The grave is supposed be a place of final rest. Sometimes though, the peace of the grave is broken and a corpse disturbed. There have been many reasons graves have been robbed, from cannibalism to ransom, but the most popular reason has been the profit motive. In the 1800s, body thieves in America and England sold corpses for medical dissections to anatomists. This unsavory art became known as "resurrectionists"
Continue reading for six of the most notorious and horrific cases of body snatching ever recorded.
Victims of body snatchers
The back of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. is lined with mausoleums (Image credit to AlanEisen/Getty Images).
U.S. Rep. John Scott Harrison is the son of President William Henry Harrison, and the father President Benjamin Harrison. He was also, despite his political standing, the victim to body snatchers.
According to an Ohio History Journal 1950 article, John Scott Harrison was found dead and buried in North Bend, Ohio in 1878. At the time, body snatching was a serious problem. Doctors wanted corpses to teach anatomy lessons. It was not legal in Ohio to dissect unclaimed bodies. Today, medical students can learn anatomy from corpses through voluntary body-donation programs. Harrison's family placed him in a vault that was heavy and covered it with soil with large rocks. [Bones with names: Long-Dead Bodies Archaeologists have Identified]
However, this didn't stop the resurrectionists. The day before Harrison's funeral, mourners discovered that the nearby fresh grave with the body of Augustus Devin was empty. Devin was a friend of Harrison's son; one of Harrison's sons joined him and headed to Cincinnati's medical school in search for the body.
Instead, they discovered John Scott Harrison, a nude hanging from a rope suspended in a dark chute. Harrison's body was also taken.
According to the Ohio History Journal, "Naturally this shocking episode created an sensation."
Devin's remains were later discovered in a container of brine at the University of Michigan Medical College.
Charlie Chaplin's ransom
(Image credit: Shutterstock)
Silent film icon Charlie Chaplin died in December 1977. His grave was discovered open in March 1978. A pile of fresh earth was piled near the hole.
According to an Associated Press report, Chaplin's entire coffin was missing. Drag marks in the grass suggest that it had been dragged into an alleyway and then taken away by truck. The famed body was not immediately identifiable. Some thought that Chaplin's fans might have stolen the body in order to bring it back to England.
It took over two months for the body snatchers to be discovered. They were a Bulgarian immigrant and a Polish immigrant. They demanded a ransom equivalent to about 1.7 million British Pounds today or $2.6million.
Chaplin's widow was not interested in paying the ransom. According to a police spokesperson, The Glasgow Herald reported that Chaplin's widow was not interested in paying the ransom. She led the body snatchers so police could monitor their demands for ransom. According to the Herald, they eventually captured one of the conspirators in a Lausanne phone booth. Chaplin's body was discovered in a cornfield, 12 miles (19 km) from the cemetery. The same grave was used again, but this time a concrete casket was added.
Missing body from 19th-century tycoon
St. Mark's Church, Bowery, Manhattan. (Image credit: Historic Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)
Alexander Turney Stewart, a 19th-century tycoon, was robbed by his accomplices. They had luck with their ransom scheme. Stewart was a tale of rags to riches: He was an Irish immigrant who established a dry goods empire and became one the most successful men in history.
Stewart's body disappeared from the St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in New York City two years after his 1876 death. The ransom demanded by the thieves was $20,000, which is nearly half a million dollars today. According to an 1898 article published in The Deseret News detectives assigned to the case failed to make any progress. Stewart was released after the ransom was paid. He was reinterred at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, New York.
A president vanishes
A stray cat rests in a grave in a cemetery near Nicosia (Cyprus), June 5, 2021. (Image credit: REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou)
In 2008, Tassos Papadopoulos was the former president of Republic of Cyprus. He died from lung cancer. From the day before his first anniversary, his body remained in peace at the Deftera cemetery in Nicosia's capital.
According to the BBC, one of Papadopoulos’ former bodyguards lit a candle at his grave on December 11, 2009. This was as per his custom every morning, according to the BBC. The bodyguard discovered a hole in the ground and a pile full of dirt instead of grass. It is likely that the grave robbers did the crime overnight in a downpour.
Police found Papadopoulos' remains three months later after receiving a tip via telephone. It was discovered in another Nicosia cemetery.
A more bizarre motive was behind the bizarre body snatching. According to Reuters, a man held for murder demanded his brother to find the body of the former president in order to negotiate his release. The third accomplice, an Indian national who was also a murderer, asked his brother to dig up the body of the former president in hopes that he could negotiate for his release. They were all sentenced to less that two years each, because violating a grave in Cyprus is a misdemeanor.
(Image credit to Keith Lance/Getty Images).
Only good intentions can go so far. William Cobbett, an English pamphleteer, became disillusioned in 1819 with the uncelebrated gravesite of Thomas Paine, Revolutionary War soldier and author of "Common Sense," a man who had been living in poverty ten years before. He decided to excavate Paine's remains and bring him back to England where he would build a magnificent memorial and tomb.
"The Quakers, even Quakers denied him a grave!" Cobbett was referring to the refusal of the religious group to give Paine a spot in their cemetery. "And I found him lying on the corner of a barren, rugged field!"
Cobbett, along with some accomplices, set out in the middle night to New Rochelle, New York. They arrived there just before dawn. However, in England things went awry. Cobbett kept Paine's body inside an old trunk until his death in 1835.
It is not clear exactly what happened next. Many people claim to have Paine’s skull and other bones over the years, but no one has been able to prove that they are his. A narrative from 1847 in The Thomas Paine National Historical Association about the body lost claimed that Mr. B. Tilly, a London man, traced the bones. Legend has it that some bones might have been made into buttons.
The Bhakkar Cannibals
One of the most alarming reports on grave robbery comes from Pakistan's Bhakkar district, Punjab region. Two brothers were arrested for opening graves and eating parts of their victims.
According to The Independent, Muhammad Arif and Farman Al were both arrested and sentenced to two-years in prison in 2011. They were accused of disinterring five bodies and then eating parts. A YouTube video that purportedly was filmed in Pakistan by a news station shows corpses with missing parts and human bones inside a soup pot.
According to the New York Times, the police again arrested the brothers in April 2014. A foul-smelling odor from their home led to the discovery, by police, of a child's head. For their latest crime, they were sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Follow Stephanie Pappas via Twitter and Google+ Follow us @livescience on Facebook and Google+.