In 1935, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges weighed in on what mathematicians later called chaos theory: the results of some phenomena are simply impossible to predict, control, or even explain. Take the freak reasoning of Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican friar who helped stop the enslavement of Indians — only to suggest enslaving Africans instead. As Borges put it:
To this odd philanthropic twist, we owe endless things. The blues of W.C. Handy. . . the mythological dimensions of Abraham Lincoln; the 500,000 dead of the American Civil War and the $3,300,000 spent in military pensions; the entrance of the verb ‘to lynch’ into the thirteenth edition of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy; King Vidor’s impetuous film ‘Hallelujah’. . . the deplorable Cuban rumba ‘The Peanut Vendor’. . . the habanera, mother of the tango. . .
So begins A Universal History of Infamy, a portrait of lovable badmen and sometimes high-minded criminals. Had Borges known about Rufus Cantrell, “negro king of the ghouls,” our city would surely have found a place in this Latin American classic.
Here’s a classic bit of Hoosier infamy from the days of the “resurrection men.”
Rufus Cantrell and his mother Sarah moved north from Gallatin, Tennessee, to Indianapolis around 1892, when Cantrell was about 16. Sarah later testified to a jury that Bateman Cantrell, his father, had died in an insane asylum. Her testimony, however, came while defense lawyers were trying to get Rufus declared mentally ill himself. Sarah’s sister Harriet “was also ‘crazy’ and had to be taken to an asylum. Rufus, she said, was subject to ‘fits’ and ‘spasms'” — epilepsy.
As a kid, he was supposedly thrown off a horse, landing on his head and shoulders. “When he was a boy he tried to preach and said he had talked with God. Sometimes he would have mad spells and become very violent and profane.”
In 1896, at the corner of Senate Avenue and 13th Street, the 20-year-old tried to kill himself “out of lovesickness” (aus Liebeskummer).
At the time of his first appearance in the Indianapolis press, however, in 1899, he was making a name for himself as a showman. The Indianapolis Recorder advertised that Cantrell, who could recite long passages of the Bible on stage, was giving a talk on the history of playing cards and “Cain’s wife” at Odd Fellows Hall, along with a Juvenile Quartet, all of whose members were under the age of twelve. He then went on to do a show in Cincinnati. Cantrell, it is thought, tried to become a teenage evangelist.
Perhaps to take his mind off spurned love, in 1897 he joined the 24th U.S. Infantry but was discharged a year later at Fort Douglas, Utah, due to epilepsy and “suicidal inclinations.” Back in Indy, Cantrell got a job at the Malleable Iron Works — then as an undertaker’s assistant, working for C.M.C. Willis, the first African American undertaker in Indiana.
His second appearance in the papers was in October 1900. Before the future “King of the Ghouls” got into trouble for grave-robbing, he was stirring up a fight at a bar in Bucktown, a black neighborhood along the Canal, today the site of IUPUI. The source of the trouble? Cantrell’s support for the presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan.
By the summer of 1902, the “Democratic hero of the Bryan campaign” had gotten involved with a ring of medical men based at a rather infamous school just east of Bucktown — the Central College of Physicians & Surgeons.
This training school for white doctors stood at 212 North Senate Avenue, now the site of the Indiana Government Center’s parking garage. Oddly for a medical faculty engaged in the highly illegal practice of body snatching, the college’s 4th-floor dissecting rooms, used for anatomical instruction, sat directly across from the State House. The corner of Ohio and Senate was a bit of a healthcare complex back then. The Protestant Deaconess Hospital sat immediately south of Central College. Another med school, Indiana Medical College, stood at the corner of Market Street and Senate Avenue, today the site of the Firefighters’ Memorial. You could have tossed a stone from any of these buildings into the Legislature.
During the early days of modern medical science, instructors and students usually relied on the public hangman to deliver “educational goods.” Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) shows Dutch doctors poring over the freshly-hanged body of Aris Kindt, a famous thief, during the one annual dissection permitted by city officials to Amsterdam’s Guild of Surgeons.
Due to laws against desecration of corpses, generations of European and American medical faculties had to steal them until laws slowly made it easier to acquire bodies in the 1800s — laws that were by no means universal.
“Resurrectionists” caused plenty of conflict and outrage. In 1788, an “Anatomy Riot” broke out in New York after doctors at Columbia College robbed an African American burial ground in Manhattan. In the British Isles, body snatching grew so bad that cages had to be erected over fresh graves. Sometimes families kept the dead under guard until decomposition rendered the remains useless to anatomists. In rural America, revolver battles broke out between burglars and posses of farmers. By 1900, as Americans learned the extent of resurrectionist activities, cremation was emerging as one sure-fire preventative measure against ending up in the slush bucket of a dissection room.
