Saturday, July 10, 2010

Grave Robbery

GRAVE ROBBERS CAUGHT - Two Resurrectionists Arrested at Rochester With Three Dead Bodies Stolen At Oxford Thursday Night. That was the headline in the Detroit Free Press of December 13, 1879, alerting local officials to a heinous crime being committed in the Rochester area.

The story unfolded at the old Pavilion Hotel in Rochester, by this time also known as the Comstock House, which was located on the southwest corner of Third and Main streets. In 1879 the proprietor of the house was Oscar F. Comstock, who was also a deputy sheriff and local constable. The Free Press tells us what happened:
About three weeks since, two men put up at the Pavilion for a short time. They talked but little, made few acquaintences, and in various ways became an object of suspicion by the landlord. After they left Comstock recalled several minor matters, and on comparing notes with his clerk, concluded to watch the individuals should the opportunity present itself. On Wednesday evening of the present week their opportunity arrived.
Two men, aged apparently about 28 years, drove up to the Pavilion in a light spring wagon drawn by one horse, and said they were going to stop over night. Their horse was cared for, and the men registered themselves as Thomas Wilson and James Jamison, both of Pontiac. The clerk, in Mr. Comstock's absence, recognized them as the two individuals who had aroused some suspicion a few weeks previous, and he determined on an investigation. In the wagon-box were two large trunks, and the clerk, watching his opportunity, opened one of them. He found it to contain a short bar, a stout rope, a spade, a pick-ax and such like paraphernalia. He also noticed some clots of blood and hair adhering to some of the tools. Before any definite plan of action could be decided on the men next morning ordered their horse, paid their bill and went away.
About 8 o'clock Friday morning the same men and their conveyance put in another appearance at the Pavilion and were provided with accommodation. The proprietor slipped into the barn, opened one of the trunks, which was not so securely fastened as the other, and brought to view the dead body of a man in grave habiliments. Then the truth occurred to him. Watching his guests until they were close together Landlord Comstock confronted them with a revolver and ordered them to throw up their hands. They complied, and in an instant were secured. Finding no key on their persons Comstock pried open the other trunk and found two more bodies packed therein -- one of a man about 7o years of age and one of a woman perhaps five years younger. In a very short time the hotel was the scene of considerable excitement. Apparently the whole village congregated to view the three bodies, which had been removed from the trunks and carefully laid out on blankets. In a little while two bodies were recognized as those of James Dove and Robert Einslee, who had only two or three days since been buried in the Oxford Cemetery -- fourteen miles distant. The body of the woman, who had evidently been buried longer, was not recognized at last accounts, but is believed to have been "snatched" from the same cemetery. Telegrams of inquiry were sent to Oxford.
Mr. Comstock loaded up a wagon with his prisoners, including a tramp who had been picked up the night previous for robbing Harrison's shoe shop, and, assisted by Messrs. Bennett and Hadley, brought them to Pontiac.
This report in the Detroit Free Press reminded me of a 1975 oral history interview with George Saam (1898-1983) of Rochester, who recalled that his father, acting as town constable, also fought against grave robbers at Mount Avon Cemetery. Saam disclosed that the body snatchers would
...come up and open your grave up, put a hook put around your head, they'd yank you up, take you over to the university down in Ann Arbor, and get about fifty bucks for you. That would have to be done in about the first ten days you was in there, 'cause embalming wasn't as good them days as it is now. You'd get people to watch your grave. People that had money would have my dad or somebody go up there and watch their graves. They'd know about when these guys were coming, and get in there and open the graves up. I bet in the old cemetery, there's a third of the people went in there aren't in there anymore, because they went to the university. If you'd happen to get into somebody's grave that was being watched, the judge would probably fine the dickens out of you for that, but it wasn't against the law to open a grave up – didn't seem to be, anyway – to open a grave up and steal that person out of there.

By the late 1870s, some states were beginning to pass laws against this kind of grisly activity, but up until that time, grave robbery was commonplace in all communities that were within one night's wagon ride of a medical school. The medical department of the University of Michigan was known to pay in the neighborhood of $30-50 dollars for "fresh" cadavers, and in those days, competition for cadavers among the nation's medical school was keen enough to keep these ghoulish entrepreneurs in business.

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