Graverobbers, often called ghouls, practice a trade nearly as old as the veneration of the dead. In modern times, they became the resurrection men, providing fresh bodies for dissection in medical schools. Burke and Hare, the Edinburgh resurrectionists who murdered to increase their supply, are merely the most famous of this kind.
The late 1870s saw American graverobbing reach its height. For example, on May 31, 1878, the body of John Scott Harrison, son of President William Henry Harrison, was stolen and later found hanging on a hook in the subcellar of the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. Bodysnatching for ransom, however, was something new. Three plotters even attempted to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln from its tomb in Springfield, IL, on Nov. 7, 1876. New York's ghouls, however, were more successful: they snatched the body of America's third-richest man, Alexander Turney Stewart.
A.T. Stewart was worth up to $50 million when he died in his four-story white marble mansion on the southwest corner of 5th Ave. and 34th St. on April 10, 1876. A brilliant retailer, Stewart had opened his first store on lower Broadway in 1823. From the beginning, his customers liked the quality of his merchandise, and he was apparently the first merchant to mark prices on his goods rather than waste time haggling. He may have even invented the sale by advertising discounted prices on merchandise that he wanted to move out of his store. He became the world's largest retailer before the development of chain stores.
Stewart's funeral was held at the Episcopalian Church of St. Mark's-in-the-Bowerie at the northwest corner of 2nd Ave. and E. 10th St. The church was jammed with mourners, representing "the foremost men in law, literature, commerce, [and] politics," according to the Times. The body was placed in the Stewart family vault in the churchyard. The burial chamber was 12 feet underground. Several inches of fill surfaced the three marble slabs on its roof. A layer of sod nearly covered the 3-by-5-foot slab topping the square opening, which led to eight granite steps going down to a 12-foot-high vaulted chamber, with an arched ceiling and a lining of brickwork. On one side of the vault were four decaying coffins that contained the remains of Stewart's two infant children, his mother and a niece. Stewart's ornate casket alone was on the other side. Neither fame, nor wealth, nor the vault, nor the 8-foot-high iron fence surrounding the graveyard itself, would bar the resurrection men.
On Oct. 9, 1878, George W. Hammill, St. Mark's sexton, found that the Stewart vault's slabs had been removed and then crudely replaced. The interior was undisturbed. The area was resodded and all trace of the crypt covered over. A night watchman at a nearby stable was hired to patrol the graveyard at hourly intervals. However, the patrols stopped when the stable let him go. The churchyard did not hire a replacement.
At 7 a.m. on Nov. 7, 1878, Francis Parker, the assistant sexton, discovered the covering had been removed again from the Stewart vault. Hammill and Parker went into the vault and saw that the graverobbers had broken through its roof. Stewart's coffin now lay near the stairs. The ghouls had unscrewed the lid of the outer casket, cut its lead lining and opened the coffin. They had also slashed a triangular piece of velvet from the coffin lining. The casket's silver knobs and handles were gone; an engraved silver plate on the inner coffin was gone. So was Stewart.
The thieves must have had strong stomachs, as Stewart's body was in an advanced state of decomposition. Capt. McCullagh of the NYPD noticed some brownish blotches in the area of the Stewart vault. McCullagh sniffed at the blotches, which stank of putrescence. A small dog wandering about the churchyard allowed the captain to trace the graverobbers' route from the vault to a portion of the fence surrounding the churchyard. No footprints were reported. The criminals left a shovel, a dark bull's-eye lantern (so called because its reflector projected a target-like image), a stocking and a copy of the New York Herald. Police canvassed the neighborhood for witnesses, but no one had seen anything. They traced the shovel and lantern to a store, but no one there could identify the purchasers.
Despite the evidence nosed out by McCullagh, a person identified by the Herald only as "one of the cleverest official criminal experts" in the city hypothesized the body had been removed from its coffin during the Oct. 9 incident and reinterred in another vault within St. Mark's, thus preventing the stench of its corruption from revealing its removal. On the day after the crime, a team of detectives examined every vault in the churchyard. Any bearing even the vaguest sign of recent activity was opened, entered and searched. The police did not find Stewart's remains and the vaults were resealed. The task was "most unpleasant." Reports indicate hundreds of fresh graves throughout the city were dug up in search of Stewart. The police investigated every known or suspected graverobber and shadowed dozens of likely suspects.
