Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Justice Dealt to the Grave Robber


This odd and graphic story was published in the Andersonville Intelligencer on April 22, 1880. Be warned...:

South Bend, Ind., March 22 - Several months ago the grave of Sarah Platts, a young lady who died of consumption, was found disturbed, and an examination showed that the head of the corpse was missing. What led to the discovery was the finding of a human jawbone by Fred Auer, a farmer, who lived near the county graveyard, some eight miles from the city, where the body was buried. The fact that only the head was taken threw suspicions on an amateur phrenologist named Gordon Truesdale. Truesdale occupied a small farm in the vicinity with his wife and family of four girls, the oldest not more than eight years old. He was a handsome, broad-shouldered fellow, with a fair education, but lazy and shiftless. His great hobby was phrenology, and he occasionally lectured on that subject in country school-houses. His ambition to possess a collection of skulls was well known in the neighborhood, and the desecration of the Platts girl's grave was laid at his door, although he was never openly charged with it.

About three weeks ago Truesdale went to a physician and asked if a person could become poisoned in handling a dead body. He received an affirmative reply and appeared to be much troubled. He complained to his wife that his nose was paining him terribly and he believed he was taking the erysipelas. He began doctoring himself with bread-and-milk poultices, but without success. His face began to swell rapidly, and in less than three days it and his head became twice their natural size and lost all semblance to human shape. A physician was called in against the wishes of Truesdale. He found the man suffering terribly. His lips were drawn by the tension of the skin and writhed themselves away from the teeth in unceasing pain. The cuticle across the bridge of the nose and over the forehead was so distended with the mattery substance underneath that it seemed as if it must burst every moment. The eyes were swollen almost to bursting from their sockets and were turned with pain until hardly anything but the whites could be seen. It was evident that a terrible poison was slowly but surely permeating the man's whole system.

The physician, after a careful examination of the unwilling patient, cut open his skin from about the center of his nose almost to the roots of his hair, and then made another across the forehead almost from temple to temple. From these incisions there oozed a mass of loathsome, detestable putrescence, so terrible in its stench that the attendants, save one, ran from the house. Other incisions were made in different parts of the scalp, from which the hair had been shaved, and from these this terribly offensive matter oozed constantly, until the swelling was reduced and the head and face assumed nearly their normal size. Attempts were then made to free the incisions of matter by injecting water into them. It was noticed that when water was forced into the cut in the forehead it poured out of the holes in the scalp. As one of the attendants said, "it seemed as if all the flesh between the skin and bone had turned into corruption and ran out."

When Mr. Truesdale was told that he could not possibly recover, he called his wife into the room and confessed to her that he robbed the Platts girl's grave, and referred to a certain night when he left the house and refused to tell her where he went at the time when he committed the crime. He said that he dug down to the head of the coffin, broke it open and, taking his knife, cut around the neck of the corpse through the flesh to the bone. He then placed one of his feet on the breast of the corpse, and, taking the head in his hands, pulled and jerked and twisted it until it came off by mere force. He afterward disjointed the lower jaw and threw it where Fred Auer found it. He closed his confession by telling her where the skull would be found, under the straw in a certain manger in the stable. It was found there and given up to the Platts family.

The last three days of Truesdale's existence were terrible, not only to himself but to those who watched him. The poison from some corpse (for it is believed he had recently opened several graves,) which was communicated to his system by picking a raw spot on the inside of his nose, appeared to course through every vein in his body. Not only was his person offensive to the eye, but the odor and heat of his breath was so offensive that it was impossible for the attendants to wait on him properly. The breath was so poisonous that when one of the attendants held his hand six inches from the dying man's mouth it stung the flesh like hundreds of nettles. Those who waited on him were obliged to wear gloves, as it was impossible to wash the odor from their hands. The day he died his flesh was so rotten that it seemed as if it would drop from the bones it touched, and his eyes actually decayed until they became sightless.

For two days before his death a coffin had been in readiness, and the orders of the physician were to place him in it as soon as the breath left his body and get him under the ground immediately. After his death none of the attendants had the temerity to touch the corpse, for fear of being poisoned, so they gathered the sheets on which the body lay at each end, and thus lifted it into the coffin. The lid was quickly screwed down, but before a wagon could be procured the body swelled and burst it off. It was then strapped on, but when the coffin was taken from the wagon at the graveyard, just at daylight, it again flew off, and the body appeared to swell visibly before the horrified attendants' eyes. The fetid, noisome stench from the putrid mass within was such that no one could attempt to replace the cover, and the coffin was covered from sight as hurriedly as possible.

The day after the funeral, or burial, rather, the wife of Truesdale was confined at a neighbor's house, this fifth child also being a girl. The Truesdale house will not be fit to occupy for several days, as all efforts to fumigate it thus far have failed. The doors and windows have been left open day and night, but the stench is still as bad as when he died. As one of the attendants said, "It still seems as if you could cut the air in that house with a knife."

There were all sorts of devices available in order to protect the corpse from the body snatchers.

“Opposition to the body-snatchers took many forms. Mourners often set spring guns and other booby traps over fresh graves to discourage the body-snatchers, and it was not uncommon for relatives to mount a night watch over a fresh grave for 2 or 3 weeks until the body had decomposed sufficiently to be useless for dissection.” – A Grave Medical Problem

The families of the dead tried to purchase robber-proof coffins made with metal. There was a catch, however. Only the very rich owned the land in perpetuity in which they were buried. While their vaults could be secured and reinforced, ordinary people were buried in plots of land that were reused time and again. Thus, wrought iron and metal coffins designed to stave off grave robbers made the practice of recycling bodies in one plot impossible, and many cemeteries began to refuse such reinforced coffins.

In some cases, a very fresh body was required for dissection. If the price was right, some grave robbers took matters into their own hands and murdered a suitable candidate.

Lincoln's Grave Robbers

The Grave Robbers: A Central Illinois Small Town History

Head Masters: Phrenology, Secular Education, and Nineteenth-Century Social Thought

Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius


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