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Dr. HH HolmesHOLMES AND THE RESURRECTIONISTS


    "[Holmes] and another student became friendly and at his suggestion, his friend had his life insured for $12,000. They obtained a body, arranged it to be identified as that of the man insured and were paid the life insurance money.1"

    "The limits of this book will not allow me to write the many quaint and some ghastly experiences of our medical education were I otherwise disposed to do so. Suffice it to say, that they stopped far short of desecration of country graveyards, as has been repeatedly charged, as it is a well-known fact that in the State of Michigan all the material necessary for dissection work is legitimately supplied by the State." Holmes' Own Story2.


The Resurrectionists
Grave Robbing


Holmes and the Resurrectionists

    In trying to dismiss the accusation that he robbed graves while in medical school, Holmes told a half-truth. In the years preceding his medical education, the State of Michigan had passed statutes to crack down on bodysnatchers or, as they were then called, resurrectionists. These laws were set in place primarily due to decades of scandals surrounding the faculty and students at the University of Michigan Medical School.

    As a senior in 1849, Edmund Andrews served as the class president at the University of Michigan. The next year, he entered the medical school as part of its inaugural class. The head of the Anatomy Department, Dr. Moses Gunn, assigned him the position of demonstrator. He wrote:

    "In those days the duties of a Demonstrator were, first and most important, to obtain cadavers for the dissecting room, and then, if he had any time left, to give instruction on the same. ... In addition to the potters' fields, the best places to obtain cadavers were remote churchyards where recent burials could be found3."

    In one instance, anatomy professor, Robert C. Kedzie recounted a botched raid taking place in a graveyard too near the school. "A mob gathered in the evening with the avowed purpose of burning the medical building." The medical school was saved by "a guard of one hundred armed medics4."

    In the first year of the medical school, the need for corpses ran at thirteen5. By 1861, that number totaled forty-five6. After the Civil War, the University of Michigan Medical School swelled to become the largest in the country7 with over five hundred students and in need of over one hundred twenty five cadavers per year8.

    Even when few corpses were needed, the institution resorted to grave-robbing. Now, as the call for fresh cadavers became overwhelming, the crimes became wholesale and the scandals frequent. In 1867, after a fight with the school regents, Dr. Gunn left for a job at the Rush School of Medicine in Chicago. He took with him 41 corpses, whisked off in the dead of night. The regents at first complained, but then acquiesced under his threats of a scandal: he knew where the bodies weren't buried9.

    That same year, Michigan passed a law to make sure "that unclaimed bodies from state hospitals and prisons be provided to medical schools10." This statute was toothless and ineffectual. It was modified in 1875 to include penalties11.

    Still the bodysnatching continued. In 1879 two graverobbers were caught in Rochester, Michigan while transporting cadavers through town. The headline read in the Detroit Free Press Read: "Two Resurrectionists Arrested at Rochester With Three Dead Bodies Stolen At Oxford Thursday Night12."

    In the late 1870s an incident took place that turned the tide against the resurrectionists. On May 29, 1878, John Scott Harrison, ex-US Senator, son of former President William Henry Harrison and father of future president Benjamin Harrison, was buried in North Bend, Ohio. Several days later, by accident, one of the Senator's sons encountered his corpse on a dissecting table at the Medical College of Ohio. Benjamin arrived and embarked on a righteous campaign13.

    In 1881 a new Michigan law required those indigents who would otherwise be buried at state expense, to be sent to the Ann Arbor medical school14. Was this sufficient to put an end to the practice? According to one report, as late as 1910, a corpse bound for the University of Michigan was found smuggled in a pickle barrel15.  The last major scandal in grave robbing occurred in 1902 in Irvington, Indiana, the city where Holmes killed Howard Pitezel. Rufus Cantrell, the self-proclaimed "King of the Ghouls," confessed to robbing hundreds of graves and killing to provide bodies for the medical schools16. He was arrested together with his gang and a half-dozen physicians.

Dr. Moses Gunn
Dr. Moses Gunn

Dr. Gunn's legacy

    In 1867 this item appeared in Ann Arbor's Peninsular Courier. "Two colored men were caught in Chicago on the night of the 15th with a wagon in which were five dead bodies, which they had taken from the cemetery. They claim to have been employed by the authority of Rush Medical College16."

    Dr. Moses Gunn continued teaching at the Rush Medical School until 1887, the year of his death18. Gunn's stay there overlapped with the arrival in Chicago of Dr. Holmes.

    In a story laced with fanciful breathtaking perils, Holmes recounted procuring a corpse from "---- college" which he described as near the Chicago Polk Street Train Station. This would be Rush. After the proper corpse arrived on May 20th, 1887, "I learned that a certain expressman in the neighborhood could be employed for the purpose I desired, as he had on former occasions been hired for "outside work" by some of the men in the institution. I called at this man's address, and after seeing him I stated my business. "How much will you charge me for taking a body from ---- college to Polk Street Station?" I asked. "Five dollars."19" Other aspects of Holmes' tale make it suspect including fighting off Secret Service agents and escaping a train wreck.

