Grave robbery in Cobb County: 1879

Throughout the early years of medical education schools in need of cadavers would often resort to the illegal service of grave robbers, also called “body snatchers.” The most well-known case internationally was that of Edinburgh Scotland grave robbers William Burke and William Hare, who began supplementing their grave robbery by murdering people to increase the number of cadavers they could sell.

On December 23, 1879, the Atlanta Weekly Constitution (one of the papers that form part of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s early history) reported on a case in Cobb County that raised a public furor. (You can read a PDF image or OCR text version of the original article by following this link to the Georgia Historic Newspaper site).

The paper ran the story with a macabre headline: A “Stiff” Subject: the Robbery of a Cobb Graveyard.

After the reporter mused over why there was such concern “considering the fact that body-snatching has long been practiced all over the country,” the narrative began.

Thursday morning when Deputy Sheriff Thomas went to his office, he found awaiting him Mr. Parsley, Mr. Thomas, and another man from Cobb county.

They stated that they had come to secure the execution of certain search warrants, which they had sworn out against the three medical colleges in Atlanta before Jesse Simpson, a justice of the peace in Marietta.

They explained why they wanted this search made, and told the following story: Last week, Mr. William Johnson, an old and highly respected citizen of Cobb county, died after a short illness.

His remains were buried last Thursday afternoon near a Baptist church eight miles from Marietta, on the Roswell road.

On the following Saturday morning, some of the friends of the deceased passed by the graveyard and noticed that the mound over the grave of Mr. Johnson appeared rough and irregular. Later in the day, they became so suspicious that they resolved to disinter the remains.

They found pieces of clothing in the loose dirt in the grave. The coffin was reached, opened and found empty! The corpse had been snatched, stripped, and carried off.

The family of the deceased man were infuriated, and decided to pursue the case.

They found that a ferry operator had carried two men and a “light wagon” across the river near the cemetery. The men asked the ferryman for directions to the cemetery.

The men evidently returned on a ferry further up the river, and a witness reported they “had something in the wagon that smelled badly.”

After securing the warrants, Deputy Sheriff Thomas and a patrolman visited the three medical colleges in Atlanta: Eclectic Medical College, Southern Medical College, and Atlanta Medical College.

Eclectic Medical College had no dissection room, so it was eliminated. Southern Medical College was searched but no remains were found. When Atlanta Medical College was visited there was a man on site, a Black janitor named George Vaughn, who resembled descriptions of one of the men on the ferry.

Twenty students testified that Vaughn had been with them helping in the dissecting room when the grave robbery reportedly took place.

Still, the article reports that he was held for transport to Cobb County. Friends of Vaughn stated they would raise funds for his defense, and both the students and the faculty “regret the arrest of the janitor very much.”

“His friends say they will, if necessary, spend $1,000 to secure his acquittal of this charge” (about $32,000 in today’s dollars).

The Courier searched in both the Atlanta Constitution and in other historic newspapers in both Atlanta and Marietta, but found no articles about the disposition of the case.

The rest of the article was a general discussion of grave robbery around Atlanta.

The reporter talked to college officials, who stated that cadavers were necessary for medical training, that a good cadaver could bring $100 (over $3,000 in today’s dollars), and that since security had increased around city cemeteries, more grave robbers where traveling to rural locations to rob graves.