"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Corpse Box of Hell Gate: A Mystery of Old New York

When a strange, gruesome mystery suddenly pops up in our midst, we expect it to get a good deal of public attention. When a strange, gruesome mystery suddenly pops up in our midst and quickly sinks without a trace, it adds an extra unsettling dimension to the story.

This is exactly what happened in New York City in 1859.

On June 1st of that year, some fishermen were searching the East River in hopes of finding treasure from the 1763 wreck of the British man-of-war “Hussar.” In the tidal strait known all too appropriately as Hell Gate, they instead found what looked to be a large piece of timber. They towed the object ashore, only to realize it was a large wooden box, containing not coins or jewels, but human remains, packed like so many sardines.

Hell Gate, mid 19th century. Via NYPL Digital Gallery

The coroner determined that this ghastly booty consisted of seven people—three men, two women, a girl of about seven and an infant. The adult bodies had been contorted into pretzel-like shapes in order to fit them into this floating coffin, and, most sickening of all, one of the women had been decapitated, with her head resting between her feet. The adult bodies were all clothed in linen undergarments or night-clothes, the women wore night-caps, and one had a handkerchief tied around her mouth. The bodies were all covered with quicklime, evidently in the hopes of hastening decomposition which would make them more difficult to recognize. The only mark of identification found on any of the bodies was on the little girl. Her linen chemise was marked with the initials, “C. M.” The style of the undergarments led the coroner to theorize the victims were European. From the relatively dry condition of the box, it was believed that it had been in the water only since the previous night.

One man had fairly fresh stab wounds near the heart, but the cause of death for the rest of the victims was never determined. The coroner was only able to say that they had died not more than a week previously. The inquest concluded simply that “the deceased came to their deaths by some means unknown to the Jury.”

As always when something disturbingly weird happens, authorities rushed to find a rational, soothing explanation, which met with the usual abject failure. Perhaps the bodies were packed with a view of sending them to some institution for purposes of medical research? No, they would hardly have been covered in lime if that had been the case. Perhaps they had been removed from the old Potter’s Field to the new city burying ground on one of the islands? That was quickly knocked down as an even more ridiculous theory. No burials had taken place in the Potter’s Field for years, and these were clearly fresh corpses.

All right then, how about if they were recent deaths, and while they were being brought for burial, the box they were being stored in accidentally fell off the ferry? Nope. If they were being carried off for a normal interment, they would have been stored in separate coffins. Besides, it was evident that the bodies must have been stuffed into the box very soon after death, before rigor mortis set in. And why would the authorities use lime, not to mention dismember one of the poor corpses?

One favorite theory was that these were recent burials that had been dug up by “resurrectionists.” The suggestion was that when the vandals were unable to find medical students willing to buy their ghoulish product, the grave-robbers simply dumped the bodies. That dog failed to hunt as well. There was, again, the evidence that the bodies were placed in the box immediately after they died. The coroner also dismissed the grave-robbing theory by noting that “there were other matters usually attended to in preparing deceased persons for interment which had been entirely neglected.”

As one of the male corpses was African-American, a theory was floated that the Hell Gate discovery was a family from the South, who had been traveling with a slave. This suggestion could well have been true, but it does nothing to help explain how they wound up in a box.

As the “New York Tribune” commented, “The more the affair is considered, the more deeply it appears to be involved in mystery.”

And that was the last word on the Corpse Box of Hell Gate. The identity of these victims—not to mention who might have killed them and why—remained a riddle, but what is also peculiar is that I have yet to find anything more than two or three very brief newspaper articles about the story. Either antebellum New Yorkers saw it as an everyday event to have boxes full of bodies floating around them, or the press and the authorities, for whatever reason, thought it best to simply drop the matter.


  1. Questions, questions....

    How much would a box containing seven bodies weigh. Since people struggle - or at least in the movies they struggle - to drag one body wrapped in a carpet out of a car, how could seven be moved at once without some kind of crane or hoisting gear?

    That suggests it must have been swung off the deck of a ship and dropped overboard. But how did it get onto the ship in the first place? Was the empty box perhaps loaded with bodies that were already on board, having been killed during a voyage from...somewhere? But if that was the case, why not dump them overboard out at sea instead of in the middle of a major city? The nightclothes suggest they were killed while they slept. To rob them?

    Any idea of the ages of the four adults? Could the box have contained all the members of a single household: a couple, their two children, the two grandparents and a servant? But if so, wouldn't there also be a maid and a cook?

    Questions, questions....

    1. I have no idea about the ages--they were just described as "adults." I've been looking through all the available newspaper databases for any 1859 reports of missing families, but so far I've found nothing.

      All those questions you mentioned occurred to me as well. I can't believe they didn't also occur to everyone who knew of the story at the time, which is why I'm rather puzzled it didn't get more media attention.


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