The Debate over “Decency:” How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights Crusade

Advertisement, Indianapolis Star, October 1, 1977, 19, accessed Newspapers.com.

Pop singer, evangelical Christian, and Florida orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant symbolized the contentious battle over American civil rights and national mores in 1977. Grounded in her religious convictions, she launched the “Save Our Children” campaign, which led to the repeal of a Dade County ordinance that would protect the rights of homosexual residents. That October, Bryant flew to Indianapolis to perform and spread her anti-gay rights message at the “Rally for Decency,” alongside controversial southern pastor Jerry Falwell Sr. and Indiana lawmaker Don Boys, who planned to introduce a bill at the 1978 legislative session that would criminalize sodomy.[1]

From the moment Bryant’s plane touched down to the second she departed the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, Hoosier journalists and activists pressed Bryant on her opposition to the employment of gay teachers and her advocacy of gay conversion therapy. Like in Indianapolis, her visits to Fort Wayne and South Bend later that month were met with protest, albeit characteristically polite in nature. One of the nation’s leading gay rights activists at the time, Bob Kunst, credited Anita Bryant’s 1977 crusade with forwarding the gay rights movement by normalizing discussions about homosexuality.[2]

Indeed, her efforts to keep gay individuals from obtaining their rights inspired organized resistance in Indiana. The Michiana Human Rights Coalition formed in direct response to her appearance in South Bend. Her visits to the Hoosier state also catalyzed support for gay rights from those outside of the queer community, many of whom may not have given much thought to the plight of this minority group previously. Catholic and cisgender University of Notre Dame Library employee Charles Early explained why he protested her performance on campus in The South Bend Tribune, noting “I joined in a demonstration opposing Anita Bryant on an issue which did not affect me personally because I believe that the spirit which she represents is ultimately a threat to everyone’s rights.”[3]

Here, we examine Hoosier protest to Bryant’s 1977 visits and how similar resistance across the country effectively ended her entertainment career, resulted in the loss of lucrative endorsement deals, and reflected changing national mores.


Schlafly at the Illinois State Capitol, June 19, 1978, photo: Bettman/Getty Images, accessed Town and Country.

It could be said that the conflicting movements of 1977 constituted a fight for the nation’s soul. Journalist Gloria Steinem, bearing her trademark aviator eyeglasses, mobilized feminists in support of women’s reproductive rights and long-awaited ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would guarantee equal legal rights for women. Leading counter-protests, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, “STOP ERA” button dutifully pinned to her lapel, rallied “pro-family” troops at the White House.[4] Occupying the same battlefield as Schlafly was Anita Bryant, who shared her desire to quell the winds of cultural change and safeguard “traditional” American family values. Of this resistance, Early theorized “Many people today are frightened and disturbed by the unrest and rapid change in American society, and they want to go back to a time when things were simpler and more understandable.”[5]

While Steinem and Schlafly sparred over the role and rights of women, Bryant focused on safeguarding the American family by suppressing the rights of gay Americans. Fearing her children would be exposed to the “perversion” of gay teachers, she successfully led a movement to repeal a Dade County, Florida ordinance that would prohibit teachers from being fired due to their sexual orientation.[6]

The Works (May 1985), 31, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

Anita and her husband Bob Green insisted that they loved gay individuals, so much so that they dedicated themselves to converting them to heterosexuality in order to save them from hell and the “sad” lifestyle they lived. Green recalled:

‘When we were kids, we used to say if a guy was a homosexual, all we had to do was fix him up with a girl and the next day he’d be heterosexual. . . . Well it’s not like that. Anita and I have led many, many homosexuals to the light. But it’s a slow process. It’s an area of sin Christians need to work on.’[7]

Feeling no love from the devout Christian couple was Ernest Rumbarger, an Indianapolis resident and gay contributor to The Works. He recalled that in the 1970s gay men “were finally learning how to communicate with each other in a social setting other than bars” and that “Gay businesses as such were beginning to flourish and, all in all, things seemed to be going rather well.”  That is, until Anita Bryant undertook her “Save Our Children” campaign. Indianapolis police officers arrested Rumbarger and two other men in 1977 for homosexual prostitution in Indianapolis. Rumbarger wrote that he and his partner were two of Bryant’s “better known local victims. We were taken from our home in the middle of the night and held for eight days in jail, incommunicado.” Despite receiving no assistance from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union or Gay People’s Union, a grand jury found Rumbarger not guilty and reportedly offered him an “unsolicited public apology.” The Hoosier wrote “On either coast we would have been carried through the streets and hailed as national heroes” for his triumph over persecution.[8]

