Sometimes, being dead isn’t so restful. In the recent past, this could mean wild dogs digging up your remains, as often happened in the early 1900s of Australia. Or maybe it entailed ghouls dressed in men’s clothing taking shovels to your brand-new burial plot.
Many people in the past distrusted cemeteries because they attracted the wrong sort of people and the wrong sort of attention. Whether for mischief, profit, or other reasons, more than a few unsavory characters have done their best to make final resting places anything but restful, as these ten cases illustrate.
10 In The Way
As men were busy digging trenches for new water pipes in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1903, one of them cut through the top of a coffin. The bone of an arm and the top of a skull showed through the opening, and the worker dropped his pick and scrambled away from the grisly discovery. When the supervisor went to see what the commotion was about, he saw the old remains and rightly came to the conclusion that they may have discovered an old, forgotten pioneer cemetery.
Not wanting to slow down the job or interfere with the progress of the city, the supervisor ordered the men to get back to work. As they continued digging, more bodies were found. Their skeletal remains were tossed into the street and later carted off as old rubbish.
This wasn’t the only time something like this happened in the United States. As modern necessities progressed, more and more skeletons were discovered. In 1916, Tuscon, Arizona, workmen discovered an old settler cemetery in their way. Instead of working around it or making an effort to respectfully collect the bones, the skeletons were tossed into the street for the children to collect and play with.
9 Playing With Bones
Kingston upon Hull, England, had its own problems with children back in 1930. Boys and girls, ranging from nine to 17 years of age, would descend upon the old cemetery there and play with the bones of the dead.
The tombs were very old and in poor condition, allowing children access to the bones within. The hellions would often be spotted running through the cemetery, chasing each other with bones in their hands. Boys could sometimes be seen holding skeletal bones and chasing the girls, who screamed in mock terror.
It became such a problem that neighbors began to complain. The problem, said the vicar of the attached church, was that the cemetery grounds were part of two police divisions. The police in one division could only chase the children when they were in their division. As soon as the kids ran onto the other division’s property line, the chase was over.
In time, however, the cemetery came under the jurisdiction of just one police department, and the police were finally able to capture a few of the hooligans who were ripping the bones out of their resting spots.
8 A Piece Of History
Children weren’t the only ones who couldn’t keep their hands off of human bones. Adults could be just as bad, but for different reasons.
In 1929, workmen were digging up ground at the old jail in Melbourne and discovered the bones of Ned Kelly, the leader of the Kelly Gang and notorious bushranger. He had been hanged back in 1880 and buried in the yard, along with other men who faced the rope. The workmen were obviously excited over the find, and many of them grabbed a bone or two to keep as historical mementos.
When the Penal Department of Melbourne learned what had happened, they sent out notice that anyone who stole one of Ned Kelly’s bones could be prosecuted for a felony. They asked for the return of the stolen bones so that they could be reinterred.
7 Knights Of The White Death
Of course, people had other reasons to steal the bones of the dead, and none of them were good.
In 1908, the people of Chicago were becoming alarmed over threatening letters being sent through the mail. The letters were accompanied by human bones and, of all things, coffin handles from old graves. The letters threatened death to certain individuals unless they coughed up several hundred dollars. All the letters were signed by the “Knights of the White Death.”
The police and the post office’s chief inspector took the matter very seriously, and after a few weeks, they identified the culprit.
William J. Pollard, a 22-year-old butcher and the son of a sexton, was enamored by the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and claimed that the “Red Hand” was his inspiration for the letters and threats. He stole the bones and coffin fixings from old graves at the Calvary cemetery to give his letters an added flair of terror. Pollard said it was all a joke and that his only desire was to annoy the police and get his name in the paper. To that end, he succeeded.
6 Never Threaten The Hard Of Hearing
Some people will do just about anything to make a quick buck. Take, for instance, an ex–grave robber from Louisiana who, back in 1897, thought he had a foolproof way to get some extra money.
Falling back on his old profession, the man went into a local cemetery in the Washington, DC, area and dug up the body of a recently buried woman. He took her corpse to the stable of a wealthy elderly man and waited for the old man to arrive home.
When the old man turned up, the former grave robber approached him and said that there was a body of a woman in his stable. For the right price, the robber would get rid of the body, and the old man would not have to deal with the police. The old man, being nearly deaf, hardly caught any of the robber’s words, so the robber showed him the body.
The old man was naturally upset over the sight and said he would contact the police, but the robber tried again to warn him that the police might believe the old man had committed a murder. It did not work. Nothing the robber said was getting through to the old man, and he had to take off, carrying the woman’s remains, before the police arrived.
