Historicist: Body Snatchers, Grave Robbers, and Night Ghouls
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Historicist: Body Snatchers, Grave Robbers, and Night Ghouls

A look at 19th century medical students and doctors who dug up local graves, and how Toronto responded.

The second-floor dissecting room of the Toronto School of Medicine’s Richmond Street building, showing: (1) Dr. John King, (2) Dr. George De Grassi, (3) Tom Hays, a lecturer at the school, (4) Old Ned, the janitor of the dissecting room, (5) Dr. W.W. [Billy] Francis of Toronto. Bernard Joseph Gloster, “Toronto School of Medicine, dissecting room, Richmond St. W., north side, between Yonge & Bay Sts.; interior, showing staff, 1856. Toronto Public Library, B 10-19a.

The sound of honking geese jolted him awake. It was 2 a.m. on February 27, 1850.

Jacob Cummer Jr. looked out his door. There, in the moonlight, he saw a stranger tossing a goose into a wagon as the several other occupants started driving it south down Yonge Street.

Thinking his geese were being stolen, Jacob got dressed and went across the road to his son’s place. Soon, Jacob, Joseph, and one of Jacob’s workmen saddled up and rode south. As they closed in on the thieves near the tollgate at Hogg’s Hollow, someone tossed the goose out of the wagon. It was dead. The Cummers soon caught up to the culprits and counted eight of them. One, whom Jacob recognized, shouted a stream of abuse. He was a young medical student. What Jacob did not immediately recognize was that this student was also a grave robber.

E. Kimpton (1900), “Toll Gate, Yonge St., south side of Hogg’s Hollow, looking north”, Toronto Public Library, 969-8.

They chased the thieves south into Toronto, until the wagon stopped out front of a medical school. As the suspects carried something heavy into the building, Joseph realized it was a corpse that they had stolen, likely from his family’s cemetery. Soon, the suspects returned and attacked the Cummers, knocking one off his horse and sending Jacob fleeing for safety. They also beat one horse so badly it was no longer fit for use.

The Cummers returned home. When morning came, they went to inspect the family cemetery. Sure enough, the grave belonging to Mary Ovens had been disturbed and her body was missing. Apparently, the Cummers made no effort to reclaim her body—likely believing that it would be to no avail—but they did lodge a civil claim for the theft of geese against the medical student they had recognized.

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British Colonist, March 5, 1850

The dissection table of a medical school was an unfortunate end for Mary Ovens, who had recently died of tuberculosis. Though she had been living in Caledon, and doesn’t appear to have been a relative of the Cummers, she had requested that she be buried in their family cemetery. In fact, she may have once been an orphan, for Jacob and Agnes Cummer were known to have taken many into their home.

Interestingly, “Medicus,” who related this grave robbing to the city’s British Colonist did not identify the “Medical School in Toronto” where Mary Ovens’ body had been delivered. At the time, there were two possibilities. The Faculty of Medicine at King’s College had begun in 1844 and, by the end of the decade, its anatomy class numbered some 20 students. Its frame structure, just west of the original Parliament buildings on Front Street and just south of the Toronto General Hospital, was divided into rooms for chemical and anatomical classes. The latter had a dissection table around which students could gather. A second school, which would be incorporated as the Toronto School of Medicine in 1851, had begun in 1843 when Dr. John Rolph returned to Toronto from exile in the United States, having received amnesty for his role in the Upper Canadian Rebellion of 1837. At his surgery on Queen Street, between Yonge and Bay Streets, he provided instruction to those students who did not wish to attend university.

Sometime around 1855, this former red brick house on Richmond Street West, just south of the Toronto School of Medicine on Queen Street, became home to the school’s dissecting room. Bernard Joseph Gloster, “Toronto School of Medicine, dissecting room, Richmond St. W., north side, between Yonge & Bay Sts., 1856. Toronto Public Library, B 10-11a.

The theft of Ovens’ body is notable in that its details made the press, but it was certainly not an isolated incident in the Toronto area. In his letter to the editor of the British Colonist , “Medicus” noted that another body snatching had recently occurred nearby, leaving the bereaved husband “driven almost to frenzy.”

About a year earlier, graves at the military burial ground east of Fort York were found to be empty. Thus, in late January 1849, a sentry was posted there because rumours told of a plan to steal another recently deceased soldier from his grave. Indeed, that night, three men carrying spades and picks approached the cemetery. The watch fired two warning shots and the men escaped, leaving their digging equipment behind.