The Daily Journal (Franklin, Ind.), October 8, 1977, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Bryant’s campaign emboldened harassment of queer individuals, Hoosier allies mounted resistance to her October 7 visit to Indianapolis. The day before the “Rally for Decency,” the Indiana Coalition for Human Rights hosted a news conference, attended by representatives of the Metropolitan Community Church of Indianapolis, Gay People’s Union, and the Sex Information and Education Council of Indiana. Coalition spokesperson Mary Byrne told the press that allies would picket Bryant’s performance “because she represents a force for evil and persecution. She has inflamed irrational prejudices and fostered fear and hatred.” Attending the protest would be Baptist minister Rev. Jeanine C. Rae, who believed that fundamentalists’ attempts to legislate sexuality threatened the separation of church and state. She argued that withholding human rights from certain communities “‘limits the freedom of all persons-including white heterosexual Baptists.'”[9]

Immediately after arriving at the Indianapolis International Airport on the day of her performance, Anita participated in a press conference, looking, in the words of journalist Robert Reed, “very much like an aging but attractive president of the local PTA.” She and her husband fielded questions about her work to repeal the Dade County ordinance, which she felt afforded gay individuals “special privileges” and would allow them to flaunt homosexuality in the classroom.[10] She believed “God put homosexuals in the same category as murderers, thieves and drunks. Homosexuality is a sin and I’m against all sin. I’m also against laws that give respectability and sanction to these types of individuals.”[11] Her crusade against these laws, she alleged, incited a “national conspiracy” against her. She reported receiving bomb threats and the loss of product endorsements. Reed wrote that her statements were ill-received by journalists, who left the press conference while she was still talking.[12]

Protesters at the Fairgrounds, Indianapolis Star, October 8, 1977, 32, accessed Newspapers.com.

That night, the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum thrummed with cheers and “Amens” as approximately 7,000 attendees absorbed the words of speakers who outlined their plans to “restore decency” in America. The Martinsville Reporter-Times noted that the event “took on the aura of a political rally and a Baptist revival.”[13] Local pastors emphasized the need to elect officials who supported causes like “Save Our Children,” some of whom sat in that very coliseum. Greenwood Rep. Donald Boys advocated for his anti-sodomy law, to be introduced the following year, and for lawmakers to expunge the Equal Rights Amendment. After his bill failed to pass in 1976, the persistent lawmaker wrote, “‘This is the day of equal rights unless you happen to be a Christian, conservative, white male, creationist.’”[14]

Outside of the coliseum, 500 protesters bore the rain, carrying dampened signs that read “Straights for gay rights” and “A day without human rights is a day without sunshine”— a play on the Florida Citrus Commission’s “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine” slogan.[15] Protesters included Fritz Lieber, co-chairman of the Indiana Coalition for Human Rights, who lost his teaching position for being gay. Mary Hoffman, her husband, and three kids also attended the demonstration, believing that Bryant’s message “‘parallels McCarthyism, the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler.'” As protesters stoically made their presence known, Rev. Jerry Falwell quipped on the stage, “It’s a shame it’s raining. It might wash off their make up.”[16]

Bryant on stage at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis Star, October 8, 1977, 32, accessed Newspapers.com.

When at last Bryant took the stage, the audience was rapt, hanging onto every word she sang. She occasionally punctuated her religious and patriotic songs with oration—like warning the audience that “if parents don’t rise up and set standards for our children, the humanists, the ultra-liberals and the militant homosexuals will”—which inspired several standing ovations.[17] After her performance, the polarizing figure departed for Nashville, but the momentum generated at the rally carried over to the next day, when a parade of 500, led by U.S. Marine Cleve McClary, marched to Monument Circle. There, 2,000 Hoosiers joined them for an “encore” rally to “restore decency.” Local pastor Earl Lawson, who worked to reform homosexual individuals and sex workers, declared that he would organize similar rallies across the state.[18]

Opponents responded to the continued rallies through the press. Indianapolis newspapers printed an advertisement compiled by sixty-three clergy protesting “the crusade against persons with homosexual orientation.” A few days after the rally, Jerry Briscoe wrote to the Indianapolis News editor that Bryant’s judgment of others “has become devastating to their existence” and contradicted Christian theology. He stated, “God is our ultimate judge—that is, of course, before Anita Bryant came along.”[19]

Athletic and Convocation Center, University of Notre Dame, South Bend Tribune, October 28, 1977, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hoosiers, joined by Cleveland and Chicago activists, again mounted resistance to Bryant when she returned to Indiana at the end of the month. The Michiana Human Rights Coalition formed ahead of her October 26th concert at the University of Notre Dame, with the motto that “All God’s Chillun Gotta Sing.” Protesters planned to march with signs bearing Bible verses and Shakespearean quotes reaffirming human rights.[20] That evening, only 500 of the arena’s 10,000 seats were occupied. The South Bend Tribune reported that Bryant, who led the audience in prayer for gay individuals, unwed couples living together, and divorced couples, “seemed lost in the vastness of the Athletic and Convocation Center.” The number of protesters, both in support of and opposition to Bryant, nearly matched that of concert-goers.[21]

