Grave Robbing Week: A Barrel Labeled “Poultry”

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Grave Robbing
in Lincoln Park

Chicago Unbelievable

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Rotters by 
Daniel Kraus. 
grave robbing!
Adam and
Daniel are
a part of the
same violence

As late as 1884, Chicago was said to be the home of a “band of grave robbers.” The county board at the time had ceased the practice of giving bodies over to colleges, and, though colleges were insisting that they didn’t employ the services of resurrectionists, body snatching became common once again.

In December of 1883, an 85 year old woman named Mary Hoyt died of dropsy in the nearby town of Sycamore and was buried Sycamore Cemetery (which seems to be in about the same place as, and possibly a part of, Mr. Carmel Cemetery). The day after her burial, the cemetery manager saw that the grave had been disturbed and found the body was gone. Police found that a suspicious kerosene barrel labeled “poultry” had been shipped to “Wm. C Black, No 207 Paulina St, Chicago.” There was no 207 Paulina at the time. Speaking to the Northwestern railroad people, police determined that the guy who picked it up was the same guy who had shipped it. He was really a man named Tom Coffee, who lived on Hermitage Avenue near Van Buren. Police began to shadow him and found that he was a pretty serious grave robber.

One night he and two men dug up a corpse in LaGrange and sold it to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago (who were back on the market by then). Another night the three went to get five bodies in Palatine (though the snow kept them from getting any). The “shadows” determined that the other two men were named Armstrong and Hall, and that they were sent by the college to go to Sycamore to get Mrs. Hoyt. The three were eventually caught and arrested, after a minor scuffle with the sheriff, in a saloon on LaSalle just south of Randolph. A fourth man was also arrested and brought to Sycamore. Two of the four were students at Rush.

The body was found at the college and returned the next day. To avoid trouble, the college immediately returned it and offered to buy a casket and shroud. They presumably did not get the $25 they had paid Coffee back.

When this case broke, the county commissioners began debating resuming the practice of giving bodies to the college (the college insisted that the reason they weren’t dealing with body snatchers – at least not in cases that could cause trouble – was that they expected the board to approve the measure anyway).

Commissioner Lynn laughingly told the papers that he believed some people did more good by being cut up as corpses than they had ever done during their lifetime.

Well, folks, that’s it for grave robbing week. Let’s, uh, not do this again too soon, okay?  Coming the week of April 18, we’ll be pairing up with White City Cinema to present Selig Polyscope week, a look at the colorful Col. William Selig, one of the great Chicago pioneers of silent film!

In the mean time, for more on bodies in barrels (if you really just can’t get enough of this stuff), see here.

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