"...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, January 25, 2016

The Case of the Kidnapped Corpse [Part One]

Alexander Stewart

Everyone, of course, has heard of kidnapping people for ransom. Most are also aware of the historical practice of stealing dead bodies from their graves for the purpose of selling them to medical colleges as anatomical subjects. Heinous as such actions are, they are relatively "normal" crimes.

It's when the acts are combined, and you see dead bodies being kidnapped, that things really get weird.

America's most notorious case of corpsenapping was probably that of millionaire department store mogul Alexander Turney Stewart. The tycoon died on April 10, 1876 at his New York mansion. Stewart was given an appropriately lavish funeral, after which he was buried in a marble vault at the church of St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie. There his remains were left--or so everyone fondly imagined--to rest in peace until his more permanent crypt in Long Island could be completed.

All was quiet until the morning of November 7, 1878, when Frank Parker, St. Mark's assistant sexton, arrived at the church, only to be greeted by a nightmarish sight: a large hole had been dug over the Stewart vault. Parker saw that ghouls had battered through the merchant prince's coffin and made off with his bones. Also missing were the coffin's silver name-plate, its knobs and handles, and a patch of the coffin's velvet lining.

Everyone was naturally stunned. Who could have committed such a gruesome act, and why? Stewart's executor, Henry Hilton, posted a $25,000 reward for the body's recovery, but received no replies. The crime remained an unsolved mystery until January 1879, when Stewart's widow, Cornelia, received a letter posted from Canada. The writer, who used the presumed pen name "Henry G. Romaine," offered her the return of her husband's corpse--in exchange for $200,000.

I have no idea how much Cornelia Stewart valued her husband when he was alive, but it's clear that she didn't think he was worth very much dead. She entered into no-nonsense negotiations with her nameless foe, (conducted largely through the personals section of the "New York Herald,") where she not only demanded proof that the bones he had were indeed those of her husband, she managed to knock down the asking price to $20,000. The grave-robber sent her the silver knobs and name-plate that had been removed from the coffin, and the deal was struck.

An envoy (variously described as Cornelia's lawyer or one of her grand-nephews) was given the dubious honor of carrying out the exchange. Late one night, he drove a buggy out to a remote spot in rural Westchester County. He was met by a masked horseman, who, after offering the piece of velvet cut from Stewart's coffin as proof of his legitimacy, handed over a bag of bones. After receiving the money in return, the miscreant vanished.

The grave-robbers were never identified. Also left unanswered was whether the bones returned to the Stewart family really belonged to the late tycoon. It has been suggested that the thieves, not wishing to keep such unpleasant relics about the house, ditched them soon after the exhumation, and, when an opportunity of making money arose, palmed off on the family the bones of some anonymous stranger. The Stewarts could have settled the matter by subjecting the bones to forensic examination, but they flatly refused to do so. Perhaps they felt that having their patriarch's corpse stolen for ransom was indignity enough. Learning that they had spent 20 grand for a ringer would have been just too much.

In any case, the Stewarts placed the remains in a fine casket and buried them in the newly-built family vault at Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City. According to legend, an elaborate alarm system was set up around the coffin which would set all the cathedral bells ringing if anyone made another effort to monetize Alexander's corpse.

It has never been needed. The body has been undisturbed ever since.

Whoever it is.

[Tune in next week for another tale of purloining corpses for fun and profit!]


  1. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and this is one of those cases. Thanks for offering us such a fascinating story. You are a good writer!

  2. Historical facts are so interesting Thank you for this tid bit of history

  3. I don't know whether I would pay anything for remains, especially as I could not be certain they were the right ones. An intact body may be worth the money, but the funeral and the burial service are the symbols at which we grieve, and at which the body is needed. After that, perhaps it is, as the Klingons say, "Just a shell."


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