About two weeks before her Notre Dame performance, a protester threw a pie at Bryant during a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Her face eclipsed by whipped cream, Bryant tried to pray for the man before breaking down into tears.[22] South Bend demonstrators determined to make their opinions known peacefully and by demonstrating love. They went so far as to invite Bryant to a “gay” reception in her honor, to which she declined. In lieu of pie, they gave her a bouquet of roses and dropped petals at the feet of counter-protesters.[23]

Charles Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred,” The South Bend Tribune, November 7, 1977, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to Catholic Notre Dame employee Charles Early, the same kindness was not exhibited by counter-protesters, one of whom spat on the seven-year-old daughter of a Michiana Coalition leader. However, Early alleged the “fiasco” that was the concert showed a growing acceptance of the marginalized community.[24] Just three days later, demonstrators picketed Bryant’s performance at Fort Wayne’s Embassy Theater for the 60th anniversary celebration of the Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co. Some carried signs saying “Gay is Okay” and “Anita Bryant is Proof Orange Juice Causes Brain Damage.”[25]

Bryant was met with similar protests across the country and nationwide boycotts of orange juice, endorsed by entertainment titans like Barbara Streisand, John Waters, and Mary Tyler Moore.[26] Gay bars swapped orange juice for apple in screwdriver cocktails. The backlash effectively ended her entertainment career and endorsement deals. She reportedly lost $500,000 in television contracts, was no longer booked for performances, and lost her years-long endorsement deal with the Florida Citrus Commission.[27] Bryant’s crusade ultimately backfired and activists credit her with bringing the issue of gay rights to the forefront. One South Bend Tribune editorial noted that she “stirred a reaction among those whose awareness of and sympathy with the problem previously was minimal but who automatically throw up mental defenses against extremism.” The author wrote that her campaign also prompted examination of the “psychological and physical complexity of homosexuality.”[28]

Bryant promoting Florida orange juice, accessed South Florida Gay News.

In Louisville, Bryant’s crusade inspired some gay and lesbian residents to cautiously come out of the closet.  The thought that “‘We’re all monsters'” inspired one man to be open about his sexuality.[29] Another man interviewed noted that “Anita has made gays aware of themselves.” Reflecting increasingly-tolerant attitudes, that November Harvey Milk became the first openly-gay elected official in California, when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He introduced a gay rights ordinance similar to that which officials repealed in Dade County.[30]

By 1980, Anita Bryant was divorced and financially depleted.[31] Five years earlier, she described the agony of choosing whether to prioritize her family and Christian faith over a career in entertainment.[32] Although she experienced “depressions and doubts, caused by the many sides of me coming into conflict,” prayer revealed to her that she must relinquish ambition and submit to a life of service to her family and Christ. Now shunned by Christian fundamentalists for leaving her marriage, perhaps she related to the lyrics of a song she performed in 1964:

The world is full of lonely people
I know because I’m one of them [33]


Celebrations resounded in courthouses across the country in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down same-sex marriage bans in all states.[34] But the 2015 enactment of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the 2018 firing of a Roncalli High School guidance counselor upon discovery of her same-sex marriage, again set off passionate debate about religious and civil rights.[35] The events of October 1977 demonstrate that Hoosiers have historically participated in the debate and protested for what they believe is right.

Notes:
* All newspaper articles accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] Mike Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents,'” Indianapolis News, October 8, 1977, 2.

[2] Interview, “Anita Bryant Confronted in 1977,” Who’s Who, accessed YouTube.

[3] Charles Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred,” South Bend Tribune, November 7, 1977, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] Karen Karbo, “How Gloria Steinem Became the ‘World’s Most Famous Feminist,'” March 25, 2019, accessed National Geographic.; Douglas Martin, “Phyllis Schlafly, ‘First Lady’ of a Political March to the Right, Dies at 92,” September 5, 2016, accessed New York Times.

[5] Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred.”

[6] Barney Seibert, “Perverts’ Hatred Makes Life Tough for Anita Bryant,” The Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), April 10, 1980, 5.

[7] Holly Miller, “‘Deliverance:’ Anita and Mate Tell Their Story,” Anderson Herald, October 8, 1977, 1.

[8] “3 Arrested in ’77 Freed of Charges,” Indianapolis Star, March 9, 1979, 20.; Editorial, E. Rumbarger, “What Do Hoosiers Have to Be Proud of?,” New Works News (June 1989), 4, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[9] “Anita to Face Pickets Here,” Indianapolis News, October 6, 1977, 3.;  Jan Carroll, “Groups Call Miss Bryant Evil Force,” Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), October  7, 1977, 6.; “Protesters to Be on Hand to Picket Anti-Gay Rally,” Daily Journal (Franklin, IN), October 7, 1977, 5.

[10] Robert Reed, “Anita Bryant: She Draws Line for Hoosier Journalists,” Daily Journal (Franklin, IN), October 8, 1977, 2.

[11] Miller, “‘Deliverance:’ Anita and Mate Tell Their Story.”

[12] Reed, “Anita Bryant: She Draws Line for Hoosier Journalists.”

[13] “Protesters Picket Anita Bryant Decency Rally in Indianapolis,” Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), October 8, 1977, 1.