(Left: The Globe, February 3, 1849.)

The Globe reported that two of the men were King’s College medical students and that several young men later appeared at the barracks requesting their tools be returned. They did not receive a polite welcome. Instead, soldiers dealt with the students “very summarily,” leaving one student severely wounded. Only the intervention of some soldiers’ wives prevented the students from being put in the body bag they had left behind and “dipped in the Lake.”

The Globe declared confidently that there would be “no more such outrages” and claimed the entire exercise unnecessary to procure corpses for dissection “as plenty can be procured in a legitimate way.” The Province of Canada had passed an Anatomy Act in 1843 stipulating that a destitute and friendless individual who had died in a provincially funded hospital or poorhouse would have his or her body collected by a local inspector of anatomy and delivered to a medical school, which was responsible for keeping appropriate records and giving proper burials to all human remains after use. Yet, a year after The Globe’s declaration, “Medicus” disagreed. He claimed that as the number of medical schools grew, body snatching would also increase at a proportional rate.

“Victoria Square, looking east to Portland Street, Toronto, Ont.” c. 1884. Toronto Public Library, B 11-15b.

He was correct. In the decades after 1850, the number of people dying at provincially operated hospitals and Houses of Industry was not sufficient to meet the increasing requirements for the study of anatomy. By the 1880s, the medical profession demanded changes. The Ontario government finally submitted to pressure, and amended the Anatomy Act in 1885 to expand the area from which a medical school could secure bodies and provide families and friends 48 hours to claim a body, but force a medical school to preserve any body it had received for five days, in case a claim was made.

By then, Toronto had three medical schools. The Toronto School of Medicine had relocated to the southwest corner of Sackville Street and Gerrard Street East, near the Toronto General Hospital (opened in 1856). Just a block away on Spruce Street was the Trinity Medical School, and the new Women’s Medical College was east on Sumach Street. Together they taught more than 500 medical students, generating a great demand for bodies to dissect. It’s not surprising that students might still need to procure a body themselves under the cover of night, or that others might try to profit from the constant demand. Three medical students who attempted the latter in May 1887 demonstrated that, in an age of rail travel, the source of bodies for Toronto medical schools stretched much farther than one might imagine.

On Monday, May 23, 1887 gravedigger James Stephens, arrived at Belsyde Cemetery in Fergus, Ontario, some 100 km northwest of Toronto. He noticed that the grave of Elizabeth Gardner was disturbed. She had just been buried on Thursday. He reported the matter to the undertaker and that evening they opened the grave in the presence of Mrs. Gardner’s son-in-law, Hugh Black. The body was gone, only the grave clothes and a coffin half-full of gravel remained. When asked, Fergus residents were certain of the culprits to blame, because the grave had been robbed with such little secrecy. In light of this fact, people hoped that three local medical students, Oliver Groves, James D. Kennedy, and W.H. Ware, would do the right thing and return the body. They did not.

The Fergus News-Record reported that witnesses saw “a well-known” wagon belonging to local physician Dr. Abraham Groves being driven up the cemetery lane at midnight following Mrs. Gardner’s burial. The “night ghouls” could be heard digging for about an hour. Then they drove away.

Early the next morning, people had also witnessed Oliver Groves drive to the Fergus train station where he unloaded a heavy trunk that oozed blood on to the platform while he waited for the early morning CPR train to Toronto. Then, on Tuesday morning at 5:30 a.m., Oliver had again been observed at the Fergus train station, this time picking up a large trunk and delivering it to James Kennedy’s stable. Oliver had attended the Toronto School of Medicine and, considering he had been seen in Toronto on the Friday, it appeared likely that Oliver had delivered Mrs. Gardner’s body to the medical school. Acting on these suspicions, Hugh Black and Mrs. Gardner’s son, William, took the early train to Toronto on Thursday, May 26 in hopes of retrieving her body. Had the school’s five-day holding period already expired?

