"...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, May 23, 2016

Rufus Cantrell: Invasion of the Body-Snatcher

It is commonly known that in older days, medical colleges, desperate to find corpses to use as subjects in their anatomy lessons, were usually not overly finicky about how they acquired them. As a result, grave-robbing became a lucrative industry for anyone with a strong enough stomach to tackle the job. By the 1870s, American medical schools were dissecting thousands of corpses a year...and they scarcely hid the fact that nearly all of them were former residents of the local churchyard.

Abhorrent though it may have been, the trade often went unpunished, and even when the thieves were brought to book, the penalties were usually light. Occasionally, however, the body-snatchers became a bit too enthusiastic. For example, the infamous business partnership of Burke and Hare cut out the middleman and provided the medical students with corpses they themselves had created. Others, while perhaps not going so far as to commit murder, pursued their unholy profession in such large numbers that they became a public menace. America's most notorious example was Rufus Cantwell, who earned the distinction of being named "King of the Ghouls."

Our story opens on a suitably eerie note in Marion County, Indiana. In September 1902, a disguised man billing himself as "The Voice From the Grave," made late-night visits to the homes of people who had recently suffered a bereavement. He would deliver a chilling message: their lost loved ones were not resting at peace in their graves. Instead, they were resting in pieces at the Central College of Physicians in Indianapolis. If he was correct about every body he named, over 100 corpses had been stolen within a period of three months. This Grim-Reaperish Town Crier was never identified.

Central College of Physicians

Police made a search of the College, and found enough to assure them that the Voice From the Grave was not exaggerating. The next step was to find out who was responsible for this wholesale plundering. The authorities got their first clue when the owner of a gun store told them that Dr. Joseph Alexander, an anatomy professor at the College, had provided credit for four men to buy rifles.

The break in the case came on September 29, when seven men, led by 20-year-old Rufus Cantrell, were arrested for lurking around a graveyard in a decidedly...businesslike fashion. Cantrell, the acknowledged "brains" of the gang, quickly proved that loyalty was not among his small store of virtues. He not only immediately confessed to a prolific career of looting graveyards, but freely implicated his confederates, as well. One cemetery in particular, Mount Jackson, had been visited by the gang so often that it was virtually empty. (A footnote: Cantrell's "day job" was acting as preacher at the Antioch Baptist Church. The talk was that he would read the burial service for the newly dead during the day and "resurrect" them at night. One has to marvel at the man's versatility.)

Cantrell gave a detailed description of his methods. ("There are secrets in the grave-robbing business that only professional ghouls with considerable experience understand.") It is worth repeating for anyone curious about how a pro goes about his business: As the leader of the gang, he gave his confederates the menial job of digging up the grave. Then, "When the box is reached then it's my time. I go after the stiff and jerk it out. It's a job everybody can't do. I don't use hooks. I usually get 'em out with my hands. I can do it all right. Once in a long time I find it necessary to use the hooks. If the body sticks in the box the hooks are put on and the other fellows help me pull it out."

Unfortunately for the faculty of the Central College, Indiana law required medical schools to keep detailed records of the bodies used for dissection. As body-snatching is not a trade that lends itself to careful bookkeeping, a number of the College's doctors found themselves under arrest.

The loquacious Cantrell provided the police with more interesting news: His was far from the only gang monetizing Indiana cemeteries. He claimed there were two other bands of body-snatchers working out of Indianapolis. Some of the bodies were sold to local medical colleges, but most were shipped to schools out West, disguised as normal freight. Investigations of local cemeteries proved that Cantrell was hardly fibbing about the scope of the vandalism. There appeared to hardly be a decently-buried corpse left in the entire state.

Everyone with loved ones buried anywhere in the Indianapolis area reacted with predictable outrage. One man had his late wife's body encased in cement. Other families formed vigilante groups to patrol the cemeteries in the hope of being able to put bullets through any passing resurrectionists. A Jesse Hodgin had the most ingenious way of dealing with the body-snatching epidemic. Before his wife was buried, he placed "a quantity of nitroglycerin" in the grave with her, ensuring that anyone who tried to make off with the corpse would be blown to kingdom come.

For all I know, the explosive is still there, so if you should ever visit Indiana's Summit Lawn Cemetery, tread lightly.

Meanwhile, Cantrell continued talking. Thanks to his revelations, by mid-October police had arrested an impressive list of co-conspirators: Nine body-snatchers, three doctors, an undertaker, plus a cemetery proprietor and his night watchman. (For good measure, Cantrell also mentioned a man who had just buried his wife and child together. The grieving husband was perfectly content to allow Cantrell's gang to make off with the bodies of his dearly deceased--as long as he received half the profits from their sale.) Members of the two rival gangs were also rounded up. It looked like, at last, all the bodysnatchers had been snatched.

The most prominent member of this gruesome ensemble was Dr. Joseph C. Alexander. It was confirmed that he had supplied the Cantrell gang with guns and then paid them $30 for each fresh corpse they supplied him. As an extra perk of the job, the resurrectionists also got to keep whatever jewelry or other valuables they found on the bodies. It also emerged that Alexander had a deal with the proprietors of the local insane asylum: Officials would secretly tip him off whenever a patient died, and then the deceased would be interred in a conveniently shallow grave. Cantrell told reporters that he took great pride in his chosen profession: "Grave robbing is a legitimate business, and it's no disgrace to be in it."

Cantrell was disconcerted to learn that the state of Indiana thought otherwise. The penalty for disturbing a grave was 3 to 10 years. If you removed the corpse? 3 to 14 years.

The faculty at the Central College was going into a panic. After all, they had a great many corpses on their hands, and a great lack of any legitimate explanation for how they acquired them. Their method of dealing with this damning evidence was to simply dump the bodies in the public streets.

On October 25, a grand jury issued indictments against the body-snatchers, the doctors who had employed them, and the cemetery workers who had been bribed into turning a blind eye. The physicians and the cemetery employees had the money to pay their bail, and were soon released from custody. Cantrell and his fellow resurrectionists, lacking such financial wherewithal, were left to rot in jail and sulk.

Cantrell became increasingly indignant at this state of affairs. He found it grossly unfair that he should remain in custody while the men who hired him walked free. He felt they had betrayed him, and he sought revenge. Cantrell announced he would turn State's evidence, and tell all. It was the classic case of a conspirator who vows that if he has to go down, he'll at least have the satisfaction of taking everyone else with him. He told the press that when he testified before the grand jury, he would point the finger at over a dozen more doctors and undertakers, plus a couple of embalmers and additional medical schools that had so far been unimplicated.

These threats seem to have had their effect in certain quarters. We do not know who promised what to Cantrell, but he suddenly lost his zeal for playing super-grass. On January 7, 1903, he sent a letter to a local newspaper stating that he refused to provide further evidence against his old confederates. He would just plead guilty and take his lumps...alone, if it came to that.

This put the prosecution in a bind. Cantrell was the man who, to use the old phrase, "knew where the bodies were buried" (or in this case, of course, not buried,) and without his testimony, they lacked much of a case against the other defendants. Despite this blow, they carried on the following month with the trial of Dr. Alexander. Prosecutors highlighted the fact that several shrouds had been found in the College's basement. At least one was identified as belonging to a recently-buried woman.

When Cantrell took the stand, he said that Alexander had hired him to lead the gang of grave-robbers, at a price of $30 per corpse. (He added the charming detail that on one occasion, he unwittingly dug up the remains of his, Cantrell's, girlfriend--while he was out of town, she had died without his knowledge. He sold the body anyway. After all, love's love, but thirty bucks is thirty bucks.)

Another member of Cantrell's gang stated that in June 1902, Alexander told him that he needed corpses for dissection. He revealed that the doctor would check the lists of the county Board of Health. When he found a recent death, he would tell Cantrell it was time to go to work. A liveryman confirmed that Alexander paid for the vehicles used in the gang's grisly outings. Another witness testified to seeing the body of one Stella Middleton on a dissecting table at the College--at a time when she was supposedly lying in a cemetery. In his defense, all Alexander could do was deny that he knew the bodies he bought from Cantrell were stolen.

Whether Dr. Alexander had amazing hypnotic powers, or the jury was composed entirely of the local village idiots, I do not know. Either way, this defense plea actually worked. After two days of deliberation, the jurors announced they were hopelessly deadlocked. The prosecution, reluctant to let this modern-day Dr. Knox out of their clutches, prepared for a retrial. In the meantime, Cantrell kept himself occupied by testifying before another grand jury, where he provided entertaining and instructive details about a further grave-robbing syndicate, this one in Hamilton County. His information led to eleven more people being arrested. During his stay in Hamilton County, Cantrell earned some pocket money by selling autographed photos of himself to his admiring public.

Cantrell had little reason to be sanguine. The more authorities investigated his doings, the more they began to suspect that grave-robbing had been the least of his gang's crimes. In 1902, a Chinese laundryman named Doc Lung had been decapitated in his own shop. The murder was so far unsolved, but prosecutors came to believe Cantrell knew more about it than he had been letting on. Under interrogation, Cantrell stated that Lung's killer was a confederate of his named Nim Davidson. Davidson was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison.

Dr. Alexander was to be retried in April 1903. However, the prosecutor, John Ruckelshaus announced that the trial would be postponed indefinitely, thanks to the refusal of Cantrell and his gang to testify. (Rumor had it that the faculty at the Medical College bribed the ghouls into keeping their mouths shut.) Some Indiana residents were so outraged about the good doctor getting off the hook that they burned him in effigy.

When Cantrell himself faced trial in April, he pled not guilty by reason of insanity. Unfortunately, the judge in his case decided that the King of the Ghouls was merely a perfectly sane creep. He found the defendant guilty of grave-robbing and conspiracy to commit a felony. The penalty was up to fourteen years in prison, with a minimum of three. After Cantrell's conviction, his former confederates gave up and pleaded guilty. They were all given various prison sentences.

Not long after he entered prison, Cantrell decided to enliven his enforced vacation by regaling reporters with tales of his exploits. He now claimed that, like the legendary Burke and Hare, his gang simplified their job by occasionally creating their own human merchandise. All in all, he confessed to having been implicated in five murders. Cantrell also took credit for a story I've already covered on this blog: the puzzling case of a woman named Carrie T. Selvage, who disappeared in 1900 while a patient in Union State Hospital. According to Cantrell, he and his gang kidnapped Selvage and held her captive for some weeks, with the intention of eventually selling her corpse. However, when they began to fear she would be discovered, they killed her and hastily placed her body in a grave they had recently emptied. Cantrell refused to say where they had buried her. (As I had noted earlier, in 1920 a skeleton believed to be Selvage's was discovered in the hospital's attic, leaving the question of how it got there an unsolved mystery.) One of Cantrell's old accomplices even claimed that the King of the Ghouls was the leader of a band of hit men called "The Sign of the Cross." When police investigated these lurid stories, they uncovered evidence linking the Cantrell gang to no less than twenty murders. Unfortunately, they were never able to find enough hard evidence to bring any of alleged perpetrators to justice. There were also suspicions that the publicity-loving Cantrell exaggerated the scale of his criminal history. In 1903, it was reported that Cantrell was writing his life story, with the delightful title "Graveyards I Have Robbed," but, alas, I have found no evidence the book was ever published.

Cantrell was paroled in May of 1909, on the condition that he "secure employment and keep away from Indianapolis." Later that year, he married one Hattie Patterson, who was romantically dubbed by newspapers, "The Grave Robber's Bride." The couple moved to Anderson, Indiana, where Cantrell found work at a steel mill. In 1910, he capitalized on his notoriety by appearing on vaudeville, where "The Famous King of the Ghouls" delivered lectures on "his past terrible life." Subsequently, this multi-talented character attended Tuskegee Institute, where he studied medicine and theology. The Reverend Rufus Cantrell became pastor of a Baptist church in Indianapolis. He was dismissed from his post in 1912 as the result of a dispute over Prohibition, thus depriving his flock of what must have been remarkably edifying sermons. He subsequently moved to Ohio, where he spent the rest of his career working at an asphalt company. He continued to preside over revival meetings, which always attracted large crowds. He also earned money as a popular Abraham Lincoln impersonator.

No, seriously.

I regret to say that our hero just could not stay out of trouble. In 1916, he and an accomplice were convicted of "frisking the pockets" of a gospel group in Detroit, and sentenced to two years in jail. After his release, Cantrell returned to the vaudeville stage, where he entertained audiences with tales of his old adventures. He also campaigned on behalf of Woodrow Wilson's presidential campaign, which has to be a high point in the history of celebrity political endorsements. Cantrell was alive as late as 1920, but the date and place of his death is unknown. If the man had any sense for a fitting exit, he would have left his body to some medical school.

Following the Cantrell scandal, Indiana state law was changed to allow medical colleges to have unclaimed bodies for dissection. It was specifically noted that this was done for "the promotion of anatomical science and to prevent grave desecration." Presumably after that, Indiana graveyards became a safer resting place.


  1. An excellent argument for cremation.

  2. I'm surprised that in those days of free-wheeling private justice, the public didn't arrange for some of the guilty party to become corpses themselves. Where are those outraged citizens of the Illustrated Police News when you need them?

  3. Here's Mrs. Hudgin's grave: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=36382736


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