The woman’s body was dumped into the Potomac River, and the burglar got away with his deception until sometime later, when, while sitting in a Baltimore jail cell for a different crime, he told his story to another prisoner.
5 Army Allowance Supplement
A widow living in Kassel, Germany, began receiving letters asking her for money back in 1917. She ignored the early letters, but as time went on, the letters started taking on a more threatening tone, and the widow became very upset over the whole ordeal. One day, she received a letter demanding that she take money to a drop-off point. If she failed to do this, the dead would suffer the consequences of her inaction.
The widow went straight to the police with the letter, and they later discovered, after her drop-off deadline, that her late husband’s coffin had been broken into and his body plundered for the gold trinkets he had been buried with.
The police reacted by setting up a sting and luring the culprit in. It was then discovered that Lieutenant Karl Eisler of the 34th Regiment, along with a gang of blackmailers, had been sending out threats and collecting blackmail money from different people for the past several months.
In court, Eisler claimed that the only reason he committed crimes of blackmail and grave robbing was because the army’s allowance was not enough money to cover his needs and wants.
4 Bones For The Seance
Six college students were arrested in 1952 in Virginia for grave robbing.
According to the story, the four young men and two young women were holding seances and needed props. The easiest ones to get were from a family burial ground, where they dug up a casket and stole a skull and a few bones. After having used the bones as props for three of their seances, the college students were caught and arrested for their stupidity.
3 Total Depravity
Sometimes, while reading through old newspaper reports, you come across articles that destroy your faith in humanity. That was the case in an 1875 report on a gruesome outrage against a young corpse in Kentucky.
Miss Eva Mullen, a teenager, was eating dinner when she was suddenly struck with paralysis and passed away shortly thereafter. She was buried two days later, but something odd was discovered a few days after that. A pair of women’s undergarments was found near her fresh grave. At first, no one thought much of the discovery, but the news reached town authorities, and they sent someone out to investigate the grave.
Something didn’t seem quite right. A search around the grave site revealed a shoe knife. With spades in hand, men began to dig at Eva’s burial spot, and 5 centimeters (2 in) beneath the soil, they found a full set of women’s clothing. Further down, they found her coffin. The lid had been chiseled open and broken in half.
Inside the coffin was young Eva’s body. All of her clothing had been removed, except for her stockings. Dirt covered her body and filled her coffin.
The men lifted the coffin up and out of the hole. They rolled poor Eva’s body out onto a board, and her friends went to work cleaning off her body. She was wrapped in a white sheet, her coffin was cleaned and repaired, and she was reinterred.
This wasn’t the end of the case, though. Determined to find out who did this, the police went to work. At first, it was thought that local medical students might have had a hand in disturbing the grave, but the suspected young men came forward and swore they did not disturb the grave site.
Next, the police investigated the origin of the shoe knife, and it was by questioning local shoemakers that they discovered a man named Hillis. Hillis had previously murdered a prostitute in Indiana but claimed it was in self-defense, and he got away with the crime. This time, there could be no plea of self-defense against a corpse.
Hillis’s property was searched. A dirt-caked chisel was found in his toolbox, and Eva’s coffin was dug up once again. The marks in the coffin lid matched the chisel. Doctors also examined Eva’s body and found that it had been viciously outraged.
Hillis was arrested, and it was believed by many that he would be hanged for his crimes, although there are no further reports on the court proceedings or the hanging due to the public’s disdain over such matters and for fear of a possible lynch mobbing.
2 Father’s Ghost
It happened quite often in the past where someone in the family would pass away and then reportedly haunt the living.
In one report from 1923, a father died in a Bosnian village. He was given a proper burial, but that night, his wife claimed he visited her and would not let her sleep. The next night, his spirit visited again. This time, he haunted his two sons as well as his wife, and no one got any sleep.
Fearing that dear dad would get it into his ghostly head to wander off and haunt the entire village, the brothers dug up their father, burned his body to ashes, and placed the ashes back into the coffin to be reburied. That seemed to settle dad down, and there were no further reports of him bugging anyone in the middle of the night.
1 Have A Heart
A cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, presented a rather grim and grisly scene back in 1945.
Someone broke through the concrete slab covering the grave site of a 60-year-old woman who had passed away the week before. The ghoul then managed to gouge off the top of the woman’s coffin, cut the corpse’s chest open with a pair of surgical bone clippers, and cut out the heart.
The police claimed that the person must have been insane with rage, but it is possible that the perpetrator either knew the victim or may have been a very determined medical student who searched for the freshest body he could find.
Elizabeth lives in the beautiful state of Massachusetts, where she is currently involved in researching early American history. She writes and travels in her spare time.