that an unseen and an unknown man may do all this? Who took him from that table and hung him by the neck in the pit?

With neither answers nor indictments against the faculty forthcoming, Benjamin Harrison filed a civil suit. The outcomes of the criminal and civil cases are lost, as all records were destroyed when the Hamilton County Court House burned down in 1884.

In reaction to the Harrison Horror, however, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan passed amended Anatomy Acts that increased the penalties for grave-robbing and allowed medical schools to use unclaimed bodies of people who died in the care of the state (paupers, orphans, the insane, prisoners) for anatomical dissection. But enforcement was lax, and with demand still outstripping supply, resurrectionists would ply their lucrative trade in the United States well into the 20th century.

Original image
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images
arrow
politics
The Secret Procedure for the Queen's Death
Original image
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images

The queen's private secretary will start an urgent phone tree. Parliament will call an emergency session. Commercial radio stations will watch special blue lights flash, then switch to pre-prepared playlists of somber music. As a new video from Half As Interesting relates, the British media and government have been preparing for decades for the death of Queen Elizabeth II—a procedure codenamed "London Bridge is Down."

There's plenty at stake when a British monarch dies. And as the Guardian explains, royal deaths haven't always gone smoothly. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the blue "obit lights" installed at commercial radio stations didn’t come on because someone failed to depress the button fully. That's why it's worth it to practice: As Half as Interesting notes, experts have already signed contracts agreeing to be interviewed upon the queen's death, and several stations have done run-throughs substituting "Mrs. Robinson" for the queen's name.

You can learn more about "London Bridge is Down" by watching the video below—or read the Guardian piece for even more detail, including the plans for her funeral and burial. ("There may be corgis," they note.)

Original image
Nicole Garner
arrow
History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
Original image
Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios