"...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, June 21, 2021

The Body in the Pond, and the Holes in the Ground: The Strange Death of Henry Kuipers

"Louisville Courier-Journal," May 8, 1881, via Newspapers.com

When I started this blog, I hoped to focus on the smaller, obscure stories from the past--the long-forgotten bits of random oddities that, when taken together, show just what a strange world we live in.  In short, the "uncommon" is really quite commonplace.

One such story is the death of one otherwise completely unmemorable young man.  It did not get much publicity even at the time, and soon passed from the memory of everyone but his surviving relatives.  It was, however, 100% weird.

And, really, it was the sort of thing that could happen to anyone.

In Louisville, Kentucky, you would be hard pressed to find a more ordinary citizen than 23-year-old Henry Kuipers.  He drove a wagon for his father's brewery, and everyone who knew him considered Henry to be a pleasant, reliable, decent fellow.  He had been married less than a year.  

On the evening of May 6, 1881, Kuipers left his home to attend a committee meeting of the St. George branch of the Roman Knights (a fraternal organization similar to the Odd Fellows and the like.)  Kuipers was vice-president of the club.  However, at 9:30 p.m., he visited a grocery store near the club headquarters, explaining that he had been too late to attend the meeting.  He hung around the store until about ten, and then left to return home.

This was the last we know of Henry Kuipers until about 9 the next morning, when two Louisville residents happened to be walking along Twenty-Eighth street, which was then a completely rural part of town.  As they passed by a shallow pond, they thought they saw something unusual in the water, and waded out to investigate.

Unusual, indeed.  What they found was a body, lying face-down in the water, and quite dead.  Oddly, the corpse's hands were firmly in his pockets.  Kuipers' family--who had been frantically searching for him after he failed to return home the night before--soon identified the corpse as their missing relative.  Although no autopsy was performed--much to the later regret of his family--the coroner ruled that Kuipers had drowned, probably only a few hours before he was found.  

This was not the only odd occurrence to hit Louisville that morning.  Around the time Kuipers was discovered, gardeners at the Blind Asylum discovered that sometime during the night, a large hole had been dug on the grounds.  It was five feet deep, and about six feet long--in other words, a perfect size for a grave.

Although there was absolutely no evidence to show how Kuipers had come to his sudden and peculiar end, the coroner issued a ruling of "accidental death," the unfortunate young man was buried on the afternoon of May 8, and that, as far as the authorities were concerned, was that.

The dead man's friends and family felt otherwise.  How could a healthy, stone-cold-sober young man accidentally drown in less than two feet of water?  Suicide seemed highly unlikely for this seemingly happy, well-balanced man.  Besides, who drowns themselves with their hands in their pockets?  And what was Kuipers doing in the opposite end of the city from both the store where he was last seen and his home?  Kuipers' loved ones felt he must have been a victim of foul play.  They insisted that someone had--for whatever inexplicable reason--murdered the young man and then dumped him in the pond, on the assumption that his death would be ruled an accident.  But who on earth would do such an act?  And why?  No one who advocated the "murder" scenario was able to answer those questions.  

And what of that mysterious body-sized hole at the Blind Asylum?  Could its simultaneous appearance have been just a coincidence?  Or, did Kuipers' killer(s) dig a grave for their victim, only to change their minds and simply dump him in a pond instead?

Unfortunately, the accounts about the condition of Kuipers' body did exactly nothing to clarify the mystery.  Some newspaper reports claimed that his body had shown no signs of violence.  Others stated that his face was badly scratched, and that there was a large bruise on his head suggestive of a savage blow.  Still others declare that his nose had been broken.  In an effort to settle all these contradictions, Kuipers was exhumed on May 10.  However, the body had decomposed so badly that a definitive autopsy was impossible.  Doctors were not even able to say if Kuipers had truly died from drowning or not.

The riddle of Kuipers' death appeared to be sputtering to an inconclusive end.  Then, on May 20, Louisville police received that indispensable feature of every good death mystery, an anonymous letter.    It read:  "That man Kuipers, who was killed on the 6th of May, I saw with my eyes alone.  I think it was wrong of me to keep it dark.  He was knocked down on Green, above Campbell, about twenty minutes after 10 o'clock.  He was taken in a shay by three men, and all I can say is one man's name is Gry.  They hit him with a big piece of wood.  I saw lots more."  This enticing communication was signed, "Mary."  No one by the name of "Gry" lived in Louisville, and the identity of "Mary" remained unknown.  It is anyone's guess if the letter was at all truthful, or merely the product of a substandard intellect with too much time on their hands.

Here our little tale must end, but with one wonderfully bizarre postscript.  Although the large hole at the Blind Asylum was immediately filled in, three months after Kuipers died, it was found that someone had dug a new pit.  This re-excavation happened on several further occasions.  The exasperated asylum owners set spies to watch the area at night.  Finally, late in October, three men were caught digging yet another hole.  Two of the men escaped, but the ringleader, an elderly man named William Gray, was captured.  He explained that he had had a recurring dream that he would find gold at the site.  Although he accepted responsibility for the recent diggings, he insisted that he had nothing to do with the original hole that appeared the night Kuipers died.

There the matter rested until one year later...when a new hole was found at the same site.  

This secondary mystery proved as impossible to solve as the death of Henry Kuipers.


  1. Gray probably was telling the truth about the reason for the holes. It makes no sense to dig a grave near an inhabited building when it would have been just as easy to dump the body out in the countryside far from any possible witnesses, and it makes even less sense to dig a grave and then not use it. Naturally he would deny responsibility for the first hole to avoid admitting that his group were out on the night Kuipers died. My guess is that they met Kuipers by chance and killed him in case he told anyone about their nocturnal expeditions, for fear that someone else might find the imaginary gold first. They might even have suspected him of being a rival treasure hunter. So, the likely motive is greed fuelled by a delusion.

    1. I did find the similarity of “Gry” and “Gray” intriguing...

  2. Very weird indeed. You'd think an autopsy would have been performed on anyone found dead in two feet of water - though it suggests that there was nothing else of note (scratches to his face, broken nose) about the body.

  3. The bit about too much decomposition for an autopsy - after only four days? That... doesn't sound right to me. Or is it because of heat quickening decomp?

    1. I'm no expert on such matters, but the weather was hot, I think that is possible. Or the doctors were just incompetent.


Comments are moderated. Because no one gets to be rude and obnoxious around here except the author of this blog.