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The Body-Snatching Horror of John Scott Harrison

wikimedia commons (harrison) / istock (cemetery)
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.

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History
The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

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Big Questions
Do Media Outlets Write Obituaries for Old or Ill Celebrities in Advance?
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Archie D'Cruz:

Oh, absolutely, and not for just the old and ill, but also for the very famous. (You can bet, for example, that pieces would have been penned on Barack Obama as soon as he was first elected president).

They are known as advance obituaries, and while not all major news organizations do it, many of the largest certainly do. Of the ones that I know of, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, CNN, and leading news agencies Reuters, AP, and AFP all maintain obits, which are updated on a regular basis.

Obit writers at The New York Times, which is known to have at least 1700 of these posts on file, will sometimes even contact the subject of their grim pieces for interviews, with the request posed as “We’re updating your biographical file” or “This is for possible future use.”

With someone like Stephen Hawking, the web tribute with images and video would very likely have been prepared in advance as well. Television networks like the BBC also pre-prepare video packages that can be aired soon after a celebrity death.

This practice of creating advance obituaries can (and often does) lead to more than just embarrassment.

The most famous recent one that I can recall was that of Apple founder Steve Jobs, declared dead by Bloomberg in 2008—three years before his actual passing. Bloomberg was updating its advance obit but wound up publishing it by mistake, sending shockwaves through Wall Street.

Its retraction was even more cringe-worthy, refusing to even name Jobs and simply saying, “An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News ... the item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.”

Several other well-known people have befallen the same fate—among them George H. W. Bush (who Der Spiegel described in its 2013 obit as a “colorless politician whose image only improved when it was compared to the later presidency of his son, George W. Bush”), and several world figures including Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, and Fidel Castro whose obits were wrongly published on CNN’s development site in 2003.

A (mistaken) CNN obituary for Gerald Ford

Sometimes, though, a too-hastily published obit can turn out to have a silver lining.

In 1888, several newspapers announced Alfred Nobel’s passing, in a mix-up related to his brother Ludwig’s death. A French newspaper, in its obit on the Swedish arms manufacturer, thundered “The merchant of death is dead,” adding that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before (through his invention of dynamite).”

On reading that report, Nobel is said to have become distressed about how the world would remember him. It led to him bequeathing the bulk of his estate to form the Nobel Prize in 1895. He died a year later.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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