Grave Robbing Week: The Scandal of 1857

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

Q: How do you enjoy the work?
A: Well, it wasn’t very pleasant at first, of course, but anyone gets used to it. It is for the good of science, and I think it is just as right and honorable as for the man what does the dissection.
Q: How many do you suppose you have furnished in your experience as a body snatcher?
A: Maybe 500. I got about forty last winter. But it wasn’t a very good winter for it.

                – Cincinnati Equirer, 1878, “A Talk with a Professional Subject Gatherer.”

In 1835, Chicago decided it was time to designate some far-out-of-the-way space as cemeteries. Two spaces were decided on: one on the south side (about where 26th street is now) and one on the far north – just above Chicago Avenue, stretching from Clark Street to the Lake. At the time, this was so far out of the way that no one thought the city would ever expand so far North. It was only a few years before they realized that they were wrong, and the two cemeteries were abandoned. Little is really known about those two graveyards, but it’s generally agreed that plenty of bodies are still there.

In 1840, the city opened The Chicago Cemetery, which would eventually be known as City Cemetery, and then, eventually, as Lincoln Park (after the gravestones and most (well, some) of the bodies were removed). 
Grave robbing was a problem in the city right from the start – in 1844, a new mayor mentioned the problem in his inaugural address.  But the problem really made the news in 1857, when it turned out that the sexton – the city cemetery manager – was digging bodies back up to sell to medical colleges, who always needed bodies for dissections and tended to have “no questions asked” policies.
 In October of 1857, four bodies were buried in the Potter’s Field – the section where the poor and unclaimed bodies were buried, usually in unmarked graves (located right about where the Lincoln Park baseball fields are now). When Joe, the gravedigger, noticed that that grounds where he’d buried them was disturbed, he investigated and found the coffins had been broken into and the bodies were gone. He contacted the local alderman, who bypassed the police and put Alan Pinkerton and his squad of detectives on the case.
Pinkerton’s men determined that the robbers had entered the graveyard with a wagon at the North end and proceeded down to North Avenue (which then divided the Protestant side from the Catholic side). Seven or eight men were placed on guard of the “infected district”for several nights.  Finally, one night a wagon appeared. The detectives followed along, crawling on all fours among the graves, then finally running them down before catching up with cart at Chicago Avenue. The men in the wagon were Martin Quinlan, the city sexton, a student from Rush, and an unidentified third man. As they fled from the wagon, they left behind a canvas bag containing the bodies of a man and a woman.The man, who was missing his legs, was identified as Louis Steff, a man who’d recently died in a lumber accident (actually, the amputation probably killed him) and the woman was Mary Ann Best, said to be a friend of Steff’s.
A later search turned up two more bodies hidden in the cemetery bushes. Another grave was found in which a hole had been dug and a rope placed around the body to be pulled up, but the smell had given it away as a smallpox victim and the robbers had decided not to steal it. Quinlan and York, the student, were quickly captured.
Grave robbing, it seemed, was a common problem. A couple of years before, it had been necessary to dig a guy up and rebury him, and it turned out the coffin was empty – and so were 9 out of ten of the coffins buried nearby!
Eli York, the medical student, had an alibi and was dismissed from the courts three days later. The head of Rush stated that all students had been directed to have nothing to do with body snatching. However, medical colleges quickly pointed out that they NEEDED bodies, and argued that they should be given first dibs on any body that was going to be buried in the Potter’s Field. One letter to the editor pointed out that if you should ever need your leg amputated, you’d better hope to get a surgeon who had experience tracing the arteries and knowing how to keep you from dying of the operation (one wonders if this was he problem the legless man had had).  Meanwhile, makers of harder-to-rob metal caskets immediately began advertising their wares.
The papers began to argue about whether Quinlan was a democrat or republican. He was a democrat (and an Irish one, as the Republican Tribune was only too eager to point out). 
Eventually, Quinlan was indicted for robbing nine graves, and pleaded guilty to stealing the bodies of Steff and Best, the two with which he was caught. The defense argued that since the people buried in the Potters Field had no friends to be upset by their disinterment, it was a victimless crime, but the court was unmoved. Quinlan was fined $500 (250 per body) and freed.  A few years later, having been removed from office, he spent a year in prison for stealing cows.

Stay tuned the rest of this week for more stories about Chicago body snatching! We’ve got bodies in barrels, bodies in bags, grave robbing gangs…and lurid, semi-erotic descriptions of corpses in a story that may provide a back story for the supposedly-haunted Hooters on Wells! It’s going to be a gruesome week, folks.

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2 thoughts on “Grave Robbing Week: The Scandal of 1857

  1. Hi, Pamela! There's already a link to Hidden Truths up there on the left – but I dug up most of the stories (pun intended) out of the Trib archives.

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