[14] Letter to the Editor, Donald Boys, State Representative, Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), June 9, 1977, 2.

[15] Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents.'”

[16] “Anita Stirs Emotions,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette, IN), October 9, 1977, 9.; Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents.'”

[17] Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents.'”

[18] “‘Save Our Society’ Circle Rally Held,” Indianapolis Star, October 9, 1977, 59.

[19] “Anita Stirs Emotions,” Journal and Courier.; Letter to the Editor, Jerry Briscoe, “On Peaceful Coexistence,” Indianapolis News, October 10, 1977, 9.

[20] “Support Grows for Gay Rights, Promoter Says,” South Bend Tribune, October 26, 1977, 14.

[21] Edmund Lawler, “Anita Bryant Revival Draws 500 into ACC,” South Bend Tribune, October 28, 1977, 1.

[22] William Simbro, “Pie Shoved in Anita Bryant’s Face by Homosexual—She Cries,” Des Moines Register, October 16, 1977, 3.

[23] “Support Grows for Gay Rights, Promoter Says,” South Bend Tribune.; Jeanne Derbeck, “‘Gay’ Tactic: Show of Kindness,'” South Bend Tribune, October 17, 1977, 1.; Lawler, “Anita Bryant Revival Draws 500 into ACC.”

[24] Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred.”

[25] “Anita Picketed in Fort Wayne,” Indianapolis News, October 29, 1977, 15.

[26] Fred Fejes, “Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The origins of America’s Debate of Homosexuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), accessed Springer Link.

[27] Seibert, “Perverts’ Hatred Makes Life Tough for Anita Bryant.”; N.R. Kleinfield,” Tarnished Images: Publicity’s Great—Up to a Point,” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), May 26, 1981, 36.

[28] Editorial, “Anita’s Woes,” South Bend Tribune, October 31, 1977, 14.

[29] “Anita Bryant has Opened Doors for Gays,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville), October 6, 1977, 1, 4.

[30] “Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement,” American Experience, accessed PBS.org.

[31] Seibert, “Perverts’ Hatred Makes Life Tough for Anita Bryant.”; Barry Bearak, “Turmoil Within  Ministry: Bryant Hears ‘Anita . . . Please Repent,” Miami Herald, June 8, 1980, 1A, 33A.; Steve Rothaus, “Bob Green: Anita’s Ex Paid Dearly in the Fight,” Steve Rothaus’ Gay South Florida, June 9, 2007, accessed Miami Herald.

[32] Alan Ebert, “For Easter: Anita Bryant’s Painful Progress Toward God,” Anderson Daily Bulletin, March 29, 1975, 30.

[33] Lyrics, “The World of Lonely People,” 1964, accessed Genius.com.

[34] Ed Payne, “Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act: What You Need to Know,” CNN, March 31, 2015, accessed CNN.com.; Bill Chappell, “Supreme Court Declares Same-Sex Marriage Legal in All 50 States,” The Two-Way, June 26, 2015, accessed NPR.org.

[35] Arika Herron, “Shelly Fitzgerald, First Gay Guidance Counselor Suspended by Roncalli, Files Federal Suit,” IndyStar, October 22, 2019, accessed IndyStar.com.

THH Episode 39: Rufus Cantrell: King of Ghouls

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Transcript for Rufus Cantrell: King of Ghouls

Clark: Dear listener, some of the topics covered in this episode are of a slightly more gruesome nature than we typically cover here on Talking Hoosier History. If you’re not in the mood for a tale of dissection, grave robbing, and body snatching, you might skip this one. Otherwise, let’s get to it.

Beckley: The fall of 1902 brought a series of mysterious happenings to the citizens of Indianapolis. An unsigned letter was slipped under the crack of a door while Mrs. Middleton attended church services. A shadowy stranger summoned Wesley Gates to a nearby carriage. An anonymous man telephoned Mason Neidlinger in the dead of night. All three of these people had something in common – they had each recently lost and buried a loved one. But that wasn’t all. They would soon realize that they were connected in an even more loathsome way – each was the victim of the “King of Ghouls.”

In this episode of Talking Hoosier History, we follow the exceptional case of confessed body snatcher Rufus Cantrell, who admitted to the desecration of more than of 100 graves around Indianapolis in 1902, and attempted to bring down some of the most prominent men in the city with him.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Grave Robbers. Body Snatchers. Resurrection Men. Ghouls. Whatever you want to call them, they have a long and dark history – one which is tied inextricably to the advancement of medical science. In the 14th century, a professor at the University of Bologna began teaching anatomy using dissection as a tool of instruction. Soon after, four students at the university committed the first documented case of body snatching– the need for corpses had outpaced the legal means of obtaining them, driving the students to procure cadavers by unlawful means. The rest, as they say, is history.

