The Body-Snatching Horror of John Scott Harrison
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.