Ruth Sprague tombstone

The gravestone of Ruth Sprague, Maple Grove Cemetery, Hoosick Falls, NY. The inscription reads:

Ruth Sprague, daughter of Gibson And Elizabeth Sprague, died Jan. 11, 1846, aged 9yrs., 4 Mos., and 18 days.
She was Stolen from the grave by Roderick R. Crow & dissected At Dr. P.M. Armstrong's office In Hoosick, N.Y. from which place her mutilated remains were Obtained & deposited here.

    Her body dissected by fiendish Men
    Her bones anatomised,
    Her soul we trust has risen to God
    Where few Physicians rise.

Holmes' grave

    Shortly before his execution, Dr. Holmes converted to Catholicism. In the nineteenth century, many acts, even divorce, could exclude a Catholic from a church burial. Oddly, he was buried on consecrated ground in the Holy Cross Cemetery, south of Philadelphia. (Holmes did not count divorce among his sins.) Fr. Henry McPake presiding over the service. To ensure no one would dig up his grave, he had his coffin filled with cement and set beneath a one ton block of cement. "The remains of Holmes were pronounced safe from grave robbers for all time20." His grave is unmarked.

    Seventeen months after Holmes' death, the thirty year-old Father McPake died under mysterious circumstances21.

References and Notes.

1. Wichita Daily Eagle, July 31, 1895.

2. Holmes' Own Story. In which the Alleged Multi Murderer and Arch Conspirator Tells of The Twenty-two Tragic Deaths and Disappearances In which He is Said to be Implicated. Philadelphia. Burk & McFetridge Co. 1895.

3. Edmund Andrews and the Body Snatchers. Grave Images, Michigan Today, Fall 1999.
 http://michigantoday.umich.edu/99/Fal99/mt1f99c.html
Accessed August 3rd, 2013

4. Kedzie anecdote. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. "In the academic year 1861-62, a bill for bodies cropped up in the Regents' budget–the only time that was allowed to happen; the cost of "procuring 45 anatomical subjects–$1,367.46," or $30 a body." Ibid.

7. Human Dissection: Its Drama and Struggle. p. 244. A.M. Lassek, M.D., Ph.D. Co. 1958, by Charles C Thomas, Publisher
http://archive.org/stream/humandissectioni00lassrich/humandissectioni00lassrich_djvu.txt
Accessed August 3rd, 2013
 
8. The Resurrectionists. James Tobin. Medicine at Michigan Magazine, Fall Issue, 2008. http://www.medicineatmichigan.org/magazine/2008/fall/lookingback/
Accessed August 3rd, 2013

9. Grave Images, Michigan Today, Fall 1999.
 http://michigantoday.umich.edu/99/Fal99/mt1f99c.html
Accessed August 3rd, 2013

10. Finding Aid for Anatomical Donations Program, University of Michigan. Brian A. Williams, 1994
http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhlead/umich-bhl-950?rgn=me
ain;view=txt
Accessed August 3rd, 2013

11. Ibid.

12. Detroit Free Press, December 13, 1879. As presented in Remembering Rochester, Grave Robbery. Posted July 10, 2010. Accessed August 3, 2013.
http://rochesteravonhistory.blogspot.com/2010/07/grave-robbery.html

13. Human Dissection: Its Drama and Struggle. p. 239. A.M. Lassek, M.D., Ph.D. Co. 1958, by Charles C Thomas, Publisher
http://archive.org/stream/humandissectioni00lassrich/humandissectioni00lassrich_djvu.txt
Accessed August 3rd, 2013

14. Grave Images, Michigan Today, Fall 1999.
 http://michigantoday.umich.edu/99/Fal99/mt1f99c.html
Accessed August 3rd, 2013

15. Ibid.

16. Graveyards I Have Robbed by Rufus Cantrell, "King of the Ghouls." August 3, 1903, Milwaukee Journal. 

17. Grave Images, Michigan Today, Fall 1999.
 http://michigantoday.umich.edu/99/Fal99/mt1f99b.html
Accessed August 3rd, 2013

18. ibid

19. Holmes' Own Story In which the Alleged Multi Murderer and Arch Conspirator Tells of The Twenty-Two Tragic Deaths and Disappearances In which He is Said to be Implicated. Philadelp
hia . Burk & McFetridge Co. 1895.

20. Holmes in a Ton of Cement; The Murderer's Body Buried. New York Times, May 9, 1896. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FA0D17F7395A16738DDDA00894DD405B8685F0D3
Accessed August 4th, 2013.

21. MacPake in the above New York Times article, McPake most everywhere else. Large Rewards Freely Offered Strenuous Efforts to Solve the Mystery of Father Mcpake's Death. Philadelphia Inquirer Friday, November 12, 1897.


More to the story


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The Twenty Seven Murders of H.H. Holmes

A Predatory Mind - Purchase the Book


copyright 2013, Martin Hill Ortiz