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.

History Vs. Bonus Episode: The Case of the Missing Colt .38

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

One morning in early April 1990, rangers at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site were walking past a display at the Old Orchard Museum when they noticed that something was amiss. The display contained Theodore Roosevelt’s uniform from his time with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, as well as his Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver.

Or at least, the gun should have been there. But … it wasn’t.

Jake Rossen:
At the time, it was relatively simple just to lift the case up without setting any alarm and taking it.

That’s Jake Rossen, senior staff writer at Mental Floss.

Rossen: That's exactly what someone did.

This particular gun had a fascinating history, even before it landed in TR’s hands. It was manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, and was sold to the U.S. government, after which it ended up on the battleship Maine, as ship property. It was still on board on February 15, 1898, when the ship exploded in Havana, Cuba. Hundreds of men lost their lives in the blast, which was blamed on the Spanish and helped to push America into the war.

The gun may have remained in a watery grave if not for TR’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, who was one of the commanding officers sent to Cuba after the explosion as salvage divers brought up what they could from the wreck.

Rossen: And one of those items was a Colt revolver. Knowing that TR was a weapons aficionado, he gave it to him as a gift.

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, TR quit his job as assistant secretary of the Navy, signed up to fight, and shipped out to Cuba with his volunteer regiment. With him was the blue-barreled Colt with the checkered wood handle. Roosevelt used the weapon in the Battle of San Juan Heights.

Rossen: Apparently he was able to take aim and shoot at two enemies. One he missed; one, he later wrote, he hit, the man fell over and almost assuredly died. Roosevelt obviously treasured the weapon prior to using it. After he used it, undoubtedly he considered it probably even more significant.

Eventually, the gun was inscribed. On one side, it read “From the sunken battle ship Maine.” and on the other, “July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Rossen: He kept it in his personal possession until his death. And later on, when his property, his home, became a historic site and part of the National Park Service, it eventually, like a lot of his possessions, went on display.

Which brings us back to where we started: The empty display case at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this bonus episode of History Vs., we’re going to explore this strange story, which I first found out about when I visited Sagamore Hill for the podcast. I knew immediately that we had to write about it, so I put Jake on the case.

McCarthy: So when something like this goes missing on national park land, what's the next step? What do they do?

Rossen: When a crime takes place in a national park or on a national park site, it's technically federal land. And so the government usually gets in touch with park rangers and they frequently pass it on to an investigative unit. And in this case the museum was able to reach out to park rangers who conducted an initial investigation and eventually it made its way to the FBI. The gun had actually been stolen once before back in the 1960s, and fortunately, whoever stole it seemed to get cold feet once they had taken it. The gun was found not far from the museum. It had been discarded. But this time was a little bit different in the sense that the museum really had no practical security features. There were no surveillance cameras. The glass case wasn't locked.

In fact, as one national park employee explained it to us, “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open.”

Rossen: It wasn't going to be that difficult for someone determined to take the gun if they really wanted to.

McCarthy: So once the FBI got involved, where did they even start in the search for suspects?

Rossen: When stuff like this happens, investigators will often look at employees first. Because a lot of times this can be the result of an inside job. The FBI eventually realized that no employee was at fault.

With museum employees ruled out, and a security system being installed in the museum, the FBI began going to gun shows and approaching gun dealers to see if they had crossed paths with someone trying to sell the Colt. But they weren’t necessarily optimistic about finding the gun that way. The gun was really distinctive, and therefore hard to sell.

Rossen: I think they probably felt that whoever took it was probably taking it for their own personal collection. And in that case, obviously, there really weren't many leads to follow.

Which isn’t to say that the FBI didn’t get tips. They actually got a ton of them. In the time before the internet, they would get phone calls. When email came about, they got emails. And sometimes, the leads would be worth looking into.

Rossen: There was a rumor it had been seen in Europe. But really the only promising lead, which turned out really not to be promising at all, was the idea that a gun with the same serial number had turned up in a buyback program in Pennsylvania. But when they looked into it more thoroughly, they realized even though that gun had that same serial number, it was a different model gun. And so they were essentially back to square one. As the reward kept creeping up and eventually I think it reached somewhere around $8,100 and there's still no concrete leads, there's no one being enticed by a monetary compensation. And once you get 10 or 12 years into the gun being missing, again, this was back in 1990, you know, I imagine the FBI eventually felt it was time to maybe put this on the back burner.

But, 15 years after the gun went missing, there was finally a break in the case—one that may have been made possible by a divorce.

We’ll be right back.

 

More than 15 years after Theodore Roosevelt’s Colt Revolver went missing from the Old Orchard Museum at Sagamore Hill, one of the park rangers began receiving phone calls from a man who said he knew where the gun was.

That wasn’t necessarily unusual—they had gotten many similar calls before. What was unusual was that the man kept calling. He wouldn’t give his name, but he said he knew where the gun was—that he’d seen it wrapped in a sweatshirt. He was able to describe its engravings. He said that he wanted it returned to the museum—but he didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.

