The Grave Robbing of Benjamin Harrison’s Father

The Grave Robbing of Benjamin Harrison's Father

October 31, 2018

Photo of John Scott Harrison on a desktop blotter. The blotter has slight wear, and John Scott Harrison looks towards the camera with a serious expression. He is photographed in dark clothing against a dark background.

John Scott Harrison, father of 23rd President Benjamin Harrison, passed away on May 25, 1878. Four days later, he was buried at this resting place near Augustus Devin, Benjamin’s 23-year-old nephew who had died about a week earlier. But during the burial, attendees noticed something a little off about Augustus’s grave. It had been robbed.

This sparked concern among Benjamin and his brothers, John and Carter. To ensure their father’s grave remained untouched, they reinforced the brick-vaulted grave by placing three large stone slabs over the casket, followed by the pouring of cement on top of that. The Harrison brothers hired a watchman to guard the grave for the first month after the burial.

Benjamin returned to Indianapolis late in the day after the funeral; he hoped to finish his address that was to be given at the Republican State Convention on June 5. The rest of the family departed as well, except for John and his cousin, George Eaton. The two acquired a search warrant and, with the assistance of local Cincinnati officers, went looking for Augustus’s body. First stop: the Medical College of Ohio.

Throughout the 1800s, it was common for medical schools to steal recently buried bodies and use them to practice surgical procedures.

The search party scoured the school, led by janitor A.Q. Marshall. Room after room, George and John came out with no new discoveries. Near the end of the search, the janitor led the party upstairs to a room with a windlass and rope that exited through a hole in the floor.

Upon further inspection, it seemed this device was used to lift cadavers to other floors of the building.

One of the men in the search party, Constable Lacey, noticed the rope to the device was pulled tight — as if there were something at the other end. He ordered a detective to haul the device to the service. Slowly and strenuously, he pulled the rope, eventually pulling a bare body to the surface. George and John initially rejected the finding, as the body was clearly that of a relatively old man, not one in his early 20s. The detective insisted, nonetheless, to lift the cloth from the face of the body.

It was not Augustus Devin, that was clear. But the look on John’s face told of another, more shocking discovery.

“My God, that’s my father.”

Engineering diagram of a windlass sitting on a desktop blotter. The diagram is labeled with different letters to section off each part and is accompanied by some text, reading "Ohio Medical College. Section D. Door leading from alley to. Section C. Chute through which bodies are let down to. Section P. Point from which, by a rope from. Section W. Windlass, the are raised through. Section H. Hoist to dissecting room in the top of the building."A windlass is a device used today to hoist ship anchors. In the past, it was used to lower and raise buckets from wells. This illustration from The Harrison Horror by Harry J. Sievers shows a diagram of the device John Scott Harrison was found hanging from.

Upon receiving a telegram of the finding less than 24 hours after arriving home, Benjamin Harrison acted immediately. He contacted the Pinkerton Detective Agency to conduct a private investigation. Benjamin boarded a train to Cincinnati and, once more news reached Indianapolis, Russell Harrison released them to the press. The Cincinnati Daily Star and a Plymouth, Indiana newspaper, the Marshall County Republican, reported on the incident. News even stretched to Wisconsin, where an article was published in the Janesville Daily Gazette.

