The day after Halloween 1877, three days hence the gibbous moon, the Ingham County Democrat ran a one sentence announcement in the local section. “Dr. Armstrong of Eaton County has been arrested for grave robbing.” The following day, the State Republican elaborated, “Sheriff Smoke of Eaton County has just returned from Kansas with Dr. Armstrong, whom he arrested of robbing a grave in Roxand [sometime] last June.”
According to the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, Dr. Thomas Armstrong, an Eaton County resident, was born in Canada about 1852. He lived with his wife Hellen, six years his junior, and their one-year-old daughter Lizzie. In the 1895 publication The County of Eaton Michigan, a short bio appears on Dr. Armstrong:
“Dr. Thomas McKee Armstrong is forty-four years old, and began his practice in Roxana twenty-one years ago, continuing seven years at the place. He then returned to pursue his medical studies at the Detroit Medical College, and graduated in 1882, locating at Grand Ledge for seven years, then he went West, returning about one year ago to the old camp ground. He was for a time a student of the President of the Detroit Medical College.”
and respected as an author, educator, gynecologist and surgeon.
A report from 1878 states Armstrong was charged with bodysnatching. This crime is mostly associated with the disinterment of fresh corpses for dissection. American medical schools proliferated in the early 19th century. With this growth came the symbiotic need for cadavers. The Detroit Medical College opened in 1868.
An incident in 1878 prompted the tightening of many bodysnatching laws. Former United States Representative John Scott Harrison from Ohio died at the age of 73, May 25, 1878. Harrison is the only man to be the son and father of a U.S. president. His father was William Henry Harrison, his son Benjamin Harrison.
Accounts vary. Closest to primary sources tell the following tale. During Harrison’s funeral it was discovered the body of a recently deceased young man buried close to Harrison’s grave was stolen. The Harrisons knew the missing departed, Augustus Devin, and offered aid in the search. The entourage headed from North Bend to Cincinnati en route to the Ohio Medical College. A warrant was procured and a senior faculty member accompanied them.
They did not find the body of the young man. About to leave, John Harrison, brother to Benjamin, noticed a rope hanging down a chute. The party pulled it up, removed a sheet, and revealed the countenance of the elder Harrison starring back at them. The ghoulish purloiners had successfully extracted his corpse and delivered his carcass less than 24 hours after internment. He had been shaven in an attempt to hide his identity. in a vat of brine at the University of Michigan Medical College.
Details in the Dr. Armstrong case are sparse. He was acquitted. However, not all public sentiment was with him. The Ingham County Democrat February 7, 1878 reports the following story.
“Tuesday forenoon Dr. Thomas M. Armstrong and Arthur Martin, of Roxand, had some words in H.S. McDonald’s drug store about the body snatching case, in which Armstrong is defendant and Martin used some very vile epithets whereupon Armstrong struck him in the face. Martin drew a revolver and attempted to shoot him, but was prevented by W[illia]m Kirchmaier knocking his arm, the shot going to the floor. No arrests have yet been made.
The case of Dr. Thomas M. Armstrong, which has occupied the attention of the circuit court since last Friday, was given to the jury yesterday forenoon, and they returned a verdict of not guilty in the evening.”
Ingham County Democrat 11/01/1877
Ingham County Democrat 2/07/1878
State Republican 11/02/1877
New York Times 5/31/1878
1880 U.S. Federal Census
The county of Eaton, Michigan : topography, history, art folio and directory of freeholders by Bullock, Taggart & Morrell, topographers and publishers, 1895
History of Detroit and Wayne County and early Michigan : a chronological cyclopedia of the past and present by Silas Farmer, 1890
edited by John Jolliffe Mulheron
From Grave Robbing to Gifting: Cadaver Supply in the United States by Aaron D. Tward, MA; Hugh A. Patterson, PhD: Journal of the American Medical Association (online article)
Images Courtesy of the Capital Area District Library Special Collections