Rossen: The park ranger tried to plead with him and even told him, "Look, just put it in a box and drop it in the mail and that'll be that." But he couldn't really get through to the guy. Eventually, though, I think the man realized that he had to do something with the gun and he agreed to make contact with the FBI.

The man who had been calling was named Andy, and he lived in Florida.

Rossen: It turns out he had been seeing a woman, and the woman, who knew that Andy was a history buff, approached him one day and said, "Look, I've got this gun, it belonged to Teddy Roosevelt and, you know, you might want to take a look at it." Essentially Andy came to realize it was stolen, came to realize that actually it didn't belong to his girlfriend, but her ex-husband and her husband had essentially kept it around the house, sometimes wrapped up in a sweatshirt, sometimes tucked under the seat of a car.

McCarthy: So basically if that woman and her husband had not gotten divorced, the gun might still be missing?

Rossen: It's very possible, yeah.

The FBI approached Andy and asked him to retrieve the gun from his girlfriend.

Rossen: Again, he wanted to drag his feet a little bit and was reluctant about revealing the identity of his girlfriend, but being the FBI, they were rather persuasive with him.

The gun was retrieved and authenticated, and in 2006—16 years after it disappeared—it was returned to Sagamore Hill. Eventually, it took its place back in a case in the museum, one that was now much more secure.

As for the man who took the gun—we’ll call him Anthony T. He was charged with misdemeanor theft, which perhaps feels like a light sentence for someone who took something that belonged to a former president.

Rossen: It's interesting because if you look at heists involving valuable items, rare items, paintings, things of that nature, the punishment can be pretty severe. With something like Roosevelt's gun, even though there's been valuations placed on it that reached into the hundreds of thousands, I don't know that there's any definitive way of placing a price on it. And additionally, the federal government doesn't really insure these kinds of things. It seems the prosecutors looked at Anthony T.'s situation and realized that he was not by any means a professional thief, a career criminal, and decided to really let him off rather easily. He got probation, he had to pay a fine, and he had to perform a fair amount of community service.

Though the gun is back where it belongs, questions still linger. No one seems to know why Anthony took the gun, although investigators have posited that it was an impulsive act.

Rossen: So Anthony T was at the museum, and saw the gun, saw that there really probably wasn't any employee around, saw that the case could be easily manipulated. And it was a crime of opportunity. Actually, one of the investigators essentially described it as a kind of artifact shoplifting; something done on impulse and obviously something he came to regret. I think the irony really is the fact that Anthony, when he was charged with a crime, was charged with violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which is basically a law stating that “Hey, you know, you can't steal government property, items, or historic artifacts.”

The president who signed the American Antiquities Act into law? Theodore Roosevelt.

We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another bonus episode of History Vs.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante. If you want to find out more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

How Gracie Allen and the Surprise Party Got 1940s America Excited to Vote

Gracie Allen laughed her way to a presidential run in 1940.
Gracie Allen laughed her way to a presidential run in 1940.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term, the competition seemed to stop trying. The GOP pinned their hopes on a political novice, Wendell Wilkie. The socialist and prohibition parties put their unflexed muscles behind relative unknowns. For FDR, the race seemed to be a lock. That is, until George Burns decided to shake things up.

In early 1940, the comedian hatched a scheme to have his wife and comic partner Gracie Allen run for office as the “Surprise Party” candidate. When Allen made her announcement on the couple’s radio show that February, she and Burns thought they’d get a few chuckles and some promotional buzz. To the pair’s shock, the idea caught on with the glum electorate.

It didn’t matter that Allen’s platform made no sense. One of her proposed programs involved offering correspondence courses for unemployed workers, so they could fail to find jobs in three or four different industries. She also refused to share the ticket with a vice presidential nominee, claiming she didn’t want any vice in the White House, and promised to settle the Florida-California border dispute.

Black and white image of women in formal attire
"Presidential hopeful" Gracie Allen (far right) with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (center) at a March 1940 event.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although the stunt was obviously a joke, “Vote for Gracie” buttons popped up around the country. Harvard students pledged their support for Allen’s campaign. A Minnesota town offered her its mayoral job. Allen and Burns’s modest stunt went as viral as anything could in pre-YouTube days. The pair even mounted a “real” campaign, with Allen embarking on a 34-city whistle-stop train tour that drew hundreds of thousands of supporters.

The silliness escalated. In May of 1940, the Surprise Party held its own convention. All 8000 “delegates” in attendance threw their support behind the Gracie Allen ticket. But shortly after the event, the comedian put the brakes on her gag campaign. In a rare serious moment, Allen acknowledged the country was in rough shape. Everyone had enjoyed the laugh, but it was time for the real candidates to get their messages out.

In the end, Roosevelt beat Wilkie, piling up over 27 million popular votes on his way to a third term. Oddly, several thousand Americans still cast their votes for a dark horse candidate who had ended her campaign months earlier: Gracie Allen of the Surprise Party.

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