As medical education advanced, the need for human specimens rose at a dramatic pace. For centuries, however, the supply was met mostly by legal means – largely, the remains of criminals condemned to death. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries a confluence of two factors – a reduction of executions and the proliferation of medical schools – created a massive shortage. A shortage which would be filled by a barely underground network of so-called “Resurrection Men.”

While illegal, the practice of stealing corpses and selling them to medical schools often went unprosecuted as it was seen as being for the greater good. The fact that most of the victims were poor or people of color also helped law enforcement turn a blind eye. However, as the practice continued and more prominent families fell victim to the traumatizing act, states began expanding the legal channels through which medical schools could procure specimens. These acts were often referred to as anatomy laws.

Indiana’s first anatomy law came in 1879, perhaps not-so-coincidentally a year after the grave of John Scott Harrison, son of former president William Henry Harrison and father of future president Benjamin Harrison, was robbed and his body discovered at the Ohio Medical College. The 1879 law provided that:

Clark: “the body of any person who shall die in any state, city or county prison, or jail, or county asylum or infirmary, or public hospital, within this State, shall remain unclaimed . . . for twenty-four hours after death . . . may be used as a subject for anatomical dissection and scientific examination.”

Beckley: Basically, it provided a legal means of obtaining cadavers for dissection from tax-funded institutions, meaning even the lawful avenues for medical schools to obtain bodies for dissection took advantage of the poor and mentally ill. After all, it’s hard to imagine that any of these people were even given the opportunity to consent to their remains being used in this way. Even with this law in place, there were shortages from time to time. Apparently, the first years of the 20th century was one of those times. In 1902, there were at least five institutions in Indianapolis alone in need of a steady supply of corpses. As the winter semester of the 1902-1903 school year approached, these institutions vied for the inadequate lawful supply and eventually turned to the black market to fill their needs.

Enter Rufus Cantrell. Rufus Cantrell was a lot of things during his lifetime. A driver. A porter. A clerk. An undertaker. In 1902, he added a new title to that list: The King of Ghouls. He, along with approximately seven other men, ran one of the most successful body-snatching syndicates in the city. And he knew his business:

Clark: “He did not use hooks in pulling out corpses, as was done years ago. He only used hooks when a corpse was fastened in a coffin. Instead of digging down at the head of the grave, as was the former custom, he adopted the plan of digging in the center. The covering of the box was then sawed through and the small lid on the coffin shoved back. No lights are used by the ghouls . . . except an occasional match, which is lighted down in the grave.”

Beckley: It was hard, grim, and dirty work, but it paid off. Cantrell reported that between July and September of 1902, he and each of his men had earned $420 from their nighttime exploits– that’s nearly as much as the average American made in a whole year, in just three months. But the boom wasn’t to last long.

As those Indianapolis residents from the top of the show began receiving anonymous tips that the graves of their loved ones might be found empty upon inspection, a sense of anxiety gripped the city. When those residents and their friends and families dug up those graves and proved that they had been desecrated that anxiety turned to dread. Newspapers reported that families were guarding the graves of their recently interred relatives. Citizens called for investigations. Detectives staked out cemeteries and medical schools, just waiting for the Ghouls to show themselves.

But the break came from an unexpected source. A pawnbroker by the name of Emil Mantel grew suspicious of a customer after loaning him $28 in return for four shotguns. Mantel contacted his attorney, Taylor Gronniger, for advice on the situation. When Mantel gave the name of the suspicious customer as Rufus Cantrell, Gronniger connected the dots. He had heard rumors about Cantrell’s unsavory practices, and here he was, pawning off more shotguns than any one person would need – shotguns that could be used to scare off any unwanted observers intruding on illegal happenings – and this just when the grave robbing business was too hot to continue. It was too much of a coincidence. So, Gronniger relayed his hunch to Detectives Asch and Manning of the Indianapolis Police Department. By the end of the next day, the detectives had arrested Rufus Cantrell and six of his associates and extracted full, corroborating confessions from each man.

Cantrell, the leader of the “gang of ghouls,” gave his confession in excruciating detail – almost seeming proud of his escapades. He admitted that he and his assistants had plied their gruesome trade at Crown Hill, the German Catholic graveyard, Mount Jackson Cemetery, Traders Point Cemetery, and the Old Anderson graveyard, as well as the cemetery at the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane where, Cantrell confessed:

Clark: “More than one hundred graves had been emptied of bodies.”

Beckley: He went on to implicate Dr. Joseph Alexander of the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons as his principal buyer. However, while most medical men simply feigned ignorance of the source for the bodies they were buying, Cantrell described Alexander as playing a much more hands-on role in the operation. Not only did Alexander knowingly buy stolen bodies, he identified potential targets, accompanied Cantrell on scouting missions, and even joined the gang in their nightly expeditions. Alexander was arrested, but quickly posted bail.

