Uncovering the Harrison Horror

How a bold body-snatching doctor terrorized the Harrison political dynasty in the late 1800s—and escaped justice.

On May 25, 1878, John Scott Harrison died at his farmhouse in North Bend, Ohio. He’s the only person to have been both the son and the father of U.S. presidents. As his family prepared to bury the distinguished farmer and politician, they were sidetracked by a despicable crime. A Harrison family friend, August Devins, died of tuberculosis in what should have been the prime of his youth. Loved ones suffered a second blow when they discovered that Devins’s body had been stolen. The Harrisons vowed to recover his remains.

Illustration by Donna Grethen

Medical schools of the day required cadavers to train future doctors, and still do. Under Ohio law, colleges received the unclaimed bodies of people who died in public institutions, but legal acquisition didn’t satiate the need. More than 1,000 students attended Cincinnati medical schools annually; the Ohio Medical College alone could require 300 cadavers a semester. Grave robbers, known euphemistically as “resurrectionists,” filled this black-market demand for human remains.

Stealing bodies from the grave was a serious crime, but it was lucrative. Although state laws differed slightly, body snatching was a national phenomenon, and every medical school in the country had a symbiotic and unsavory relationship with resurrectionists.

Dr. Charles O. Morton and Dr. Honore Le Caron

Photograph courtesy of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library

In early 1878, Toledo police had arrested Dr. Charles O. Morton for conspiring to steal two bodies from a local cemetery. When he was apprehended, letters in his possession revealed he had an ongoing arrangement with the University of Michigan to supply cadavers to its Ann Arbor medical school. Police concluded that he had stolen at least 10 bodies from Toledo cemeteries—which was just the tip of a macabre iceberg.

Most resurrectionists were uneducated laborers who often worked in pairs, but Morton had a different business model. He employed a crew to supply medical schools with stolen bodies on a commercial scale. He also disregarded many of the traditional boundaries of the profession, like stealing the bodies of middle-class people from respect­able cemeteries rather than harvesting the indigent from a potter’s field.

Shortly after Morton’s arrest, he developed symptoms of smallpox. At least five physicians agreed on the diagnosis. Everyone who’d been in contact with Morton was terrified, and Toledo feared an epidemic. Morton was moved to a small, private farmhouse owned by a couple with experience treating smallpox cases. Two guards were assigned to watch him. Nevertheless, on January 29, 1878, the doctor stuffed his bed with pillows, walked out through a locked door, and disappeared into a frigid night, wearing only bedclothes.

An intense manhunt was launched immediately. Morton was more than an escaped prisoner—he was also a possibly contagious, although the second fear was soon assuaged. Morton had croton oil smuggled into the jail. When rubbed onto the skin, it produces blisters and pustules that mimic smallpox. Relying on medical knowledge, he was able to fake other symptoms convincingly enough to trick a team of doctors.

The resurrectionist vanished like an apparition, but Morton was no ghost. He was a flesh-and-blood criminal, and he was heading to Cincinnati, where he would become permanently intertwined with an American political dynasty.

William Henry Harrison was a war hero who helped shape the Whig Party, even though he served as the nation’s ninth president for only 31 days before dying of pneumonia in 1841. John Scott followed in his father’s footsteps and was elected to Congress in 1852. The Whig Party was already imploding and effectively ceased to exist during John Scott’s first term in Congress. He was elected to a second term as an Oppositionist, then lost a three-way race to a Democrat two years later.

William Henry Harrison

Photograph courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Library of Congress

John Scott Harrison

Photograph courtesy of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site

John Scott’s primary vocation was farming his 600-acre plot of North Bend, called Point Farm. He discouraged nominations from both the American Party and, subsequently, the Democrats to run for Ohio governor. Harrison unsuccessfully tried to reclaim his seat in Congress in 1860 on a Union slate. At the Democratic state convention in 1861, he was nominated to run as lieutenant governor but declined a position on the ticket.

In October 1862, shortly after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, he gave a speech expressing his regret that President Lincoln had succumbed to a “wave of fanaticism” engulfing him. John Scott thought that immediately ending slavery by federal decree was unconstitutional, placing him in pointed but polite disagreement with his son, Benjamin, who joined the Union Army as colonel in the 70th Indiana Infantry Regiment. Later in the war, Benjamin would be engaged in more battles during one particularly bloody month than his famous grandfather fought throughout his life.

Benjamin emerged as the heir to the Harrison political dynasty. He began his professional career practicing law in Cincinnati but, being devoutly religious, was unimpressed by the booze-soaked debauchery of 19th century big city life. He moved to more pious Indianapolis, where he built a lucrative legal practice and began a political career as a staunch Republican.

In 1864, Benjamin Harrison returned briefly from the war to stump for the Republican Party. He praised the service of Black Union troops, defended the Emancipation Proclamation, and helped deliver Indiana to Lincoln. By the time of his father’s death in 1878, Benjamin was the Republican Party’s preeminent star in Indiana, and he was deeply involved in state elections at the time of John Scott’s funeral.

