CEPI Curiosities: John Scott Harrison and the “Sack-’em-up Men”

Greetings again, fellow medico-historico-philes! Kevin here and welcome to another installment of CEPI Curiosities. Last time, we tackled the alleged murder plot behind America’s twelfth president–Zachary Taylor–as forensic scientists hauled his bones out of the ground to test the late president for arsenic poisoning. This time, we’ll keep in the same thread of presidential bodies with a look at John Scott Harrison.

Image of John Scott Harrison, Used under CC License, No changes made to image

Image of John Scott Harrison, Used under CC License, No changes made to image

If you are scratching your head and trying to sift through your memory for when John Scott Harrison was president, furrow your brow no longer because he was never elected nor did he serve as America’s Chief Executive. However, JSH had the unique distinction of being the son of one President–William Henry Harrison–and the father of another–Benjamin Harrison. JSH’s political career was not quite as storied as his father or his son; two terms as a Congressman from Ohio (1853-1857) marked the extent of his own political achievement, after which he settled down at the family farm in North Bend, OH. However, for the purposes of this story, we are less concerned with JHS’s life and more on what happened after his death.

JSH died on May 25, 1878, at the age of seventy-three and was buried in the family plot in North Bend, OH. The same week, 23-year-old Augustus Devin died of tuberculosis and was buried in the same cemetery. During Harrison’s funeral, it was uncovered that Devin’s body had been removed from its final resting place. Fearing it had been taken as a cadaver, Harrison’s son–also named John– and his cousin George Eaton began to search the local medical colleges for Devin’s body. Their search eventually led them to Cincinnati’s Ohio Medical College on May 30, 1878. While they found no sign of Devin, they discovered a windlass with a taut rope leading to an underground space, whereupon John Harrison operated a winch to lift the rope only to find his father’s remains hanging on the other end! The stunning discovery of John Scott Harrison prompted a scandal in Ohio and attracted national attention. Local papers, such as the Cincinnati Commercial recounted the horror in sensational detail:

“Harrison, with eyes starting from their sockets, shrank, almost in fear, from the awful spectacle that was presented. He had before him…the corpse of his own old father, whom he had entombed only twenty hours before. It was there, caught by a rope around its neck–there in a black hole in the Medical College of Ohio, in the the city of Cincinnati, this body that the day before had been placed in a grave at North Bend….There is something in this situation of startling horror, this strange coincidence, this unlooked-for discovery, that challenges wonder. It is unprecedented.” “A Horror,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, May 31, 1878.

Son and future president Benjamin was understandably livid at the robbing of his father’s grave and filed suit against the college (the results of the suit have been lost). Incidentally, Devin’s remains were eventually discovered among the specimens in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. The scandal prompted several states to pass acts to provide medical specimens for dissection.

As shocking as the tale is, the practice was not quite as unprecedented. During the nineteenth century, as anatomical study became a more prominent part of American medical education, colleges struggled to keep up with the demand for subjects. In Philadelphia acquiring subjects was extremely challenging as the demand for bodies far outpaced the supply. In an effort to alleviate this, Pennsylvania passed the Anatomy Act in 1867. Drafted by College of Physicians fellow William S. Forbes, the act was to supply human specimens from the city’s indigent and inmate populations. However, even taking from the city’s asylums and prisons was not enough to keep up with the need for cadavers, making room for a black market of human remains. Going by various names, from “resurrectionists” to “night doctors” to “sack-em-up men,” these figures would raid cemeteries for the recently-deceased and sell them to the local medical colleges.

Portrait of William S. Forbes by Thomas Eakins

Portrait of William S. Forbes by Thomas Eakins

These raids took an especially harsh toll on local poor and minority populations. In 1882, a scandal arose regarding West Philadelphia’s Lebanon Cemetery where reportedly thousands of bodies had been exhumed by resurrectionists from the predominantly African American cemetery. The most prominent figure in the case was none other than Forbes himself, who was arrested in connection with the bodysnatchers, whom he allegedly paid to supply cadavers to Thomas Jefferson Medical College. Forbes stood trial and was acquitted in 1883.

Until next time!

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8 thoughts on “CEPI Curiosities: John Scott Harrison and the “Sack-’em-up Men”

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