As Cantrell’s confessions continued, more empty graves were unearthed. The various medical schools in the city were searched thoroughly, but the bodies were nowhere to be found. Detectives Asch and Manning received a tip that Dr. Alexander had commissioned twenty pine boxes from a local box-builder – to be delivered to the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons just days after the arrests had been made. Surely this would be the clue they were searching for. Surely in those boxes would lie the remains so cruelly disinterred by the gang of ghouls. But it was not to be.  Apparently, the Central College was in the process of moving locations and the boxes had been commissioned for the mundane purpose of packing away delicate medical instruments.

In mid-October, just as a grand jury was called to make indictments in the case, the mystery of the missing bodies was solved, at least in part:

Clark: “Amos Smith . . . on his way to work, yesterday morning about 6 o’clock, partially cleared up the mystery of the bodies recently spirited away from the medical colleges. He found two bodies tied in sacks in a dry goods box at the side of Hibben, Holloweg & Co.’s store . . . The same young man, in walking farther south noticed two more bodies at the rear door of the Central Medical College.”

Beckley: After being positively identified by family members as those souls missing from what was supposed to be their final resting places, it was speculated that a competing medical college in the city had disposed of the bodies near the Central Medical College in an attempt to throw all suspicion on that institution while dissuading any further investigations elsewhere.

While these grizzly details were being spread in newspapers throughout the city, the grand jury was receiving its instructions and began hearing testimony in the case. By the end of the grand jury’s investigation, twenty-five indictments were handed down and allegations had been made against seventy-five different people, supposedly all part of three additional body-snatching syndicates in the city.

Among the indicted were Cantrell and his associates, Dr. Alexander and four additional physicians from other schools, cemetery workers who facilitated the robberies, and various low-ranking employees of medical schools who had played some small part in the operation.

After several delays, the first Ghoul Gang trial, that of Dr. Joseph Alexander, began in early February. Alexander’s defense attorney’s strategy seemed to be to cast as much doubt on the character of the star witness, Rufus Cantrell, as possible. First, they attempted to link him with the unsolved murder of a Chinese immigrant who had been killed a year earlier. When that didn’t stick, the defense brought into question the sanity of the King of the Ghouls by introducing evidence that Cantrell had been diagnosed with epilepsy, at that time a broad diagnosis encompassing several mental illnesses.

Multiple physicians were brought to testify on Cantrell’s mental health. Each in turn pronounced Cantrell “insane.” Cantrell and the state begged to differ. Upon cross examination, each doctor admitted to having ties, past or present, to the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons, the same college which employed Dr. Joseph Alexander. Coincidence? Perhaps.

Coincidence or not, the evidence presented by the defense seems to have been enough to sway at least some of the jurors:

Clark: “Dr. Joseph C. Alexander’s status in the community is unchanged. He is neither the convicted felon of the heinous crime of complicity with ghouls and neither is he wholly absolved from the accusations made against him by the state’s attorney. . . . Yesterday morning at 10 o’clock, after deliberating since the same hour Friday morning, the jury reported through its foreman . . . that it had not arrived at a verdict and undoubtedly would be unable to do so, [since] it was discharged from further service.”

Beckley: A hung jury. While the state’s attorney promised a retrial, it never came to fruition. Cantrell, who had all along hoped that his cooperation would result in a lighter sentence, saw the writing on the wall and refused to testify in the retrial. With their star witness gone, the state had little evidence against the doctor – or any of the other four physicians originally indicted, who had maintained their innocence throughout and whose only accuser was the now silent Cantrell. The next big trial was that of the King Ghoul himself – Rufus Cantrell.

Taking a page from Dr. Alexander’s defense team, Cantrell’s defense entered a plea of insanity at the onset of the trial. The state, of course, used the testimony of Cantrell himself given in interviews with police as well as during the grand jury investigation. The question of the trial was not if Cantrell had robbed graves, but why? Was he a greedy criminal just trying to make a buck, or was he criminally insane?

To make the case for the latter, Cantrell’s own mother was put on the stand. Through her testimony, the defense told the jury:

Clark: “that they proposed to show Cantrell to be insane . . . that while Cantrell lived in Gallatin, Tenn., from the age of one to fifteen years, he suffered from epilepsy; that when twelve years old he was thrown from a horse and his head was injured; that when he was ten or twelve years old he had a delusion that he was called by God to preach, and told his friends that he talked with God face to face; that while at work in the field he would kneel at the plow and pray and preach from a Biblical text; that he still suffers from delusions and in the jail has preached to prisoners; that when taunted by his friends in Tennessee over his inability to preach he would become profane and once assaulted a minister with his tongue when he refused to ordain him; that he has a violent temper and has attempted the lives of himself and others; that he delighted to call himself the ‘King of the Bryan campaign,’ and had cards printed with the words, ‘Rufus Cantrell – the Democratic hero;’ that he suffered a sunstroke in Indianapolis, which incapacitated him for work in hot places, and that he succumbed to heat while employed in the Malleable iron works. All these things, Cantrell’s attorneys would prove.”