Midwesterners were fully aware of “vulture doctors” and “ghouls” — a word from Middle Eastern folklore denoting phantoms that devour the dead. In 1878, Indianapolis’ own Benjamin Harrison, future U.S. President, helped investigate the disappearance of the body of a young man named Augustus Devin. Devin had died of tuberculosis a short time before Harrison’s own father, Ohio Senator John Scott Harrison, died. Both were buried in the Harrison family plot outside Cincinnati. When John Harrison, Jr., armed with a search warrant, showed up at Ohio Medical College to look for the missing Devin, he was shocked to find his own father — naked and hanging from a rope in an air shaft, where he’d been quickly hidden by staff. Devin eventually turned up pickled in a vat of brine at the University of Michigan. This famous heist of William Henry Harrison’s son, formerly a Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis, electrified the Hoosier press.
Race was a huge factor in grave-robbing. Ironically, teams of grave-robbers and the target of their “ghoulish” work were most often African American. Their employers, however, were universally white physicians.
In Indiana, however, white corpses showed up on dissecting-room tables with more frequency than down South. Remains nabbed from “potter’s fields” — burial grounds for paupers — and cemeteries connected to mental asylums like Central State Hospital were unlikely to be missed. Yet Hoosier resurrectionists also swept through dozens of urban and rural graveyards. In Michigan and northern Indiana, grave robbing was worst in towns close to the Michigan Central Railroad and its branch lines, since bodies could quickly be hidden on trains and shipped as freight to Ann Arbor’s famous medical school.
Some cemeteries, investigators were discovering, had been practically emptied out by medical “pickers.” Indianapolis’ oldest downtown burial grounds, Greenlawn — a cemetery that literally died — was declared defunct largely because so many of the corpses interred there had been spirited away. An article from the Indianapolis Journal in October 1899 describes the problem. . . and how ghouls covered their tracks.
At first it was customary to open a grave and take the body out, clothes and all, and either strip it naked on the ground or double it up in a sack and remove the clothes after taking it to a safe place.
This practice was discontinued when one day the city was thrown into an uproar over the finding of a girl’s slipper in the snow beside her newly made grave. She had been buried one afternoon in winter when snow was falling and her relatives came back the following day to look at the grave. Between visits the grave robbers got in their work, and, following the usual custom, did not remove the clothing from the body, but doubled it up and put it in a sack. In doing so one of the dainty slippers fell from one of the feet, and, being white, was not noticed in the snow. During the following morning the snow melted and the relatives, returning to the grave, saw the slipper, and, recognizing it, raised a hue and cry. This made the grave robbers change their methods, and thereafter opening the boxes they stripped all bodies of their clothes and put the garments back in the caskets.
This when related to the authorities explained why in opening the graves within the last few months nothing was to be seen in the caskets but piles of discolored clothes thrown in heaps, with slippers where the head ought to have rested. . .
It has come to be generally understood by the city officials that while Greenlawn has all the outward signs of being a cemetery, there are in reality few, if any, bodies there, and that in view of this fact there should be no opposition to its being transformed into a park.
Before “winter term” opened at the new medical college on Senate Avenue in September 1902, Rufus Cantrell and his “gang” of ghouls — employed by Dr. Joseph C. Alexander, a prominent white doctor who grew up in neighboring Hamilton County — scoured many Hoosier cemeteries, making quick nocturnal work of fresh burials. During a sensational trial beginning in October 1902, the 27-year-old Cantrell turned state’s witness, spilling information right and left in an attempt to take down Dr. Alexander and get his own prison sentence reduced. Prosecutors and defense lawyers alike questioned the accuracy of Cantrell’s “confessions,” which were thrown into further doubt by declarations of his epilepsy and “insanity.” But as he led police investigators on personal tours of central Indiana graveyards where he and other ghouls had been at work, empty coffins turned up everywhere. Chicago police even called him in to shed light on grave-robbing in the Windy City.
Like many criminals with breathtaking, even unbelievable, records, Cantrell liked a good show and the public attention he was getting. Some of his confessions, therefore, were probably cooked up. Yet he did give prosecutors key details on how American resurrectionists operated. Mourners would have been shocked to discover, for instance, that on some occasions coffins carried out to graveyards were full of ice blocks: the deceased had been nabbed before burial. Other times, grieving families had hardly left the cemetery grounds when grave-robbers, posing as grave-diggers, snatched the corpses, hid them in sacks, then threw dirt over caskets containing only air. Graves decorated with floral wreaths were usually left untouched, since ghouls considered the flowers too elaborate to reconstruct after disturbing the grave.
In spite of obvious job hazards, the ghouls netted plenty of fish along the River Styx. Some bodies turned up in surprising hideaways:
Often forced to dispose of a wagon-load of the dead, ghouls were known to dump them in Indianapolis alleyways. Yet the staff of Central College itself might have been the culprit when on October 13, 1902, two stiffs tied up in sacks and hidden in a dry goods box were found sitting at the corner of Georgia and Meridian Streets outside a department store. Two others turned up outside the college’s back door. Cantrell, however, was already on trial.
Greenlawn, located on Kentucky Avenue not far from the college, wasn’t the only target. As the trial continued, police discovered that Mount Jackson Cemetery, located next to Central State Hospital on West Washington Street, no longer really deserved to be called a cemetery. Cantrell’s team, and probably others over the years, also targeted the German Catholic Cemetery (St. Joseph’s), Anderson Cemetery in Irvington, and country churchyards at Trader’s Point, Elwood, Fairmount, and central Indiana towns.
