The Strange Afterlife of John Scott Harrison

John Scott Harrison had an interesting life. His afterlife was no less eventful.

He holds the distinction of being the only man whose father and son were both presidents of the United States. John Scott Harrison’s father was ninth U.S. President William Henry Harrison and one of his sons was Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President. Although he never sought the nation’s highest office, John Scott served two terms in the United States Congress. After deciding he was not fond of politics, he spent the last 20 years of his life managing his farm in North Bend, Ohio.

That was where he died on May 25, 1878. He was buried a few days later in the nearby and historic Congress Green Cemetery, close to the two wives and the children who had preceded him in death.

Portrait of John Scott Harrison from The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 1878
Portrait of John Scott Harrison from The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 1878

Extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The family gathered in North Bend for the funeral services and took great pains to protect John Scott Harrison’s grave. This was a time of rapid medical advancement and there was a heavy demand for cadavers at the thriving medical schools. While no one seemed to mind if criminals, charity patients and the poor ended up on the dissecting table, that supply was insufficient to the hunger of academic medicine. Grave robbers known as “ghouls” made up the difference by raiding private cemeteries. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [31 May 1878], extreme measures ensured the sanctity of Harrison’s grave:

“The grave, which was located but a short distance from President Harrison, was made of unusual depth, carefully walled up with brick, and, when partially filled, an immense stone whose weight required the united strength of sixteen men to overcome, was placed over the metallic case to prevent intrusion or violation, and the whole covered with cement. The grave was then filled, and to prevent deception, small wooden pegs were carefully inserted in the covering just below the surface, so that if the grave was disturbed their absence would at once notify the watchful friends and relations of the fact.”

Drawing of Medical College of Ohio building from 1856 Williams' Cincinnati City Directory
Drawing of Medical College of Ohio building from 1856 Williams’ Cincinnati City Directory

Digitized by Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County; Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

The family then hired a guard to watch over the grave for 30 days. The necessity of these precautions was underlined by the discovery, during John Scott Harrison’s funeral, that the nearby grave of Samuel Augustus Devin, buried just a week earlier, had been emptied.

No sooner had John Scott Harrison’s funeral concluded than his son, also named John, left for Cincinnati to look for Devin’s body. He was accompanied by his nephew, George Eaton, a childhood friend of Devin’s. In Cincinnati, Harrison and Eaton procured a search warrant and, accompanied by Cincinnati Detective Thomas Snelbaker and a couple of constables, walked over to the Medical College of Ohio on Sixth Street. Their interest in that college was piqued by a “squib” in the Enquirer [30 May 1878]:

“About three o’clock this morning a sensation was created on Vine street by a buggy being driven into the alley north of the Grand Operahouse. It proceeded about halfway through to Race Street, when something white was taken out and disappeared. Several men started in to see what was going on, when the buggy drove out to Race street, and left rapidly. The general impression was that a ‘stiff’ was being smuggled into the Ohio Medical College.”

The two men from North Bend and their police escort searched the medical college building room by room. On the top floor, they found the dissecting room, with a student at work upon a cadaver and other cadavers lying nearby. They also found, in the corner of the room, a windlass and rope running through a chute or well cut into the floor, covered by a trap door. Detective Snelbaker pulled on the rope and found it taut, stretched by considerable weight. He grabbed the handle of the windlass and turned it until a naked body rose into the dissecting room, its head covered by a scrap of cloth.

Image of "The Injecting Room and Windlass" from The Cincinnati Enquirer, 31 May 1878
Image of “The Injecting Room and Windlass” from The Cincinnati Enquirer, 31 May 1878

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Immediately, the searchers could see this was not Devin’s body. Devin was young and had died of the wasting effects of tuberculosis. This was the body of an elderly man with a well muscled physique. Harrison and Eaton were ready to leave, to knock on the doors of other medical schools in the city. Snelbaker persuaded him to make sure before he gave up the search:

“You had better look at the face. You might be mistaken and you’ll never forgive yourself if you allow any doubtful point to pass.”

To humor Snelbaker, Harrison helped pull the body into the room and watched as it was laid upon a dissecting table. He removed the rags covering the head and saw at once that it was, indeed, not Devin.

“It’s father.”

Harrison almost fainted as he realized that it was his own father lying on the table. Brothers Benjamin and Carter were summoned to Cincinnati, the search for August Devin abandoned for the time. Benjamin wired the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago. Cincinnati Police rounded up suspects, including the college janitor. Lawrenceburg, Indiana, announced that the remains of William Henry Harrison ought to be removed to the safety of Indiana. The competing Miami Medical College insisted that their cadavers never included bodies from polite society. The discovery, in short, caused a stir.

John Scott Harrison’s body was re-prepared for burial and interred temporarily in Jacob Strader’s mausoleum in Spring Grove Cemetery. Some years later, the remains would be removed to his President Harrison’s crypt back in North Bend.

Despite the pleas of innocence, it was discovered that Devin’s corpse had, indeed, been delivered to the Miami Medical College. From there, it had been shipped to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was rescued and reburied in Congress Green Cemetery.

The ghouls involved in the body-snatchings were never caught.

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

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