Wicked Northern New York

Wicked Northern New York – September 8, 2011
by Cheri L. Farnsworth

From Wicked Northern New York – A complimentary sample chapter:

“The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

   To rob a grave of jewels and personal effects is bad enough. But to dig up freshly-buried bodies, unbeknownst to grieving family members who thought their loved ones were resting in peace, and sell the stolen corpses like a hot commodity is beyond wicked. Back in the day, body snatchers sought fresh graves, because the soil was still loose and moist and, therefore, easier to dig up. They would lay out a tarp to shovel the soil onto. Once they reached the coffin, six feet under, they pried open the lid and grabbed the corpse, sometimes removing the clothing and throwing it back into the casket. Then they would flip the tarp back over onto the grave when their task was complete; thereby keeping the area tidier and less suspicious. After securing the body, they would package it up (with a little ingenuity) or hand-deliver it to facilities in need of fresh, lifeless bodies for medical research, such as dissection; as a tool for learning the medical profession; and for anatomy lectures. Although the criminal practice of body snatching was considered unethical by most physicians—and they could never openly admit to their participation in such activities—it nevertheless thrived throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as medical schools began to flourish. And finding acceptable cadavers from traditional means (bodies donated to science for dissection, bodies unclaimed by family, and bodies of felons who agreed prior to their execution to sell their corpse to the highest bidder) was did not offer enough supply to meet the growing demand.

   In the 1800s, there were sporadic reports of body snatching from every corner of Northern New York. In Clinton County, we had Dr. Erwin of Centerville, near Mooers, who caused quite a stir when it was reported that the body he was seen dissecting (with the assistance of a fourteen-year-old French boy, no less) had been snatched from a local grave. The villagers were in a panic, wondering if the deceased was someone they knew, according to the Plattsburgh Sentinel of April 23, 1869.

“This produced great excitement through all the west part of the town, and everyone who had recently buried friends were alarmed by fears that they were being subjected to the gross indignity of dissection in an old blacksmith shop…The Doctor replied that he had obtained the body lawfully and had a right to proceed with its dissection…[so] a complaint was made before F. P. Allen, Esq., against the Doctor and his student for robbing a grave. They were arrested and a lengthy examination held by Esquire Allen. Able counsel were employed in behalf of the People and the accused. Graves in which dear ones had recently been interred were re-opened by anxious friends to ascertain that their bodies had not been stolen.

   The result reached by the court was that no proof had been found to convict the accused of the charge, and they were discharged. The question, whose body was it?, is still unanswered, and the course of the Doctor in having a human body dissected by a French boy of 14, in so public a place as an old blacksmith shop by the grist mill and at the end of the bridge in the middle of the village is as mysterious as ever.”

   From Jefferson County, we have the story of Terry Connell’s postmortem excitement. Old man Connell was buried on February 21, 1898 in the cemetery connected to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cape Vincent; and two days later, body snatchers nearly got him. Edward Murray, who lived near the cemetery where the 91-year-old man was interred, was heading off to work early at four a.m. on February 23 when he noticed two men in the back part of the cemetery with a horse and sleigh nearby. When the strangers looked up and saw Murray watching them, they immediately jumped into their cutter and sped off. Further inspection by Murray and others he notified revealed the disinterred body of Mr. Connell lying by the side of the road “where they had dropped it in their fright,” according to the St. Lawrence Republican. The Watertown Re-Union added further detail, saying:

“There were evidences that the vandals had dragged the body to the fence, then thrown it over the fence and dragged it to the road and were about to put it into the sleigh when Mr. Murray’s timely appearance scared the scoundrels away.

   The grave robbers left their shovel and left the grave open. It is supposed the body snatchers came from Canada, crossing the river on the ice, and that the body was to be used for the purposes of dissection in the medical college at Kingston [Ontario]…About two rods from where the body was found, tracks were seen where a sleigh, drawn by one horse, was turned. A new shovel of Canadian make was found near the open grave.”

   Mr. Connell’s body was cleaned, returned to the casket and placed in the vault, where it would be safe from vandals. As newsworthy as the Connell case was, St. Lawrence County harbored the most famous grave robbers in the area. The notorious Dudley Gilman and his son John A. Gilman lived beside Trout Brook in Stockholm in a settlement called Old Forge. They both worked in a mill that manufactured barrels, tubs, and even crutches for Civil War casualties. The two were notorious body snatchers whose nefarious skills were in high demand throughout New York State. They dug up random fresh bodies, setting aside anything of value that they could pocket or sell in another town (so the stolen objects were less likely be recognized); and they stuffed the bodies into barrels from the mill they worked at and shipped them off, via horse and wagon, to medical schools around the state, reportedly receiving up to $100 per body (nearly $3,000 today). They also dug up skeletal remains to sell to physicians and medical students for demonstration purposes and teaching, or simply as novelty items.

   One Courier & Freeman article from 1938 said that neighbors became so fearful of the thought of body snatchers among them that they began to bury their loved ones beneath their bedroom windows, to prevent or interrupt grave robbers from carrying out their nocturnal activities. They suspected the Gilmans. Realizing they were under suspicion by an angry populace, the father and son gave family members very specific instructions about how and where to bury them, when the time came. They wanted their bodies placed in pine coffins and buried four feet below the surface in the middle of a field, far away from civilization, with alternating layers of straw and earth that they felt (through personal experience) would make it more difficult for other body snatchers, or even an angry mob, to find them.

   Their wishes were granted in 1850, when the Gilmans were literally caught in the act of digging up a corpse. They were stopped in their tracks by neighbors who had long suspected, but never proven, what the men were up to, until then; and they were allegedly shot where they stood. As instructed, family  members buried their kin in a lonely field about 250 yards across the road from their house on Trout Brook, in an area early news articles described as “near the Four Corners” and “only a stone’s throw” from an old starch factory foundation. The stone slabs the family later set over the graves to mark them were laid flat, making them difficult to find by anyone but family members who knew they were there. The grave markers read as follows:

Dudley Gilman

66 Years

Almighty God, the ruler of all

Gods by thy just and mighty hand that I did fall

If at thy right hand, I fail of a seat

I then would pray at Jesus feet

John A. Gilman


In his 27[th] yr

We can’t but hope that he’s gone to rest

We trust in God who knows him best

We hope he’s reached that happy shore

We here on earth shall meet no more.

Buy on Amazon

Chapter: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Northern New York, 1800s, photo from author’s personal collection.
Chapter: The Tarring and Feathering of Mrs. Covey, Jayville/Fine, 1895, photo from author’s personal collection.
Chapter: The Girl Who Was Traded for Chickens, Schuyler Falls, 1908, photo from author’s personal collection.
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