When they reached Toronto, the two men immediately obtained the services of a government detective. He spent the day questioning baggage handlers at Union Station, and learned that a trunk with “a suspiciously strong odour” had arrived on the Friday train from Fergus that Oliver had been seen boarding with his trunk. The detective obtained a search warrant and, late in the day, presented it to Dr. H.H. Wright, secretary of the Toronto School of Medicine demanding access to the bodies in the school’s possession. Wright admitted that he likely had the body in question, but told the men to come back in the morning when the body would be ready for them to take away. Upon their return, Gardner and Black were shown the body of Mrs. Gardner resting in a new coffin, dressed in grave clothes. Not surprisingly, the body was swollen and dark, for she had been dead for more than week. Though her hair had been cut off, Dr. Wright assured the men that her body had not been opened. Only a red dye had been inserted into the central artery. Dr. Wright may have been cooperative in returning the body, but he refused to explain how it came to be in the school’s possession. The janitor, however, explained that the trunk had arrived at the school in an express wagon. Considering its smell, he notified a school doctor who opened the trunk, removed the body, injected it with fluid and fitted it to be placed in alcohol.

“Toronto School of Medicine, Gerrard St. E., southwest corner Sackville St.”, 1885, Toronto Public Library, E 9-230.

Mrs. Gardner’s body was entrusted to a Toronto undertaker who delivered it back to Fergus that evening. There, a large crowd waited at the station, as word of the body’s arrival had spread throughout the Fergus community. At the graveside in Belsyde Cemetery, the lid of the coffin was removed so that the crowd could see the corpse for themselves. Then, Elizabeth Gardner was laid to rest for a second — and final — time.

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Left: Fergus News-Record, June 2, 1887.

The body snatching conducted by Groves, Kennedy, and Ware was completely unacceptable in 1887 for two reasons. First, they may have stolen the body for profit. Groves had completed medical school, thus people could only conclude that profit must have been his motive for delivering Elizabeth Gardner’s body from Fergus to Toronto. Second, the Fergus News-Record claimed the crime was “perhaps one of the most heartless cases of the kind ever perpetrated in the Province,” because Elizabeth Gardner had suffered mental illness and had taken her own life by drowning. Not only did the robbery serve to renew the family’s grief, the mentally ill had always been excluded from the provisions of the Anatomy Act. (Some claim the exception had been made so that the upper classes could be protected from the fate of dissection. Institutionalization for mental illness cut across class lines, but poverty, it was argued, was the result of a person’s conduct).

When Oliver Groves and James Kennedy learned that Gardner and Black had gone to Toronto to search for the body they made quick escapes. By June 17, an arrest warrant had been issued for Groves—and likely for Kennedy and Ware, too. By then, Oliver was probably already in Rochester, New York, where records indicate he started practicing medicine by the first week of July. It’s unclear where Kennedy fled, but Ware escaped to Detroit, and continued his studies in the care of a doctor of that city.

The three had not heeded the advice of “Medicus” in 1850:

“If the terrible necessity exists, let them not, with the dead, dissect the hearts of the living … let them be scrupulously careful that no eye may trace where their sacrilegious hands have been, for [quoting Shakespeare’s Othello]

‘He that is robbed, not wanting what is taken,
Let him not know it, and he’s not robbed at all’”


Sources: British Colonist (March 5, 1850); Wellington Willson Cummer and Clyde Lottridge Cummer, Cummer Memoranda: A Record of the Progenitors and Descendants of Jacob Cummer a Canadian Pioneer (Cleveland, 1911); Martin L. Friedland, The University of Toronto: a history (University of Toronto Press, 2002); University of Toronto and its colleges, 1827-1906 (University Library, 1906); Fergus News-Record (May 26, June 2, June 9, June 15, June 23, June 30, July 9, 1887); R.D. Gidney and W.P.J. Millar, “Beyond the Measure of the Golden Rule”: The Contribution of the Poor to Medical Science in Nineteenth-Century Ontario,” Ontario History 86:3(September 1994):219-35; Royce MacGillivray, “Body-Snatching in Ontario,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 5(1988):51-60; Ross Fair, “The Controversial Dr. Groves,” Wellington County History 16(2003):93-110; The Globe (February 3, 1849, May 30, 1887); Brown’s Toronto City and Home District Directory, 1846-7 (George Brown, 1846); Rowsell’s City of Toronto and County of York Directory for 1850-1 (Henry Rowsell, 1850); The Toronto City Directory for 1887 (R.L. Polk & Co., 1887); G. M. Craig, “Rolph, John,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rolph_john_9E.html


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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