Monday, February 20, 2012

The Defiling Of Jeremiah Sullivan

Jeremiah R. Sullivan wasn't unlike many tuberculosis patients at the County House in 1881 who were wasting away from the effects of consumption. He took his medicine and partook of the scarce medical advancements afforded to medical practitioners of the time. What differed from other cases was that his impending death would cause a firestorm of media and judicial inquiry and outrage. The punishment wouldn't suit the crime but nary a conviction ever does in the halls of justice.

Whether by argument, accident or ignorance the family of Mr. Sullivan were unaware of his admittance to the hospital. Upon word that he was situated there his son William retrieved him from the facility on January 14, 1881 and brought him home to rest at the residence of his brother-in-law, John O'Reilly, at 10 Williams Drive where a sister would attend to his needs. Also retrieved were three vials of medicine which would later become front and center in an unfolding drama.

Once lodged in a side room of the home the son called for a doctor to attend to his father. Dr. Kirker lived in the area and was brought in to evaluate Sullivan's condition and to provide any care necessary. After checking his patient he determined that the man was taking the wrong medicine and scribbled out his own prescribed drug treatment. With that in hand he'd check back the following evening but Sullivan didn't survive to see the appointment.

Mrs. O'Reilly administered the prescribed dosages at the designated time allotments and made him as comfortable as was possible considering the situation. Around 9 o'clock Saturday evening Mrs. O'Reilly went to check on her brother and found him in a desperate state and soon thereafter he perished. She immediately sought out a patrolman on his nightly beat and summoned him to the home. After checking the body he likewise contacted the nearest physician, Dr. Law, who, after confirming the man's death and surveying the medicine vials on the stand beside the bed advised that a coroner should attend to the matter.

The suspicion was that Mr. Sullivan, 64, had been given the contents of one of the small bottles which was clearly marked as poison. His sister attested to the fact that she had only given him the prescribed medicine and that the other vials were merely his possessions from the stay at the County House that were not disposed of. She also swore that Jeremiah didn't show signs of poisoning and that in his condition he could not have administered the deadly mixture on his own. Apparently the coroner agreed with the findings and marked the death due to natural causes. He was buried the following Monday at Mt. Elliott but not before being properly shaved and dressed for the occasion.

The fresh snow that evening should have served as the christening to a long deserved rest for the sickness riddled body of Jeremiah H. Sullivan but it was merely a blank slate for the fiendish scheme which would shortly transpire and tarnish the sacramental burial lot.

Meanwhile, over at the Hook and Ladder Co. 2 fire station at Hastings and E. Congress, an odd association of two men were wrapping up their plans for a ghoulish endeavor. Richard Butler, a barber, the same one who had earlier shaved the lately deceased Mr. Sullivan, had walked to the fire house to summon ladderman Albert Cronin and notify him that a man's body had recently come from the County House and been buried. It was suspected that the man may have died from poisoning. This was a strange subject for two friends to broach but Butler and Cronin were more than that to one another, they were about to become conspirators and business partners in the art of Resurrection. Though the name might imply it, this was no religious cult or cabal of secret necromancers but rather an unlikely duo soon to be complicit in the act of grave robbing.

Butler was also an acquaintance of Dr. La Ferte from the Michigan Medical College (later the Detroit Medical College and presently part of the Wayne State Medical School). The decade old medical school was like many colleges of its type that practiced anatomy but had little access to corpses for dissection. With the religious convictions of the time being steeped in Biblical prophecy many believers were unwilling to part with their bodies for fear of the coming Rapture. Hence, many medical research facilities were liberal in the acceptance of cadavers, sometimes even resorting to open stealing by faculty and students alike. Many municipalities had no laws against grave-robbing or the act was a mere misdemeanor as the upkeep of burial grounds wasn't as ritualized as it later would become to the point of it being taboo to desecrate a body in modern times. All the same, thieves were careful not to rob the grave of any possessions beside the body sometimes leaving behind jewelry and valuables to avoid felonious charges.

As the practice grew from the late 18th century up to the end of the 19th century more bodies were needed to facilitate the growing sciences of anatomy and medical forensics, among others. Backdoor deals were often made and the result was that grave robbing became a main tool of procuring the desired stiffs. The poor and minority populations suffered the majority of thefts as their graves were least likely to be tended to or guarded but that didn't stop the influx into the general population.

The macabre bandits employed many devices and schemes in their practice to more easily procure their reward. They would scour the obituary listings in newspapers for fresh burials and even hire women to attend funerals to gauge the probability of any problems that might endanger a heist or to even boldly claim bodies from the poorhouse. It is said that some groups even turned to open murder to collect their bounty as the bodies were fresher and the deed was less conspicuous than the laborious task of unearthing a subject.

At the height of the epidemic in the 19th century it became common practice for family members to keep vigil over the grave for a period of a week or so until the process of decomposition made the corpse less desirous for medical dissection. Other means included mortsafes (a heavy locking device which was laid over the grave or the casket itself), watchtowers, tombs and even iron caskets but nothing proved as efficient to curtailing the practice than tougher laws which made the small bounty for such an arduous task riskier to chance.