Due to fears sparked by the theft of August Devins’s body, Benjamin oversaw the uniquely complex task of laying his father to rest in a fortified grave. John Scott was buried in North Bend’s small Congress Green Cemetery. After the funeral, Benjamin returned to Indianapolis, leaving his brother John to travel into Cincinnati and find the remains of their family friend.

When John Harrison reached the city, he met up with private detective Thomas Snelbaker to begin searching for the missing body. As they commenced their work, Harrison ex­plained to Snelbaker how deeply the grave robbing had affected his family, causing them to employ extraordinary precautions when they interred his father.

John Scott Harrison’s casket was encased in metal. His grave was dug much deeper than usual. The shaft was walled off with brick, and when it was partially filled 16 men were required to lift and lower an immense stone into the hole. Dirt was shoveled over top, then capped with a layer of cement. Small wooden pegs were inserted into the soil below the cover-stone, a way of monitoring any intrusion. Although the grave was already more secure than most banks, a man was hired to guard it. For at least the next 30 days, his sole job was to ensure that John Scott rested in peace.

Illustration by Stephanie Youngquist

There were six medical colleges in Cincinnati, any one of which could be holding Devins’s body in a pickling vat, awaiting dissection by students. Fortunately, the search party had a lead. People had seen a carriage pull into the alley that ran behind the Ohio Medical College on Vine Street, pausing behind it around 3 a.m. Dropping off a corpse under cover of night wasn’t unusual, but this episode stuck in witnesses’ minds because resurrectionists typically used livery wagons. They did not, as in this case, drive elegant buggies.

So the search for Devins began there. Bodies were delivered to the Ohio Medical College surreptitiously through an iron-gated door off the alley that ran along the rear of the building, where witnesses had seen the sleek carriage. The door, which was left unlocked, led to a chute into the cellar, like one used to deliver coal, but this one received cadavers. In the cellar, the body was tied to a rope attached to a windlass. A crank was used to pull it up a shaft that ran through the building to the fifth floor, where it was embalmed and prepared for dissection.

Devins’s body wasn’t there, but Snelbaker noticed that the windlass rope was taut. He engaged the crank, and a body began to emerge from the dark, square hole in the floor. It was the body of a man, Caucasian and naked except for a dirty piece of cloth tossed over his head.

John Harrison immediately saw that it wasn’t Devins. “He died of consumption and was more emaciated than this one,” he said, turning away. Harrison prepared to move on, but Snelbaker stopped him. “You had better look at the face,” he advised. “You might be mistaken, and you’ll never forgive yourself if you allow any doubtful point to pass.” Harrison was dismissive, but he nevertheless agreed.

Snelbaker cranked the corpse out of the shaft, lowered the body to the floor, and pulled the rag off the man’s head. John leaned down to examine the face more closely, then jerked back in terror. He was unsure on his feet, and Snelbaker had to grab him by the arm. As he leaned heavily on the detective to remain standing, he struggled to speak and forced the words, “It’s father.”

The long white beard that John Scott Harrison wore at his death had been cut off about an inch below his chin, and his face was discolored by the rough treatment of the body, but there was no doubt. In the time that it had taken John Harrison and his family to conclude the wake and travel to Cincinnati to look for the stolen corpse of August Devins, someone had eluded the guard, penetrated the heavily fortified grave, stolen the body of John Scott, driven it to Cincinnati in a coach, stripped it of his burial suit, and sold the body to the Ohio Medical College for dissection.

In North Bend, other members of the Harrison family had come to the independent realization that John Scott’s grave had been desecrated and robbed. Benjamin returned from Indianapolis and, along with his brother Carter, took the train into Cincinnati. John met them at the station, and the Harrison family employed Snelbaker to launch an inves­tigation into the crime and to continue the search for Devins.

The theft of John Scott Harrison’s body was unusual. Grave robbing was common, but resurrectionists typically stuck to bodies of people who would be less likely to be missed. In Ohio, both the grave robbers and the doctors at medical colleges who paid them were guilty of the same criminal offense, so everyone involved tried to be discreet. No ordinary resurrectionist would steal the body of the son of a U.S. president and drop it off in an expensive carriage.

The Harrison family was livid, and Benjamin was particularly vocal in denouncing the medical school. He refused to believe school officials who said that no doctor or student had seen John Scott’s body yet, let alone knew his identity; the carotid artery had already been cut and the body drained of blood and embalmed. That was not the work of a laborer or janitor. It indicated medical knowledge.

The family had John Scott’s body temporarily interred in a vault in Spring Grove Cemetery. Benjamin returned to Indianapolis. Displaying heroic composure, he delivered the keynote address at the state’s Republican Convention. It was recalled as “a rousing speech, interrupted repeatedly by applause and laughter.”

Newspapers dubbed the theft and discovery of John Scott’s body “The Harrison Horror,” and it became a national fascination. Snelbaker was confident that he would identify and capture the culprit within a few days.

Illustration by Donna Grethen

Initially, focus was placed on the usual cast of derelicts and known resurrectionists. Then, an unlikely prime suspect emerged. Earlier in the year, a physician had moved into a nice home at the corner of Seventh and Main streets downtown. He was short and slender, well groomed, reasonably handsome, in his mid-thirties, and said to be “lithe as a cat.” Dr. C.O. Morton, as he was known, had a fast horse and a new buggy. Although he hung out a shingle and represented himself as an ordinary doctor, the nature of his practice was unclear. He seemed oddly nocturnal for a physician.

