Cincinnati’s Notorious Ghoul ‘Resurrected’ Thousands of Corpses

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Students at one of Cincinnati's medical schools, most likely the Medical College of Ohio, show off the height of surgical fashion for the late Nineteenth Century. There is a good chance their cadaver was procured by William Cunningham.

Provided by the Archives & Rare Books Library, University of Cincinnati

While he was alive, Cincinnatians called him “Old Man Dead” and invoked his name to frighten naughty children but, in 1872, he was nothing but a skeleton on view at the Medical College of Ohio. The Cincinnati Enquirer [29 September 1872] described the display:

“His ghastly skeleton, neatly articulated and wired, sits on a tombstone in the cabinet of that institution, while in his hand he grasps a spade, the emblem of his calling in life. Between his teeth he holds a short pipe as he was wont to in the days of flesh.”

The Enquirer notes that the only accoutrements missing from this exhibit are his gray horse and spring wagon because “Old Man Dead” was a ghoul, a body snatcher, a grave robber. His real name was William Cunningham and those who did not call him “Old Man Dead” called him “Old Cunny.” His skeleton was on exhibit at the medical college because he wanted it that way. He sold his own body to the Medical College of Ohio for $50 and, after their students were done practicing on it, the faculty had the skeleton arranged in this macabre tableau.

Old Cunny was just over 50 when he died on November 2, 1871, but hard living had prematurely aged him. The coroner estimated his age as 65, but he was 50 years old when the United States Census enumerator knocked on his door the year before he died. Cunningham told the census taker that he drove an express wagon. That’s how he listed his occupation in the city directory as well. Maybe he did make some express deliveries in the warm weather months.

When the first frosts nipped the graveyard air though, Old Cunny harvested bodies from cemeteries all over the Cincinnati area. He looked the part, apparently. The Enquirer [19 January 1870] described him:

“To have seen Cunningham is to retain him in your memory for a lifetime, for that ponderous yet gaunt frame; that villainous bald head, fringed about with silver gray; that strong marked face, corrugated with age and crime; a canine mouth, from the corners of which slowly trickles the generous saliva, impregnated with the juices of nicotine, and that shuffling gait, caused by a broken leg received from a charge of buckshot, constitutes a tout ensemble sufficiently striking to make a very vivid impression.”

Old Cunny made a very vivid impression, indeed, on a clerk at the American Express office, when he showed up with a box marked “Glass. Handle With Care” and addressed to a Doctor Hardy in Leavenworth, Kansas. Old Cunny wanted the box sent C.O.D. (“Collect On Delivery”) with the $30 fee returned to him. As Cunningham drove off, the clerk acted on his suspicions and opened the box. Sure enough, the corpse of a woman was inside, hastily embalmed and packed in sawdust, doubled up in a canvas sack. The clerk sent a porter round to Cunningham’s residence at the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Eighth Street, right behind the old City Hall, who found him in the stable. Old Cunny was not amused:

“What in the hell is the matter now? Have the police been smelling around? I don’t see how that job smelt already, for I only syringed her out last night.”

The porter assured him that the police were not involved, but American Express would not ship a cadaver and wanted him to remove it.

“Oh, is that all! I don’t care a damn if that’s all but I don’t see what in the hell’s the use of making a fuss about this thing because I’ve shipped more’n a hundred of them things away this summer by the American Express. I can damn soon have her away, only you know I didn’t want any perlice mixin’ up in this thing.”

Despite the buckshot in his leg, Cunningham got away with more “resurrections” than not. A “very knowing acquaintance” told this tale to the Enquirer [1 March 1874] after Cunningham’s death:

“One night, I remember, I met Cunny driving into the city with a stiff; and, horrible as the sight was, there was something grotesquely ludicrous about it. He had placed the corpse in a sitting posture on the seat beside him, and had dressed it in an old coat and a vest and a played out hat. Well he kept his arm round the waist of the corpse to steady it from the jolting of the vehicle. But every now and then the horrid thing would double up on the seat, and its head kept bobbing up and down in the ghastliest way you ever saw. Then Old Cunny would give the stiff a slap in the face and say: ‘Sit up; this is the last time, by God, I’ll ever take you home when you get drunk. You ought to be ashamed of yourself – drunker’n a biled owl – with a wife and children to support.'”

In Cunningham’s heyday, Cincinnati had at least five established medical schools: the Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery at Central and Longworth, the Eclectic Medical Institute at Court and Plum Streets, the Medical College of Ohio on Sixth Street between Vine and Race, the Physio Medical College on the corner of Seventh and Cutter streets, and the Miami Medical College on Twelfth Street between Elm and Plum. Each had dozens to hundreds of students and all needed cadavers to study anatomy. Cunningham and his competitors provided the bodies. According to the Enquirer‘s informant:

“They don’t really open the grave. They simply dig a hole about two feet square over the head of the coffin. When they get to that, they break out the coffin head, and fasten big hooks, to which strong ropes are attached, under the arms of the corpse, and haul it out by main force.”

It is estimated that Cunningham “resurrected” 100 or more “stiffs” every year and sold them for between $20 and $30 each. No telling where Cunningham’s skeleton is these days. The Medical College of Ohio merged with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine ages ago, and there seems to be no “Old Cunny” in the inventories.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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