Beckley: Traumatic brain injuries can absolutely affect the mental health of those who experience them – they can cause mood swings, agitation, combativeness, and other cognitive symptoms. And both epilepsy and sunstroke were used in the 19th century to describe various mental illnesses. That being said, it’s difficult to tell from newspaper reports alone how much the testimony may have been exaggerated in an attempt to keep Cantrell out of jail. After all, he did deny having any mental illness during the trial of Dr. Alexander.

Yet another topic that may have played a part in the trial, and absolutely did play a part in the sensationalized coverage of the case, is race. Rufus Cantrell and his associates were all Black men. Alexander and the other physicians, all of whom would eventually walk free, were white.

It’s important to note that people of color, facing systematic discrimination, were often driven to find income in alternative ways. These alternative ways were, in some cases, illegal. This absolutely could have played a part in Rufus Cantrell’s decision to take up this line of work. However, there were gangs of white ghouls in the city working right alongside Cantrell’s gang – grave robbing was a lucrative business if you could get past the morality of it. So, the influence of race on Cantrell choosing this line of work isn’t clear. What is clear is that his associates, and not the white physicians, were prosecuted for their crimes. It’s also clear that newspapers took every chance they could to point out the race of the accused. In the end, race can’t not have played a role in the trial, but it’s difficult to tell through reports – all written for white newspapers – how extensive that role may have been.

On April 26, 1903, Rufus Cantrell, the King of the Ghouls, was found guilty of two charges and sentenced to three to ten years in the Jeffersonville State Reformatory. In the end, Cantrell and four of his associates were convicted and sentenced to between one and ten years each. The twenty other men indicted by the Grand Jury were cleared of all charges due to lack of evidence.

Convictions weren’t the only thing to come from this tale, though. The system of public institutions delivering the unclaimed bodies of the deceased directly to medical schools was clearly not working as desired. As a result of this and other similar stories, the Indiana General Assembly passed the Anatomical Education Act in 1903, establishing the State Anatomical Board. The State Anatomical Board is still in existence today, mostly overseeing the distribution of donated bodies to medical schools.

In the dozens of newspaper articles written about this sensational trial, one thing seems to be missing more often than not: the victims. Ebenezer Perry. John Sargant. Edward Pedigo. Stella Middleton. Rose Neidlinger. Caroline Tyler. Catherine Doehring. Johanna Stilz. Wallace Johnson. Glendore Gates. It was the families of these Hoosiers who were re-traumatized after already experiencing the loss of a parent, spouse, or child. Many of them had searched the premises of the medical schools themselves, discovering the bodies of their beloved family members stuffed unceremoniously in pickling barrels or laid out on tables, ready for dissection. And it was the families of these people who, after all that, experienced the emotional turmoil of testifying at the trials. While it can be tempting to discuss the salacious details of this case, we should remember that the crimes in this story were not victimless and we should remember the names of those affected by it.

The Indiana Medical History Museum is doing just that. Located in what was the Central State Hospital for the Insane, from which Rufus Cantrell claimed to have taken upwards of 100 bodies, the museum has committed itself to rehumanizing the individuals represented in their extensive specimen collection. Much of their collection comes from the dissection of former patients in the hospital. While not the victims of body snatchers, these people were the victims of a time and society which saw value not in who they were as people, but what their bodies could reveal through examination and dissection after their death. For so long, these people have been nameless, identified by a specimen label, but now, their names, and their stories are being heard. This is just one project of several undertaken by the museum in the last several years – all part of a larger effort to tell the stories of the patients themselves. Join us in two weeks to learn more about this initiative when I talk to Indiana Medical History Museum Executive Director Sarah Halter on the next episode of Giving Voice.

But there is still something missing in this story – who was the mysterious man who precipitated the whole wild tale? Who was the man who slipped letters under doors, called grieving families in the middle of the night, and showed up in shadowy carriages carrying news of desecrated graves? Well, according to Rufus Cantrell, that man was no one other than himself. According to testimony given during the trial of Dr. Alexander, the story goes something like this:

Rufus Cantrell was in love – he was the luckiest man in the world. Sure, he had a grizzly job, but he made good money . . . and he was in love. His girl had it all – she was beautiful, smart – the very picture of perfection. In late summer 1902, Cantrell had to attend to some business in Spencer, Indiana and would be gone from the city for some time. Before he left, he saw his love one last time – her final words to him before his departure were for him to return soon.

Some days later, weary from his trip, he did just that. He arrived home with thoughts for none other than his sweetheart. But before he could wash the travel from his face, he received a message from his boss, Dr. Alexander, instructing him that there was work to be done – a fresh grave at Anderson Cemetery was too good of an opportunity to pass up and must be attended to that very night. Sighing and pushing thoughts of his beloved aside, he set out for the job.

He’d done this work for so long, it was almost mechanical. Remove the flowers from the burial site. Wait for the men to dig out the center of the grave. Saw the coffin covering in half. Bring the body out of the hole. Load it in the wagon while the men cleaned up the area. Drive the wagon to the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons. Take the body in the back way. Lay it on the table.