The day after the robbery, Judge Henry Hilton, Stewart's executor, offered a reward of $25,000 for the recovery of Stewart's remains and the conviction of the robbers. He insisted Stewart's estate would never ransom the body. Yet only a month later a rumor began that Stewart's body had been recovered, perhaps ransomed, and was being held in a vault in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, until a vault within the Cathedral of the Incarnation, then under construction in Garden City, Long Island, at Mrs. Stewart's expense, was ready to receive it. The Sun and the Star reported the story in vague terms. Judge Hilton disclaimed it. Later, reporters learned the story had been leaked by Mrs. Stewart's sister and her physician.
George Walling, then chief of police, had personally directed the Stewart investigation. Nearly a decade later, he published his version of events in Recollections of a New York Chief of Police (1887; reprinted 1972). Walling wrote that Gen. Patrick Jones, who had served in Sherman's Atlanta campaign and the March to the Sea before returning to civilian life as a seedy lawyer-politician, contacted both Hilton and him. Jones claimed the graverobbers had approached him with a letter containing a $100 bill as an initial retainer for his services as an attorney. They wanted him to negotiate the return of Stewart's remains, with assurances of mutual good faith and police non-interference.
Jones received several letters from the graverobbers. They wanted $250,000 for Stewart's body, incidentally promising to pay Jones the rest of his fee after payment of the ransom. In early 1879, Jones received a package containing some of the coffin's metal fittings and a piece of paper exactly the size and shape of the triangle snipped from its lining. An enclosed letter said, "If any additional proofs are required the plate will be sent you upon inserting the following 'personal' in the New York Herald: 'Canada-Send P.-Counsel.'? When you are satisfied that the relatives of Mrs. Stewart will talk business, insert the following 'personal' in the Herald: 'Canada-Will do business-Counsel.' Then you will hear from me again." The letter was signed Henry G. Romaine.
Jones took the letters and package to Walling, who placed the personal advertisement requesting the silver coffin plate. Two days later a package arrived from Boston. The plate was in it. Investigators in Boston learned only that the package had been sent by "a lady who wore a scarf covering everything but her eyes."
Jones placed another personal ad in the Herald agreeing to act as counsel. On Feb. 11, another letter came from Boston. Romaine said Jones could hold the ransom in escrow until Hilton was satisfied with the authenticity of the remains. Then Romaine would contact Hilton with instructions about transferring the money.
The problem was Hilton's refusal to negotiate. Parenthetically, from this point on Jones apparently had some means of communicating with Romaine that was never provided to the police. Jones wrote to Romaine about Hilton's attitude. Romaine replied that Jones should directly negotiate with Mrs. Stewart, the widow. However, Jones did not do so. In March, 1879, Judge Hilton told Gen. Jones he would offer $25,000 for the remains. Romaine declined and negotiations ceased. Two years later, Mrs. Stewart, now nearly 80, secretly contacted Jones. Perhaps, as has been suggested, she had "picked up a trick or two herself in fifty-three years of marriage to the master of cut-rate merchandising." She offered $20,000. Perhaps Romaine was tiring of the game or needed the money. He accepted the offer, with a few conditions.
The parties agreed an emissary bearing the cash would travel alone in a one-horse wagon. Departing precisely at 10 p.m. on a certain night, he would go north into rural Westchester County, following a route marked on a map provided by Romaine. Once Romaine was satisfied the courier was acting in good faith and not being shadowed by the police, the ghouls would contact the courier using prearranged signals and provide further instructions.
One of Mrs. Stewart's grandnephews undertook the journey. At 3 in the morning, a masked horseman loomed from a wooded copse. He gave the signal. Then he directed the driver into a deserted country road and vanished into the darkness. Another wagon pulled into the road before him. A masked man walked up bearing a large satchel. "Where's the money?" he asked. The grandnephew demanded proof of identity. The masked man handed him a triangular piece of velvet. The grandnephew then compared it with a tracing of the hole cut in the lining of Stewart's coffin. They matched. The money was handed down. The satchel, which contained Stewart's bones, was handed up. The masked man backed away, counted the money, climbed into the other wagon and drove away.
Walling is the only source for this story. At least the year of the recovery is confirmed by Adam Pfleging, who was the verger at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City from the 1880s until his death in 1921. Pfleging claimed Stewart's body had been recovered in 1881 and concealed in Stewart's great store at 280 Broadway until 1884. It was then shipped to the cathedral in an ordinary-looking crate, marked as a bronze statue from Galveston, TX. A few days before the services dedicating the cathedral, its architect and its construction superintendent removed Stewart's remains from the crate and placed them in the tomb, where he lies to this day. The ghouls were never apprehended. Chief Walling wrote that if the vault is disturbed, a hidden spring will be released, causing all the bells in the cathedral's tower to ring out as an alarm. Perhaps it will be loud enough to wake the dead.