As Butler explained that he would drop by the station later that night, Cronin attempted to dislodge himself from the grips of the scheme pleading that his wife was ill and that he'd have a difficult time leaving the station without scrutiny if an emergency should arise and his services were needed on a run. Butler finally convinced him and they met up at the planned time. Another man, a hearse driver named Daniel Daly, joined them. Cronin was instructed to go home and retrieve a shovel and the men ventured downtown from their spot on Michigan Avenue and Sixth Street. When they reached the corner of State street and Washington, Butler told the men to wait for him at a nearby saloon while he went to fetch a rig. Once returned they drove the sled along Gratiot until they reached Mount Elliott cemetery, removing the bells from the horse's rigging to avoid detection.

Butler and Daly scaled the cemetery gate while Cronin kept watch of the horse. After an excruciatingly long wait the men reappeared with the body at the fence. First came Butler with the shovel and next Daly with the corpse. They sat Sullivan upright in the sled between the two of them while Cronin rode on the side runner as they drove directly to the college. Once there they rapped at the window of the janitor's residence as they were earlier instructed to do by La Ferte. Janitor Rennie appeared and took possession of the body as was customary during such clandestine deliveries.

However, this wasn't the first time the group had met, save for Daly, and it was later revealed in court that Butler had been in contact with Dr. La Ferte in concern for the need of bodies and it became an unmentionable fact between the men. Whether Cronin and Daly were implicit in the matter would later be left to a jury but in the meantime there was a bounty out for a body and the Ressurectionists had carried the order to completion.

Due to the late hour they hurried back to the proprietor but not before stopping to have a few drinks at Little Tommy's restaurant to quiet their nerves. After fastening the bells back to the rigging they returned the sleigh to the owner at Prospect stables. They hastily retreated from the proprietor only for Butler to quickly return forgetting that he had left the shovel in the sled. This was an important oversight as a worker at the stable would later testify to the fact that the men had left a frozen dirt laden shovel in the cart which also had been sullied by the freshly dug earth at Mt. Elliott. Even though Butler retraced his tracks the impressions left were permanent.

The next morning Mr. Reed, the Superintendent of the breached cemetery, noticed the tracks in the snow along with the appearance that something or somebody had been dragged along by the overnight visitors. He followed the footprints from the gate back to the grave and with the visible evidence of the desecrated box and coffin was certain that somebody had pilfered it and stolen the body. With that knowledge he ventured downtown first to inform the President of the Board of Trustees John Heffron of the developments and then to the police to secure their assistance in tracking down the body for its proper return and burial.

Confident that the body would be found at one of the local medical colleges they sought a warrant from the court and were issued one. With the writ in hand the two men enjoined Roundsman Thompson and the sons of the deceased, William and Patrick Sullivan, in surveying the grounds of the Michigan Medical College.

At the school the received access to the dissection room and there surveyed the bodies of four men during Dr. La Ferte's class. Upon identifying the body of their father the brothers were encouraged by La Ferte to retrieve it for reburial as was their right. A point which the good doctor would use to his advantage in court to show that he was only implicit in the crime by association to the men whom he had supposedly hired to provide legal cadavers for the college.

The other men were not so fortunate in the matter and were later arrested and bound over for trial. Initially the quartet professed no guilt in the affair but at his trial Cronin cracked and confessed not only to the crime but became a witness for the prosecution and spilled the entire matter before the court. While it didn't save his job with the fire department it most likely saved his hide concerning the legal matter of the situation as he apparently was never convicted of the crime.

Butler suffered the worst fate as ringleader of the operation and was sentenced to five years of hard labor at Jackson Prison where he became the obvious choice as the new barber. He maintained his innocence and proffered up that he was targeted due to the fact that a brother of his had previously been convicted of the same charge. A bit of poetic justice was served up to Butler when Governor Jerome reduced his sentence from 5 to 2 years but his successor, Governor Begole, refused to pardon him and he remained in jail pending bond which he couldn't procure.

The other men involved finagled their way out from prosecution, as far as the written word is concerned, and, of course, Dr. La Ferte was cleared of all wrongdoing in the matter and continued on with prestige at the fine institute of higher learning as the others slunk away into ignominious futures as defilers of the dead.

In a sad and telling postscript to the entire matter Roundsman Thompson and Detective Bishop, who both worked the case and helped secure Butler's conviction both filed claims for the reward money offered up by the County Auditors at the time of the incident. Such unethical practices were common for the time and plagued the Detroit police department well into the 20th century and are questionably still present to this day.



A Suspicious Death; The Detroit Free Press, January 16, 1881

A Midnight Crime; The Detroit Free Press, January 19, 1881

That Grave Robbery; The Detroit Free Press, January 20, 1881

The Grave Robbing Case; The Detroit Free Press, January 21, 1881

One Hundred Dollars Reward; The Detroit Free Press, January 23, 1881

The Sullivan Grave Robbery; The Detroit Free Press, January 27, 1881

The Sullivan Grave Robbery; The Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1881

Fire Department Notes; The Detroit Free Press, February 24, 1881

Body Snatching; The Detroit Free Press, March 9, 1881

Cronin; The Detroit Free Press, March 12, 1881

A Startling Confession; The Detroit Free Press, May 26, 1881

Convicted; The Detroit Free Press, May 27, 1881

Ghouls; The Detroit Free Press, June 16, 1881

A Ghoul Sentenced; The Detroit Free Press, June 18, 1881

That $50 RewardThe Detroit Free Press, July 23, 1881

An Unprotected Locality; The Detroit Free Press, November 11, 1881


Behind The Bars; The Detroit Free Press, July 9, 1882


Dick Butler; The Detroit Free Press, May 12, 1883

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