After turning Cincinnati’s medical schools inside out, Snelbaker’s investigation led to the slippery Morton and a connection to Ann Arbor. The detective hopped a train for Michigan and found August Devins in the Ann Arbor Medical College’s pickling vats. On June 17, 1878, Devins was shipped home and reinterred. Guards were hired to watch the grave.

Snelbaker identified and reunited multiple families with the bodies of loved ones that had been stolen from Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Morton had been supplying an astounding number of cadavers, stealing bodies from an area that stretched from Canada to Cleveland to Louisville, draining them, embalming them, and shipping them to Ann Arbor. Snelbaker was confident, telling the press that “he might nail Morton on his way home.”

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. In addition to Snelbaker, the Harrison family hired the world-famous Pinkerton agency to bring Morton to justice, but he vanished yet again.

The careers of both Benjamin Harrison and a physician named Honore Le Caron were on the rise throughout the 1880s. By the end of the decade, each would attain international fame, although for starkly different reasons.

Shortly after burying his father again and helping Republicans win Indiana state elections in 1878, Benjamin Harrison resumed his political climb. He helped James Garfield win the presidency in 1880, then was named to a U.S. Senate seat in 1881. After a single term, he was nominated to run for president in 1888.

Benjamin Harrison

Photograph courtesy of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library

Meanwhile, Dr. H. Le Caron was a physician in Braidwood, Illinois, who owned two successful pharmacies. He was voted president of the State Pharmaceutical Association in 1884, twice campaigned for mayor, and received every vote in his town when he ran for the state legislature. Le Caron pressed the flesh at Democratic Party events and was active in Irish-American societies. He also touted his Civil War record as a Union major who bravely led troops into battle at Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

The Irish independence movement of the late 1800s maintained strategic links to Irish-American societies, which played a direct role in spreading sympathy for Irish nationalism and raised money to further the political cause in Ireland. Of course, once the money left American soil, it was always possible that some was used to buy guns, ammunition, and explosives for the movement’s militant wings. Le Caron immersed himself in the murky underground side of Irish-American fellowship, observing the links to violent plots.

Throughout the 1870s, Charles Stewart Parnell rose to become the “uncrowned king of Ireland” as he advocated for a peaceful political solution for Irish home rule. He was implicated in violent independence conspiracies, and a formal inquiry commenced in 1888 to gather evidence in both Ireland and the U.S.

As Benjamin Harrison was running for president, Le Caron thrust himself into international notoriety as a key witness against Parnell in the London inquiry. It turns out that Le Caron had been spending his time in Irish-American societies spying for the English government, and he helped implicate Parnell—until his credibility came under close scrutiny.

A series of explosive revelations unmasked Le Caron. Rather than boldly leading troops at the Battle of Murfreesboro, he was part of a Pennsylvania regiment that mutinied, threw away their guns, and refused to fight. He spent the famous battle in a Nashville jail. By peeling back layers of aliases, Dr. Le Caron was revealed to be Dr. Morton, “formerly one of the most expert grave-robbers in the West.”

Benjamin Harrison lost the popular presidential vote in 1888 to incumbent Grover Cleveland, but won the Electoral College. He took the oath of office on March 4, 1889, as the 23rd U.S. president.

At roughly the same time, the man who had stolen his father’s body from the grave a decade before was finally caught. The British legal case against Parnell fell apart, and Le Caron/Morton had to be guarded by Scotland Yard for his own protection. Remarkably, he never faced justice for stealing John Scott Harrison’s body, or for any of his extensive crimes as a body snatcher in two countries and multiple states. Eventually, he retired to the dust heap of obscurity.

Following “The Harrison Horror,” Spring Grove Cemetery offered to give the family a large plot where William Henry Harrison and his family could be interred fittingly. Lawrenceburg, Indiana, also vied for the dead president’s body, but his widow felt that moving the remains was distasteful, and William Henry’s bones stayed put in North Bend.

John Scott Harrison’s body was moved from Spring Grove back to North Bend, and a tomb for father and son was constructed with an iron gate. Appalled by its humble nature, though, Cincinnatians began advocating in the 1880s for a proper memorial that would include a statue of William Henry. An imposing bronze statue was eventually commissioned and forged, but plans to improve the tomb were postponed. The statue was placed in Piatt Park downtown, where it remains today.

In 1897, then-former President Benjamin Harrison oversaw the tomb’s complete reconstruction. The State of Ohio assumed partial responsibility for maintaining the memorial and allocated money to build two large pillars with eagles on top in 1919. A 60-foot obelisk was added five years later. Today, William Henry’s and John Scott’s remains rest in the elegant and imposing Harrison Memorial along the Ohio River. Most of the family lies across the street in the Congress Green Cemetery, where John Scott was originally buried.

Benjamin Harrison returned to Indiana after losing reelection in 1892 and became a working lawyer again. He died in 1901 and is interred in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

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