Tuesday, November 30

The invasion of the body snatchers

By Paula Dunn

Picture this:

It’s night in a small country cemetery in late September of 1901. All is quiet except for the conspiratorial murmurs of a gang of resurrectionists — more commonly called “ghouls” — who are engaged in digging up a freshly planted body.

Their work is interrupted when another wagon arrives carrying more ghouls. The two groups proceed to fight over the corpse and bullets fly.

Finally, the first group runs out of ammunition and flees, leaving their prize for the newcomers.

Is this the plot of the latest blockbuster Halloween flick?

Heck, no. That really happened in Fall Creek Township’s Beaver Cemetery. (Beaver Cemetery was later combined with the cemetery across the road and is now known as Highland Cemetery.)

When I set out to research this subject I found so much sloppy reporting, and so many contradictions and downright lies, I’m not comfortable getting into great detail. The basic facts seem fairly solid, though.

In the last years of the 19th and the earliest years of the 20th century, medical schools were hard pressed to find bodies for their students to dissect. That led some instructors to turn a blind eye to where and how they obtained the cadavers they used.

The area in and around Indianapolis became a hotbed for grave robbing during that time period thanks to a few physicians at the city’s medical colleges who were willing to pay ghouls to provide them with fresh corpses.

When this situation came to light, people were understandably horrified. Some resorted to drastic measures to keep their loved ones resting in peace. (One Westfield man buried his wife in Summit Lawn Cemetery with blasting caps and a pipe filled with nitroglycerine!)

Things came to a head in September, 1902, when an investigation by two Indianapolis police detectives resulted in the arrest of Indianapolis’ “King of the Ghouls,” Rufus Cantrell, and his crew.

Cantrell quickly confessed, and in the process, managed to implicate several other people in the lucrative grave robbing trade. (A fresh corpse could net up to $30, a princely sum in those days.)

Among those Cantrell sold out was Hampton West, a farmer who lived near Fisher’s Station, as Fishers was known back then.

That’s when the tale of the confrontation at Beaver Cemetery came out. According to Cantrell, he and his band had been digging up the corpse of a man named Newton Bracken when West and a companion showed up to claim the body.

(Well, that’s one of Cantrell’s versions, anyway.)

Hamp West — more properly Wade Hampton West — was a cantankerous old coot who’d led a hard life, primarily due to his own poor choices.

A native of North Carolina, he’d served in the 22nd North Carolina Infantry during the Civil War. That regiment fought in several major battles, including Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

A month before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, West deserted to the Union army, a move that didn’t make him popular at home and probably influenced his decision to move to Indiana.

He wasn’t well liked here, either. Among other things, he killed a man during the 1881 “Battle of Mudsock.” (That’s a whole other column.)

West escaped prosecution for the Mudsock killing because it was determined he’d acted in self-defense, but he was convicted of the grave robbing charge in 1903 and was sentenced to three to ten years in the state prison at Michigan City.

He died of stomach cancer the following year and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. (I suspect his family was afraid to have him buried here.)

One more thing — if you hear someone mention another Fishers ghoul named Ebenezer Heady, don’t believe it. There’s no evidence Ebenezer Heady ever existed anywhere but in someone’s fertile imagination.

Happy Halloween!

Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears on Wednesdays in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com

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