A “dubious letter” arrived during the trial accusing Cantrell of having plotted to steal the body of ex-President Benjamin Harrison himself. Harrison died in 1901 and was buried at Crown Hill. That massive, gated cemetery, in fact, had been created in the 1860s — partly to protect against medical predators. By 1902, Crown Hill had 24-hour security. Revolver-toting guards roamed the grounds, walking between a series of call boxes that required them to check in at different corners of the cemetery every 20 minutes. (The system also kept them from falling asleep on the job.) Guards were permitted to gun down prowlers on the spot.
Rufus Cantrell and several accomplices ultimately received ten years at the Jeffersonville penitentiary, but Cantrell was soon transferred to Michigan City. As a black man, it’s not surprising that he went to jail even as his white employer, Dr. Alexander, got off the hook. Incriminating testimony from a fellow ghoul against the doctor was judged invalid since he was said to have come to court intoxicated. Paradoxically, Cantrell’s much-debated mental state kept Dr. Alexander safe — though it didn’t keep Cantrell himself out of prison.
Not everybody in the white community was happy about Joseph Alexander’s acquittal. At a country crossroads in Hamilton County still called Fishers Station in those days, a crowd of angry farmers rioted in April 1903. Ghouls had been active in the vicinity. Half of the coffins exhumed from graveyards around Fishers had been reported empty. Cantrell, in fact, testified that bodies nabbed in Noblesville were floated down the White River to Broad Ripple on boats. The crowd, setting effigies of Dr. Alexander and the Marion County judge on fire, only stopped when they almost burned down the local train station.
Rufus Cantrell didn’t serve his full sentence at Michigan City. He was out by 1909. Rumors circulated that he’d begun writing a book about his resurrectionist days — which must have struck fear into Hoosier criminal rings, since he’d already weighed in on several local murders during his lengthy trial. Prosecutors, though, couldn’t be sure if he was lying to get time struck off his sentence.
Out on parole, Cantrell was working at the American Steel and Wire Company in Anderson, Indiana, in 1909. The press even thought he was getting ready to go on stage: as a vaudeville performer.
In 1913, Cantrell resurrected his old love of stumping for political candidates. That year, he worked to drum up support among African Americans for Democratic mayoral candidate Joseph E. Bell, who won the election in Indianapolis that year. (Bell, mayor during World War I, established the city’s first vice squad.)
What happened to Cantrell, then? On Christmas Eve 1915, the Indianapolis News reported that he had been charged with operating a blind tiger — an illegal liquor den — but had fled the city to become “an evangelist” in Michigan. The paper claimed that Cantrell had “conducted a revival” under an assumed name in Flint, Michigan. That December, just over the river from Detroit, he married a woman in Windsor, Ontario, who claimed to be Canadian. Major May McConnell, his new wife, was an “officer” in a religious mission called the “Charity Army of America.” The U.S. government, however, suspecting fraud, considered deporting her as an “undesirable alien.” Her half-brother was also “known to police as a safe blower.”
Cantrell, finally realizing his childhood dream of being a preacher, failed miserably. Michigan police closed down the suspicious charity operation and arrested an accomplice of Cantrell’s for assault and battery. Arrested for larceny himself, it was at this point that he apparently went back to showmanship again.
In 1900, Carrie T. Selvage, a “rich Indianapolis woman” suffering from a major nervous breakdown, was rumored to have escaped from Indianapolis Union States Hospital. Originally the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum at 1333 North Capitol Avenue, this place offered “private treatment of mental and nervous diseases.” Cantrell, alluringly, told Detroit detectives that during a grave robbing operation, Selvage showed up at the cemetery gate, frightening his gang of ghouls in flagrante delicto. She stood there, Cantrell claimed, in her nightgown and felt slippers, her disheveled hair streaming out in a cold March wind, looking like a banshee. He abducted Selvage, held her in a basement, killed her, then sold her body to Indiana Medical College. Or so he said. The Michigan court told him he was lying.
Twenty years later, the Selvage murder was still an unsolved mystery. Yet a shocking twist came in April 1920, when her skeleton showed up in the attic of the old hospital, part of which had been converted into a garage. Workers doing renovations discovered the corpse. Selvage’s skeleton, the skull fallen off, was sitting up against a wall. Her brothers recognized her clothing — a “flannelette wrapper” and felt slippers, exactly the apparel Cantrell said she was wearing at the graveyard. Cantrell had given this testimony in Detroit in 1916. Investigators, neverthless, judged that Selvage had crawled up into the attic and frozen to death, her body undiscovered since 1900. The “King of the Ghouls” was never prosecuted for her murder.
The former robber turned evangelist did go to jail, however. For “frisking” the pockets of a gospel praise group in Detroit, Cantrell and accomplice Eldridge Gowdy got two years at Marquette Penitentiary in the Upper Peninsula. What became of him after 1916 is another unsolved mystery. He may have died in jail on the shores of Lake Superior.
Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. (Anchor Books, 2006)
John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson, Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine, 1880-1930. (Blast Books, 2009)