Grave Robbing Week: The Barrel of Syrup

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In ROTTERS, the book pictured on the left, and in our recent podcast, author Daniel Kraus says that above-ground vaults are generally thought of us hard places to rob. Certainly it’s tougher work to break into one without making a mess than digging up a coffin and re-burying it. But vault robbery was known to happen.

December of 1875, a barrel marked “sirup” (sic) showed up at the American Express office at Washington and Dearborn. Inside, however, was no syrup – only the corpses of a young woman and a baby.

Initially it was suspected that it was a body snatching case, and then it was thought, briefly, that it may have been a murder case instead, or possibly the victim of a botched abortion. The next day, it was revealed that the body was that of Emma Addams, the wife of a hardware dealer. Seven or eight months pregnant, she had died a few weeks before.  Her body, along with that of her stillborn child, was placed in a vault at Graceland Cemetery on a cold November Friday, and was stolen by body snatchers the next night.

The papers were surprised mainly that the body had come from Graceland. While Cavalry, Rose Hill and the potter’s field at Jefferson had been popular resorts for body snatchers, there hadn’t been much trouble at Graceland, which wasn’t always guarded at all. After this, they had to get more vigilant about guarding the cemetery from resurrectionists. Later articles said that there was some sort of grave robbing scandal or another at Graceland nearly every year.

Speaking with the delivery men, the police pinpointed two men, John Larkin and James Darrow, as the body snatchers. Darrow was 18 or 19, and described as generally unpopular in high neighborhood (around 22nd and Wabash). He initially pleased guilty, but when Larkin pleaded not guilty, Darrow changed his mind. “If you’re not guilty,” he said, “then I’m not, either.”

Larkin said he had been approached by a Dr. E.P.B. Wilder, who worked at 22nd and Indiana, to make a box. Darrow went on to describe how they had gone to a barn and “put in the stiffs” under Wilder’s direction, with the intention of mailing it to a professor of anatomy in Iowa City.

Larkin said that he had no idea what the box he was making and moving was for, and said “when I saw the corpses, I was nearly frightened to death and told Darrow to tell the Doctor that I was heartily sick of the business, and would have no more to do with it.”

When the story broke, Dr. Wilder was on vacation, but his brother, Flauvius, who was also a doctor, told the papers that he couldn’t imagine his brother being involved in such a crime.  He seems to have been cleared and his career apparently survived – he is mentioned as taking control of the body twenty years later when Flauvius was murdered by John Redmond, a patient who had recently been released from an insane asylum, while making a house call.

For more on bodies in barrels, see here.

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