The image shows three newspaper clippings on top of a desktop blotter. The first clipping reads, Harrison Horror. Additional particulars in the case. Marshall bound over the the grand jury. The members of the faculty of the ohio medical college were before the grand jury last evening, and from various sources of information the following was learned as to what manner john scott harrison's body came into that institution. They testified that they and the faculties of other colleges throughout the country leave contracts with certain persona to supply them with cadavers for dissection and anatomical demonstration. It is part of the contract with the resurrectionists that they shall not molest private burying grounds, or the bodies of those whose surviving friends' feeling would be shocked and outraged by the discovery that the graved had been rifled. The faculty are not able to determine whether the bodies supplied to them are taken from public or private grounds, but they deplore any invasion of the former for the important reason, if no other, that it increases the difficulties and the costs of obtaining subjects for the dissecting table. If the resurrectionists violate their contracts in this particular, and disregard the advice of the faculty, they do it at their own peril, and will not be shielded, if discovered, by the faculty. It is also a part of the contract with the resurrectionists at least in the case of the ohio medical college that they shall not only place the cadaver in the dissecting room, but shave the face, if there be a beard, cut the hair, and inject the arteries and veins with the substance used in preserving the body. In the case of Mr. Harrison, at the time the body was taken to the dissecting room, none of the members of the faculty were in the building, or aware that it had been. The first newspaper clipping cuts off here. The second newspaper clipping reads, The search for the body of young devin, whose disappearance resulted in the discovery of the body of John Scott Harrison, dangling by the neck in the ohio medical college, has led to developments. Colonel Snelbaker, acting on a clue received in cincinnati, went to ann arbor, michigan, and gaining admission to the medical college there, found three large vats filled with human bodies in pickle and brine. The janitor removed the weights, took from those vats and piled on the floor forty nine naked bodies. Young and old, white and black, male and female, the beautiful and the deformed, were all piled together in those vats and were all tumbled rudely on the floor. Among the number the body of devin was found. These startling developments will probably lead to the punishment of some of those fiends in human shape who have been ruthlessly desecrating cemeteries. The second clipping ends here. The third begins, reading, Horrible. The body of the son of ex-president harrison found in a dissecting room in cincinnati. Cincinnati, Ohio. May thirtieth. There is intense excitement over the finding of the body of John Scott Harrison, son of ex-president harrison, in a medical college here. He died suddenly saturday or sunday morning. A funeral took place yesterday. When preparing the grave it was found that the grave of August Devins, who died ten days ago, had been bespoiled. Devins was a friends of the harrisons, and the discovery caused them to be especially careful in preparing the grave of john scott harrison. It was strongly walled up, the body, in a metallic casket, placed in, and a stone as heavy as sixteen men could handle put on it. The funeral over, john harrison, son of deceased, and george eaton, grandson, came to the city to search for the body of their friend devins. Guided by a clue given by an item in a morning paper, they went to the ohio medical college. In the dissecting room, a rope being drawn from the chute, a body was found attached to it. Mr. Harrison said, "This is not my friend. He was much wasted in consumption, while this is a stout man." Colonel snell baker, who was with him, suggested that he take a good look. A cloth over the face, the only covering about the body, was removed, when john harrison trembled and turned pale, saying "Great god, it's father." The body was not mutilated. The whiskers were cut off, and the jugular vein cut and the blood let out. The body was taken to the undertaker's and prepared for reburial. The discovery of the robbery was made this morning, and friends came to the city to find the body already recovered. The big stone had been removed, and the guard placed to watch the grave is no where to be found.

From left to right: Clippings from the Cincinnati Daily Star, Marshall County Republican and Janesville Daily Gazette.

Benjamin reached Cincinnati and called for the arrest of A.Q. Marshall. The janitor was later taken in on charges of receiving and concealing the body of John Scott Harrison, but shortly after the arrest, the medical college posted the $5,000 bond. This angered Cincinnati citizens, who suggested mob-like action to take on the medical college. Benjamin vetoed this idea, and as a response to the release of A.Q. Marshall, issued a response on June 1. Part of the open letter reads:

“We have been offered through the press the sympathy of the distinguished men who constitute the faculty of the Ohio Medical College. I have no satisfactory evidence that any of them knew whose body they had, but I have the most convincing evidence that they are covering the guilty scoundrel… The bodies brought there are purchased and paid for by an office of the College. The body-snatcher stands before him and takes from his hand the fee for his hellish work. He is not an occasional visitant…”

A charcoal illustration of Benjamin Harrison sits on a desktop blotter. Harrison sits in a chair with a side table next to him. Atop the side table lies a small stack of paper and an ink well with pen. Harrison holds a piece of paper in his hand and looks at it wistfully. There is a caption that reads, "Harrison drafted an open letter to the citizens of cincinnati."

An illustration, from Siever’s book, of Benjamin Harrison writing the open letter to the citizens of Cincinnati.

Benjamin Harrison made it clear he would exhaust any resources to find Augustus Devin’s body, which was uncovered at the University of Michigan. John Scott Harrison was was later re-interred in a family friend’s vault at Spring Grove Cemetery just outside of Cincinnati.


Information gathered from The Harrison Horror, a chapter in the second volume of the biography of Benjamin Harrison, by Harry J. Sievers. Information also gathered from The Library of Congress newspaper archives and “The Body-Snatching Horror of John Scott Harrison,” an article published by MentalFloss.

Back to Top

Subscribe to eNews
Monday through Saturday 10am to 3:30pm
Sundays 12 to 3:30pm
X

Notice of Closure

Due to Candlelight Theatre we will be CLOSED for tours this Sunday, December 15, 2019. We will reopen the following day.

X

Thank You!

Thank you for being an important part of the Presidential Site and sharing a legacy in action!