The Body-Snatching Horror of John Scott Harrison

iStock.com/MarcBruxelle
iStock.com/MarcBruxelle

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.

25 Inspiring Theodore Roosevelt Quotes

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Born in New York City in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt grew up to become an influential politician and conservationist. He was also one of the most quotable figures in our nation’s history. The 26th president was known for his rousing speeches, informative books, and witty letters—most of which are still available for the public to appreciate today. Read on for some of the quotes that contributed to Theodore Roosevelt's reputation as a great writer and speaker—and make sure to subscribe to Mental Floss's new podcast, History Vs., which is all about TR, here.

1. On Hardship

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

—From the speech “The Strenuous Life,” given in 1899

2. On Power

“Power invariably means both responsibility and danger.”

—From his inaugural address given in 1905

3. On Conservation

“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight; we have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!”

—From the speech “Conservation as a National Duty,” given in 1908

4. On His Life’s Motto

“I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’”

—From a letter written to Henry L. Sprague in 1900

5. On Woodrow Wilson

“Instead of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, President Wilson spoke bombastically and carried a dish rag.”

—From an address given in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1916

6. On Democracy

“Democracy to be successful, must mean self-knowledge, and above all, self-mastery.”

—From an address to the Union League Club in Chicago in 1911

7. On Progress

“I don’t for a moment believe that we can turn back the wheels of progress.”

—From his 1911 address to the Union League Club

8. On Yosemite

“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

—From Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, 1905

9. On His Fighting Style

“Don't hit a man at all if you can avoid it, but if you have to hit him, knock him out.”

—From a speech given in Cleveland in 1916

10. On Success

“There are many qualities which we need in order to gain success, but the three above all—for the lack of which no brilliancy and no genius can atone—are Courage, Honesty and Common Sense.”

—From the pamphlet "The Key to Success in Life," 1916

11. On Perseverance

“Sometimes in life, both at school and afterwards, fortune will go against anyone, but if he just keeps pegging away and don’t lose his courage things always take a turn for the better in the end.”

—From a letter to his son Kermit Roosevelt written in 1904

12. On Life and Football

“In life as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard.”

—From “The Strenuous Life

13. On Takeaways from George Washington's Career

“Washington's career shows that we need to keep our faces steadily toward the sun. You can change the simile, to keep our eyes to the stars, but remember that our feet have got to be on the ground.”

—From a 1911 speech at the Union League Club in Chicago

14. On Brains vs. Brawn

“Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character.”

—From “The Strenuous Life

15. On Wilderness

“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.”

—From Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter

16. On What Makes a Great Democracy

“A great democracy has got to be progressive, or it will soon cease to be either great or a democracy.”

—From a speech given to the Colorado Legislature in 1910

17. On Passion

“Remember always that the man who does a thing so that it is worth doing is always a man who does his work for the work’s sake […] A scientific man, a writer, a historian, an artist, can only be a good man of science, a first-class artist, a first-class writer, if he does his work for the sake of doing it well.”

—From an address given at Columbia University in 1902

18. On Wisdom

“Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time!”

—From a speech about military preparedness given in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1917

19. On Equality

“This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in if it is not a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”

—From the speech "What a Progressive Is," given in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1912

20. On Failure

"Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

—From “The Strenuous Life

21. On Criticizing the President

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

—From an editorial written in 1918

22. On Being in the Arena

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

—From the speech “Citizenship in a Republic," a.k.a. "The Man in the Arena” given in 1910

23. On Death

“Death is always and under all circumstances a tragedy, for if it is not, then it means that life itself has become one.”

—From a letter to Cecil Spring-Rice from 1900

24. On William McKinley’s Assassination

“It is a dreadful thing to come into the presidency in this way; but it would be far worse to be morbid about it. Here is the task, and I have got to do it to the best of my ability.”

—Likely from 1901, the year of McKinley's assassination

25. On Prejudice

“There are good men and bad men of all nationalities, creeds and colors; and if this world of ours is ever to become what we hope some day it may become, it must be by the general recognition that the man's heart and soul, the man's worth and actions, determine his standing.”

—From a letter written in 1903

Further Reading: Books About (And By) Theodore Roosevelt

Alexander Lambert // Library of Congress
Alexander Lambert // Library of Congress

If you're enjoying what you're learning on History Vs. Theodore Roosevelt, we suggest checking out these books about—and a few of them by—our 26th president. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast here!

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The first book in Morris’s trilogy covers TR’s years from birth to the vice presidency.

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

The second book in Morris’s trilogy covers TR’s seven years in the White House.

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The final book in the trilogy focuses on Roosevelt’s post-presidential years.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton

A fascinating one-volume biography of Roosevelt.

The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family by William J. Mann

In addition to covering the big three Roosevelts—TR, FDR, and Eleanor—this must-read book features the Roosevelt siblings and cousins, revealing secrets and feuds within this famous family.

Theodore Roosevelt's Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon by Michael Cullinane

An analysis of Roosevelt’s legacy.

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley

A look at TR’s life from a naturalist perspective.

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks

A look at TR’s time as police commissioner of New York.

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy by Dan Abrams and David Fisher

This book covers when Roosevelt was accused of libel, and took the stand in his own defense.

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis

An account of the lives of Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, and their relationship—including their dinner, which made history.

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West by Roger L. Di Silvestro

Di Silvestro’s book covers TR’s time as a rancher in the Dakotas, where he retreated after the deaths of his wife and mother and a rough end to his career as an assemblyman.

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough

This National Book Award–winning biography takes on TR’s early years.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

An account of Roosevelt’s journey down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon—during which he almost died.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

A look at the relationship between Roosevelt and his successor, Taft, a one-time friend who became an enemy.

A Passion to Lead: Theodore Roosevelt in His Own Words by Edited by Laura Ross

Selections from Roosevelt’s writings accompanied by gorgeous photographs.

Hunting Trips of a Ranchman by Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt on hunting.

Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt on his time as a rancher in the Dakotas.

Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt

This book, published in 1913, is Roosevelt's life in his own words.

Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches

This book features four famous speeches and more than 350 letters written by TR to family, friends, and diplomats between 1881 and 1919.

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