Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I’m Not Making This Up – Do A Good Deed, Find Your Father’s Body Snatchers

Written By: Tracy - Aug• 29•16


Poor John Scott Harrison. You would think that being a State Representative, son of a President and father of another President would get you some respect. Or at least keep grave robbers away. Unfortunately, in Harrison’s case, you’d be wrong.

Of course, Harrison only served two terms in office. His father, William Henry Harrison (9th president of the United States) was the first president to die in office (less than a month after his inauguration). His son, Benjamin Harrison (the guy who served in between Grover Cleveland’s two terms) was not yet elected at the time of John Scott’s death. Though you would think that having the last name Harrison and being buried in the William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial would count for something. Apparently not.

Back then, as now, medical students studied anatomy by looking at actual corpses. But unlike now, there wasn’t an option for someone to donate their body to science. So universities made do. Where making do meant paying anyone off the street who just happened to turn up with a dead, not obviously murdered body (the fresher the better, no questions asked).

Because of the big bucks one could score from a freshly dead body, grave robbing became big business (and medical universities had a shady reputation).

Usually grave robbers stuck to cemeteries where the live relatives weren’t going to protest (usually poor, usually non-white. Because humans are terrible). In this case, the grave robbers got a little too aggressive.

The Harrison family noticed that a nearby fresh grave, belonging to Agustus Devin, had been robbed. Worried that the same fate would befall John Scott Harrison, the family built a brick and cement vault around his casket.

Then the Harrison boys set out to find those no-account grave robbers. First they got a warrant, then they stormed up to the Ohio Medical College in high dudgeon. Instead of young Mr. Devin, the John Harrison found his own father hidden under a trap door.

It seems that in the night after the funeral, someone had pried away stones at the foot of the coffin, and pulled the corpse out by the feet. The thieves had to have watched the family install the slab. Otherwise they would have tried (unsuccessfully) to get at the body from another direction.

The grave robbery set off a national scandal. If Harrison’s body wasn’t safe from grave robbers, was anyone’s? It didn’t help that the doctors didn’t seem ashamed that they’d stolen and nearly dissected a famous civil servant.

Thanks to the incident, 5 states increased penalties on grave robbing, and undercut the grave robbing business by allowing medical universities to use unclaimed corpses in their studies.

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