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An early Halloween Story.....

In the spring of 1819 the residents of Ipswich’s Chebacco Parish (now the town of Essex) saw lantern light in the graveyard at night. Soon they discovered that the graves had been disturbed, and several families discovered that their relative’s graves were empty. Eight graves, going back to 1811, were disturbed.

According to a book by Christopher Benedeto, the winter of 1817-1818 was mild and the weather conditions were perfect for body snatching. Two little boys died in the same week in October 1817 and this was probably too tempting to the local doctor. One of those boys was ten year old Isaac (not William as has been reported), son of Joseph Allen and Judith Burnham, my 4x great grandparents. I’m descended of little Isaac’s big brother, Joseph, Jr. My mother was the last Allen born in Ipswich, in the 1930s. Several descendants still live in Ipswich and Essex (the former Chebacco Parish).

The local minister, Robert Crowell, had eight empty coffins reinterred in the cemetery, and he delivered a sermon on this occasion. “Who can adequately conceive . . . the keen anguish, and almost inconsolable grief of those, who are thus inhumanely robbed of the body of a husband, or wife, of a parent, or child, of a brother, or sister?” It is hard to imagine Joseph and Judith’s grief at having to symbolically go through a child’s burial for a second time. They named two other children Isaac, the third survived childhood and lived until 1872 when he died, unmarried, of insanity.

A five hundred dollar award was announced on April 25, 1818 for the “Most daring and sacrilegious Robbery” by the committee at Chebacco Parish, Ipswich.

It was finally found out that Thomas Sewell (April 16, 1785 – April 10, 1845), the local doctor and Harvard graduate 1812, was found in possession of an “unsanctioned corpse.” His lawyer was the famous Daniel Webster, but he was still found guilty and fined $800, the largest fee ever for body snatching in Massachusetts. Sewell was run out of Chebacco, and went to Washington DC on Webster’s suggestion. He helped to found the medical school at Columbian College in 1825, which is today’s George Washington University.

What led to Sewall’s disgrace was an 1815 law making it a felony to rob a grave. It was previously not considered theft. However, by 1831 a new law was passed allowing for anatomical studies of bodies, and permitted courts to surrender corpses that would have been buried at public expense (paupers, convicts, etc.) Doctors were able to legally study bodies (they had been doing so anyways for centuries) and the public no longer associated dissection with a crime.

For more information:

History of Ipswich, Essex, and Hamilton by Joseph B. Felt, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Charles Folsom, 1834

History of the town of Essex from 1634 to 1700 by Egbert Crowell, Boston, Moody Printer, 1853

Harvard Medical School website

A Most Daring and Sacrilegious Robbery” by Christopher Benedeto (in the NEGHS publication “New England Ancestors Spring 2005, Volume 6, No. 2)


Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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Comment by Heather Wilkinson Rojo on October 17, 2010 at 9:18am
A great story William! Thanks for posting!
Comment by William Douglas on October 17, 2010 at 7:40am
There are various members of the Douglas family, all called James, who figure in our Canadian history. I am trying to sort them out, and came across this story:

It was a fine day in the dead of winter, 1826, when a young doctor and his wife arrived in Quebec, Canada, in a horsedrawn sleigh, galloped around the city a few times, liked the look of it, and decided to stay for the rest of their lives. The next day they sold their horse and started looking around for real estate. A few days later they bought a house.

Dr James Douglas was a refugee and a criminal who was fleeing from the United States, the kind of man our current refugee policies try hard to exclude. His crime was vandalizing fresh graves, digging up the corpses and taking them home to dissect them. He was 26 years old.

At the time of his crime, Douglas was teaching surgery and anatomy at Auburn Medical College in New York. It was a bit of a catch-22, as his students had to do dissections to pass their surgical examinations, but the law made it impossible to obtain enough corpses for this purpose. It was the second time he had been caught. The first time the judge had let him off with a warning, but this time Douglas had made a dreadful mistake: he had thought he was digging up a poor beggar but had instead robbed the grave of an eminent citizen. A taxi driver (or the 19th-century equivalent) came in and recognized the dead man left carelessly in Douglas’ office. Douglas and his wife Hannah Williams did not wait to see how quickly word would spread. They grabbed their toothbrushes and left that very night by sleigh for Canada. Douglas must be one of the more outrageous characters in Canada’s medical history, and also one of the most talented. Very shortly after he arrived in Quebec he had established a reputation as one of the most skilled physicians in Lower Canada.

Three generations of James Douglas are detailed here>>>
Comment by JC Flynt on October 16, 2010 at 2:24pm
Interesting...learn something new everyday.




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