Ohio's Ghoulish Gambit Against Grave Robbing: Coffin Torpedoes

May 17, 2017

John Scott Harrison, a former Ohio Congressman and the youngest son of U.S. president William Henry Harrison, died of heart problems in May 1878. To protect his rest, Harrison's family entombed him in a metal coffin surrounded by marble slabs, and hired an armed guard to stand watch.

It wasn't until days later did they realize Harrison's body was gone. Rather, it had been taken - to the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati.

The "Harrison Horror" wasn't the state's first notable grave-robbing, nor would it be the last. In fact, Ohio had a long and ghastly history of body snatching that lasted until the very end of the 19th century.

Harrison's abduction, though, sparked a nationwide outcry over the centuries-old practice and the institutions that condoned it.

If the government couldn't protect loved ones, people decided, then they had to find a way to do it themselves.

Supply And Demand

Harrison's family wasn't even looking for him when they found his body.

Kevin Grace, an archivist at the University of Cincinnati, says when mourners arrived at Harrison's tomb, they saw a nearby grave had been disturbed. 

Medical College of Ohio in 1835. The school, which would become the University of Cincinnati's medical college, was responsible for the theft of former Senator John Scott Harrison.
Credit Ohio History Connection

"The next day they were searching for this other body they had thought had been stolen nearby Harrison’s grave, and the trail took them to the Ohio Medical School," Grace says.

A janitor at the school let them in, and Harrison's son noticed a rope hanging down in a shaft. He pulled it up, and at its end was Harrison.

"There's probably a payoff somewhere," Grace says.

An article on the "Harrison Horror" from the Ottawa Free Trader newspaper from Ottawa, Ill., on June 8, 1878.
Credit Newspapers.com

But that a medical school had ended up with a stolen body was not, in fact, out of the ordinary. Medical schools in Ohio and around the globe were deep into the business of body-snatching.

That's for two reasons: Supply and demand.

Grace says that the professionalization of the medical field in the 1700s led both to the formation of medical schools across the country, but also to the focus on anatomy - including at the Medical College of Ohio, formed in 1819 (and which later became the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine).

“One is that, by the mid-19th century, it was accepted in medical education that you learn by doing, so that means that if you want to learn about the human body you had to do anatomy studies," Grace says. "The second thing was that there were no laws that permitted the use of bodies by medical schools. There was no way to obtain the bodies except by illegal means.”

For most of the 19th century, Ohio had no way for people to dedicate their bodies to science, or even to collect the bodies of prisoners or poor people. Ohio's first anatomy law was passed in 1879, around the time similar laws passed in Indiana and Michigan, but it was far too limiting.

So to do human dissections, medical professors would hire someone for the dirty work. 

Bucky Cutright, a guide with Columbus Ghost Tours, brings groups to Franklinton Cemetery to talk about the city's history of grave robbing.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

How To Rob A Grave

When he tells people about grave robbing in Columbus, Bucky Cutright likes to bring them to the Franklinton Cemetery.

Most of the graves here are long-removed, sent up to Green Lawn Cemetery, but Cutright - a guide with Columbus Ghost Tours - says it still has a perfectly eerie feel.

“Now, grave robbing didn’t exactly happen where you see it in the movies where a ghoul sneaks into the graveyard with a lantern and shovel, completely unearths a coffin, opens it, steals a piece of jewelry then says something sassy to the corpse before hauling away," Cutright says, hunching over a tombstone. "It was an illegal activity, so you had to get in fast, you had to get out fast."

Rather than digging up the whole casket, grave robbers would dig close to the headstone, break through the casket, loop a rope around the head and shoulders - and pull.

"Yanked 'em right out of the ground," Grace says.

Cutright tells the story of Sally Green, who was brought to the state asylum of Ohio in 1838 before she passed away in November. She was buried in the Old North Cemetery, below the current North Market parking lot, and when her son went to retrieve her body months later he found she and others had disappeared.

There was only one possible culprit.

“Really the only gig in town was in Worthington, the Worthington College of Medicine, run by a Dr. Thomas Morrow," Curight says.

Morrow was a teaching physician, and often procured bodies from the graves of poor people. And it did not sit well with the community.

"An angry mob ended up disbanding the college rather forcefully and running Morrow off to Cincinnati," Cutright says.

Ohio actually saw a number of riots against medical schools, says freelance writer Lucy Tiven, including in 1811, 1845, 1847, and 1852. But the grave robbing didn't stop.

An Explosive Answer

The Harrison Horror, however, thrust grave-robbing back into the public eye. Because he was so famous, Grace says, the Congressman's abduction turned into national news.

“That incident is spread throughout the papers and really just instills a lot of fear in bourgeois and wealthy society that this can really happen to anyone," Tiven says.

Though Ohio passed an anatomy law the next year in response to the scandal, that didn't satisfy the still-growing demand from medical schools. As Tiven reports in a recent story for Atlas Obscura, two inventors in Central Ohio - Philip K. Clover in Columbus and Thomas N. Howell in Circleville - took their own swings at the problem.

Clover, an artist, and Howell, a former probate judge, individually filed patents in 1878 and 1881 for a "coffin torpedo."

Philip K. Clover and Thomas Howell individually filed patents in 1878 and 1881 for a "coffin torpedo" that would protect bodies from grave robbers.
Credit United States Patent Office

“The basic idea is that when, you know, some sort of sly group of medical students or resurrection men contracted to steal a body start to steal a grave, there’s an explosive there that will detonate and basically just blast them to bits," Tiven says.

While Clover's invention worked like a shotgun, which would fire a blast of lead bullets if someone tried to open the coffin, Howell's operated more like a Civil War land mine.

“How to describe it, it would be a small almost like fishing line wire that would go across the chest, and either beside the head, neck or in the armpit, there would be a small barrel that would ignite when you ripped the body, or coffin open," Cutright says.

Ultimately, though, coffin torpedoes as a practice in the funeral industry never really blew up - so to speak.

“It was more that the idea that they were out there would prevent grave robbing," Cutright says.

One notable exception was a failed grave robbing incident in Knox County, near Mount Vernon, where an explosion killed "one of the ghouls, named Dipper," and maimed another. The third member of their party survived and helped the injured man escape.

An article in The Stark County Democrat from January 20, 1881, recounts an explosive killing one would-be grave robber and injuring another.
Credit Library of Congress

But that was less a coffin torpedo, Tiven says, than just a booby-trapped coffin.

In her Atlas Obscura story, Tiven digs up a few other instances of coffin torpedoes being discussed in the press. The reality is, archeologists have yet to discover any instances of one of these devices being installed - more likely, they just capitalized on the sensationalism of the papers.

By the time coffin torpedoes entered public conscience, grave robbing was already on the decline. Not because the demand halted, but because the supply finally caught up.

Realizing they needed to do something in order to stop grave robbing while preserving medical studies, Ohio physicians and legislators amended the state's anatomy law.

"That was really the end of body snatching then, by 1881, because bodies could be procured legally," Grace says, "and people could indicate they wanted to donate their bodies to science.”

No snatching required - and no need for the dead to fend off the living.