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.