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gravestone

It was an early fall night with a full moon hanging over the horizon. A medical student and his two helpers worked feverishly, their spades sinking easily into the freshly covered grave. A hard clunk signaled that they had found their mark. Digging more carefully, they uncovered the wooden coffin and pried open the lid. The young girl’s body, still serene in death, was carefully lifted out. Her silk dress was removed and the body transferred to a straw-filled trunk.

The trunk was then sent overnight by train to Toledo, Ohio, not far up the line. With luck, it would ultimately be delivered to the Toledo Medical College as payment for the medical student’s last months of training. In Ohio there was still no formal law on the books in 1886 that allowed for legal donations of cadavers for medical school laboratories, so some schools would accept a human cadaver for dissection in lieu of tuition. Desperate students sometimes resorted to grave robbery themselves or hired “resurrectionists” to do the work for them.

Luck ran out on this particular medical student. By the time the trunk had sat awhile on the train platform in Toledo, a noxious smell led to the opening of the trunk and the discovery of the body. Foul play was at first suspected, but on closer examination of the body, the truth of the situation was quickly ascertained. When the unsuspecting medical student arrived to claim the body, he was promptly arrested. And since the student had used my great-grandfather’s railroad pass, Dr. Harry Blaine was also arrested as an accomplice.

Both of them may have gotten off with a reprimand except for the hornet’s nest of indignation that the robbery stirred up in the tight-knit farm community. The young woman, only 17 when she died of tuberculosis, had been very popular, and her grief-stricken father was out for revenge, even calling for a posse to hang the men involved!

Fortunately, the order of law prevailed. The medical student was tried and sentenced to one year in the Ohio Penitentiary. After serving his sentence, he went on to finish his studies and served as a respected doctor in a nearby community for over thirty years. Dr. Blaine was finally cleared of all  charges and remained a prominent physician in the area until his death in 1930.

This macabre tale of grave robbery made national news at the time and is still resurrected occasionally, especially around Halloween, as a reminder of how far medical education has come.

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