Grave Robbing Week: A Wagon Full of Corpses (1867 and 1872)

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Say what you will about how disgusting and depraved people are nowadays – I don’t recall ever seeing an item in a modern paper about huge crowds to the Union Street police station to peek at five naked people who happened to be dead –  which DID happen in 1872.

At the ungodly hour of 3:30 in the morning of March 2, 1872, detective Michael Mahoney of the Pinkerton force, spied a horse-drawn wagon moving east on Van Buren near the Chicago river. Due to recent robberies, Pinkerton had ordered his men to examine every suspicious vehicle seen in the city overnight. Mahoney found the wagon was being driven by two men who were whispering back and forth (which I supposed looked rather suspicious). Unobserved, Mahoney followed behind the wagon and put his hand inside – where he felt the leg of a corpse.

Mahoney continued to follow them undetected until he came upon another Pinkerton man, to whom he signalled. The other detective stopped the wagon and knocked on a street lamp, the signal for other police to come. The police took the men to Union Street station, where they were identified as William Pemberton and Jerry F. Schaler. The wagon contained four dead men and one dead woman, all of which were taken from the Potter’s Field (this was presumably the new one at Jefferson, not the old one at City Cemetery, by this time).

The two men were held on a $2000 bail, and the bodies were covered in hay and a blanket, then out on the sidewalk, where they quickly attracted an eager crowd of sick people.

I have not yet figured out what happened to these guys – mostly likely they were held until a grand jury found them guilty, then made to pay a fine. In the one article the Trib published on the affair, the bodies were not identified. It’s to be assumed that they were intended to be sold to a medical college.

Of the curiosity seekers who came to get a look at the naked bodies, the Trib wrote “a great many of the eager crowd succeeded, but regretted their success, probably, when dinner time arrived.”

This wasn’t the first time a wagonload of corpses had been found. In 1867, a couple of men were caught with such a wagon at Ohio and Dearborn. The two men were Henry Jones and Henry Johnson – they were janitors at the post office building and said that they’d been employed by a medical man to deliver bodies to Rush Medical College. Jones had bought his own wagon for the job; they would be paid $10 per “subject” (less than many were paid at the time – the school might have been short-changing the men because they were black). The bodies on the wagon were from Calvary Cemetery, but Jones said they were the first he’d ever taken and that he’d never do it again.

In the back of the wagon, the police found all the tools you need to go into business as a resurrection man: two shovels, a crowbar, a screwdriver, a chisel, a hatchet, a rope ladder and some straw. The five bodies were all still dressed, and still wearing wreaths of artificial flowers. The Tribune, as was their custom, gave a lurid description of each corpse. The bodies were removed to the “dead house” at City Cemetery for an inquest. Rush College was not considered to be involved. The faculty said they knew nothing of the men, and, anyway, the college was not in session, so they didn’t have any reason to hire a body snatcher in the first place!

As the story unfolded, it turned out that the bodies had been taken not from Calvary, but from German Lutheran Cemetery, and were actually destined for some college East of Chicago (The University of Michigan is the usual suspect here). The bodies were soon identified – one had actually died at a hospital at Ontario and Dearborn, near where the wagon was apprehended – and reburied. Jones and Johnson were sent to jail to await trial, where they were presumably ordered to pay a fine.

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