He didn’t often make a habit of looking at the faces of the lifeless bodies from which he made his living – but as he laid this particular body on that particular table, and the light fell upon her face, he realized in horror that it was that face he loved so well – it was Stella Middleton, his sweetheart, who just days before he had promised to rush back home to.

In his shock, he decided then and there that this had to stop. He would right the wrongs, even if it cost him his freedom. He wrote a note to Stella’s mother, Mrs. Middleton slipped it under her door while he knew she was out at church, and sealed his fate.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. A huge thank you to Jeannie Regan-Dinius, who suggested the topic for this episode and to the Indiana State Archives and Records Administration for sending me some very useful research to get me started. And last, but not least, thank you to Justin Clark for lending his voice to today’s episode. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice, where I’ll be talking with Sarah Halter, the Director of the Indiana Medical History Museum. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for Listening.

Show Notes for Rufus Cantrell: King of Ghouls

Websites

“The Grave Robbing of Benjamin Harrison’s Father,” Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, October 31, 2018, https://bhpsite.org/the-grave-robbing-of-benjamin-harrisons-father/.

“Body Snatching Around the World,” PBS.org, https://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/body-snatching-around-the-world/.

Books

Laws of The State of Indiana Passed at the Fifty-First Regular Session of the General Assembly (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Journal Company, State Printers and Binders, 1879), 157-160.

Laws of The State of Indiana Passed at the Sixty-Third Regular Session of the General Assembly (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Journal Company, State Printers and Binders, 1903), 84-88.

Newspaper Articles

“Cantrell, Rufus,” Indiana, Indianapolis, City Directory, 1901, p. 262, accessed Ancestry.com.

“Cantrell, Rufus,” Indiana, Indianapolis, City Directory, 1896, p. 242, accessed Ancestry.com.

“Cantrell, Rufus,” Indiana, Indianapolis, City Directory, 1899, p. 252, accessed Ancestry.com.

“Cantrell, Rufus,” Indiana, Indianapolis, City Directory, 1898, p. 247, accessed Ancestry.com.

“Cantrell, Rufus,” Indiana, Indianapolis, City Directory, 1902, p. 275, accessed Ancestry.com.

“City News Items,” Indianapolis Journal, November 1, 1901, 2.

“Body in a Street,” Indianapolis News, November 16, 1901, 1.

“Watch Kept at a Cemetery,” Indianapolis News, December 5, 1901, 3.

“Found in an Old Barrel,” Indianapolis News, December 14, 1901, 14.

“Ghouls in a Graveyard,” Indianapolis Journal, September 20, 1902, 3.

“Feared that Many Graves are Empty,” Indianapolis News, September 20, 1902, 1.

“Body is Recovered,” Indianapolis Journal, September 22, 1902, 12.

“Another Stolen Body at Central College,” Indianapolis News, September 22, 1902, 10.

“Confession of Ghouls,” Indianapolis Journal, September 30, 1902, 1.

“The Law’s Strong Arm,” Indianapolis Journal, October 2, 1902, 10.

“Another Body Gone,” Indianapolis Journal, October 9, 1902, 10.

“Four Bodies Found,” Indianapolis Journal, October 14, 1902, 10.

“Threats Were Made, Says The Prosecutor,” Indianapolis News, October 17, 1902, 9.

“Grave Robber Inquiry,” Indianapolis Journal, October 22, 1902, 3.

“Grave Robbery Investigation,” Indianapolis Journal, October 23, 1902, 8.

“Ghouls are Indicted,” Indianapolis Journal, October 26, 1902, 10.

“Negro Porter Suspected,” Indianapolis Journal, October 26, 1902, 10.

“The Ghouls in Court,” Indianapolis Journal, October 28, 1902, 1.

“Alexander’s Trial to Begin Monday,” Indianapolis News, January 31, 1903, 1.

“Turned Light on Face of His Sweetheart,” Indianapolis News, February 3, 1903, 10.

“Contract with Alexander,” Indianapolis News, February 5, 1903, 3.

“Took His Girl Riding,” Indianapolis News, February 5, 1903, 3.

“Fate of Alexander,” Indianapolis Journal, February 12, 1903, 10.

“Jury Discharged,” Indianapolis Journal, February 16, 1903, 1.

“Alienists Will Testify,” Indianapolis Journal, April 20, 1903, 8.

“Cantrell in Court,” Indianapolis Journal, April 21, 1903, 10.

“State Closes Case,” Indianapolis Journal, April 22, 1903, 10.

“Arguments in Trial of Cantrell Made,” Indianapolis News, April 23, 1903, 3.

“Prison for Cantrell,” Indianapolis Journal, April 24, 1903, 10.

“Ghouls Will Not Testify,” Indianapolis Journal, April 25, 1903, 10.

“Cantrell is Sentenced,” Indianapolis Journal, April 26, 1903, 8.

“Cantrell off to Prison,” Indianapolis Journal, May 2, 1903, 10.

“Release of the Ghouls,” Indianapolis News, June 25, 1903, 9.