A Ghastly Traffic in Grave-Clothes: 1862, 1878

The Ghastly Traffic

A great many horrible things have come out concerning the crime of body snatching since the recent sensations in that line. The miserable ghouls who do the stealing by no means confine their traffic to the dead bodies. While engaged in the nefarious calling, everything is fish that comes to their nets. The clothing of the corpse, and all articles of value in the coffin, are bartered away. Sometimes the Janitor of a medical college will come into possession of quite a stock of “second hand clothing,” obtained from the Resurrectionists; and not infrequently impecunious students are found attired from head to foot in garments that have done duty underground as the raiment of corpses. Undertakers provide a coat-front to cover the breast of a corpse, extending sufficiently below the opening of the coffin to give the effect of an entire garment. When this comes into the hands of the thrifty Janitor, he simply inserts another piece in the back, to match, and is ready for a customer. The false teeth of corpses, especially when set in gold, have been known to be sold to unsuspecting parties, who have used them in the mastication of their food! It was once customary to deck the bodies of the dead in expensive stuffs—silk, broadcloth, satin and velvet; and the knowing ones of the fraternity can, if they will, tell startling stories of the extent to which these stuffs find their way into the market again, after having lain a season in the grave. We believe the custom does not prevail to the length it formerly did; the popular cognizance of the extent of grave robbery as a regular business has quickened common sense in the management of funerals.

It is hard to conceive of anything more horrible than these facts. We might hope that the grave and its accessories were free from any lodgment for humor; yet there is something grotesque beyond expression in the sight of a poor medical student dissection a body while arrayed in the very clothes the “subject” wore when it descended into its “last resting place!”

There is one imperative duty resting upon the legislators of Ohio, and every other state whose statute book is not properly equipped in this respect; and that is the framing of a law for the adequate punishment of this crime. The most that can be done to a grave robber in Ohio is to fine him a thousand dollars and send him to prison for six months! This is ridiculously short of the mark. If the infernal fiends who desecrated the tomb of A.T. Stewart are caught, it is a question whether they can be punished in a manner approaching their deserts. We cannot doubt that the subject will receive the attention it deserves. The dearest ties known to humanity connect us with the last resting places of our dead; and the demand of society that those places be made inviolate must be respected.

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 20 November 1878: p. 2

The theft of burial clothing seems to have been a crime of opportunity. The Sexton, sometimes in the pay of the Resurrection Men, was in a particularly advantageous position to profit:

A Thievish Sexton.

For two days past our usually quiet city has been thrown into the wildest state of excitement, consequent upon the discovery of the most sickening and revolting facts that were ever brought to light in a civilised country. Last week Moroni Clawson and his confreres, in attempting to “slip by justice,” were fired upon and killed by the officers in charge. Their bodies were buried in the city cemetery at the city expense. Two or three days afterwards, a brother of Clawson obtained permission from the city sexton to disinter the body and remove it to Drapersville, the residence of the Clawson family. At the request of some friends, the coffin was opened, and the body was found to be in a perfect state of nudity. The. brother was in a great rage, supposing that the city authorities, had purposely treated the body of the dead highwayman with this shameful neglect; but on inquiry it was ascertained that he was decently interred, and dressed, in the ordinary habiliments of the grave, Suspicion at once fell upon the grave-digger, a, native of Venice, named John Baptiste. His residence was searched by the police, and a large quantity of burial clothes were found and taken possession of by the officers. After many threats, the inhuman wretch confessed that he had carried on this nefarious practice for nine years, three of which he has been engaged as gravedigger in this city. He is now lodged in the city jail, and the clothing which he has stripped from the dead during the last three years is spread out in the main hall, of the Courthouse, where hundreds of persons are now thronging, seeking for articles of grave dresses rifled from the bodies of friends, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, and children. A more heartrending spectacle can hardly be imagined. Hundreds of shrouds, winding sheets for old and young, male and female, some whole and some torn, in removing them from stiffened corpses, were strewn about the room. It was a sad sight to see anxious mothers seeking for, yet dreading to find, some little garment, torn with rude, inhuman hands from their infant darlings, whom they had laid away in the tomb, never dreaming they would be disturbed until their sleeping dust should be quickened by resurrecting angels. Now and then a deep sigh, an audible sob, or a violent scream of anguish, indicated that some article of grave apparel had been recognised. Here, a widow pale and sad examining the shrouds of the full-grown, and there was the bereaved mother pressing to her heart, now made to bleed afresh, some tiny stocking, little shirt, cap, or dress. ‘Twas a sad, sad scene; from which we were glad to turn away. The whole people are moved; a heavy gloom like a dark pall hangs over the city; sorrow has entered anew into nearly every household. The cemetery is being visited by crowds, although the weather is cold and stormy. The rich man in his carriage, the poor man on foot, the young widow, the staid matron, the old and infirm, all who have lost friends by death, seem to have an ardent desire to visit the graves that have been so ruthlessly desecrated. The prisoner does not seem to realise the enormity of the crime committed. He seems rather to be possessed of dull and blunted sensibilities, than a corrupt and depraved heart. The populace are much excited, and many are urging the Lynch code, but the more sober-thinking portion of the people counsel moderation and law and order. —Salt Lake City correspondent of the Detroit Tribune.

Otago Daily Times 16 June 1862: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is generally inured to Horrors, but the detail about the false teeth was just that little bit above the odds…  In a curious legal loophole, the bodies of the dead were no one’s property, while the theft of shrouds, coffin-furniture, or trinkets from the body could send a man to prison. Still, given the tight time constraints  under which they operated, it seems doubtful that Resurrectionists would be so scrupulous as to conscientiously strip a body and lay the clothing back in the coffin to be reinterred. Unprincipled undertakers were often happy to resell used burial robes, while shrouds in less presentable condition could be sold to paper-makers, no doubt to end up as black-bordered envelopes.

While Mrs Daffodil is shuddering at the laundry problems posed by garments stolen from the dead, one ingenious Kansas lady, delighted by the attractive shrouds on display at her local undertaker, decided to pre-empt the grave, and steal from the living:

STOLE A SHROUD TO WEAR

An Atchison Woman Trimmed a Burial Robe and Used It.

Burial robes for street dresses is the latest fad, as introduced by an Atchison woman. J.A. Harouff, a local undertaker, missed a woman’s burial robe the other day. Yesterday afternoon he saw a woman on Commercial street wearing the robe. She had adorned with a few fancy frills and trimmings, but there was no doubt as to the identity of the robe, and Mr. Harouff says the dress was a “mighty stylish looking gown.” The undertaker was so astonished that he has decided not to ask for the return of his property. “A woman with that much nerve and ingenuity deserves a reward, not punishment,” he said today.

The Washington Post 17 August 1914: p. 6

For more on Victorian mourning practices and burial clothes, see The Victorian Book of the Dead. For the girl shroud makers of New York and other makers of burial clothing, see Sewing Shrouds and Dead Men’s Shoes.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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