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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Spy Who Stole the President's Father

 The Spy Who Stole the President's Father

By C. A. Asbrey

John Scott Harrison
 John Scott Harrison is the only person, so far, to have been both the father and the son of a US president. On top of that, he was the grandson of the Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Harrison V.  He died on May 25th, 1878, in North Bend, Ohio, at the age of 73. As the grieving family were preparing to organize the funeral they were struck by another death as a family friend died of tuberculosis at a young age. But their problems didn't end there. The deceased friend, Augustus Devin's, body was stolen. The family were outraged and vowed to help the Devin family recover the corpse. Due to the theft of Devin's body, John Scott Harrison was interred in a heaving fortified grave.    

Although bodysnatching had been ended in the UK by the implementation of the Anatomy Act in 1832, it was still prevalent in the USA. The Anatomy act provided surgeons and their students with a ready supply of cadavers for dissection through the use of paupers. Their counterparts in the USA still had a problem with supply, and were still solving it the old-fashioned way.

Each state had a different approach and legislated accordingly. Under Ohio law medical students could use unclaimed bodies from public institutions, but that method provided nowhere near enough to satisfy the requirements of the growing student body. More than a thousand students attended Cincinnati medical schools each year, and they needed around three hundred corpses per semester.

Dr. Charles O. Morton
Bodysnatching was lucrative, and the money which it brought in meant that people were prepared to take the risks involved and perform the grisly tasks which were involved in stealing fresh corpses from graves. A single corpse could bring in more than a labourer could make in a year of honest toil, and burial suits could be sold. Medical schools generally had a network of contacts who supplied the bodies they needed. Bodysnatchers often worked in pairs, and also had a lookout in the form of a female who would attend graveyards to identify newly interred corpses, and distracted watchmen or other potential witnesses to the crime. Even when split, the money was still excellent, and the law of supply and demand meant that no grave  was safe until the flesh had started to decay. This didn't attract too much attention as long as the criminals kept to the poor. Stealing the bodies of the wealthy would bring far too much attention.

In 1878  Dr. Charles O. Morton was arrested in Toledo for conspiracy to steal two bodies from a cemetery. When he was taken into custody he was in the possession of letters proving he had an ongoing arrangement to supply bodies to the Ann Arbor Medical School in Michigan. A police investigation linked Morton to the supply of at least ten bodies from Toledo cemeteries. It soon became clear that the doctor was involved in stealing corpses on an industrial scale. And he wasn't just taking the bodies of the poor. He was getting his henchmen to take anyone's body, regardless of how rich and powerful their families were.

Shortly after his arrest, Morton developed the symptoms of smallpox. He went into isolation in a local farmhouse with an immune couple experienced in treating the disease. Anyone who had been in contact with him quarantined. Two guards were assigned to him, but nevertheless he escaped, leaving his bed stuffed to fake the look of a bedridden patient. He disappeared on a freezing January night, wearing only a nightshirt, so he clearly had some assistance.  It soon became clear that Morton had faked his symptoms using croton oil, and that he'd used his medical knowledge to fool the doctor as the oil creates small blisters on the skin. Despite a manhunt, he evaded capture. He was soon to resurface in Cincinnati.

Harrison's Grave
John Harrison, the son of the deceased John Scott Harrison, travelled to Cincinnati to search for Devin's body, and sought out the help of a private detective, Thomas Snelbaker. Harrison impressed on the detective that the theft of the body had a huge effect on them all, and explained the precautions they had taken to prevent it happening to his father. The coffin had been encased in metal, and buried far deeper than the usual six feet. The shaft was bricked up before and immense stone, so heavy it took sixteen men to lift it, was laid on top. More earth was shovelled on top, before cement was poured over the top. Pegs were then inserted as a way of identifying any disturbance of the ground. Even then, the family hired a man to guard the grave for thirty days. They were satisfied that their loved one would rest in peace, and wanted the same for the Devin family.  

There were six medical colleges Devin's body could have been taken to, but the detective had already been at work and discovered that witnesses had seen something be delivered to the alley behind the Ohio Medical College on Vine Street around three in the morning. It stuck in their minds as it was a passenger buggy and not a wagon. It was unusual activity, so that was their first port of call.

The bodies were delivered down a chute to the cellar, where staff then attached a rope to crank the bodies upstairs where they were embalmed for dissection. On investigation, Devin's body wasn't there, but they did find a body suspended on the rope which they thought was worthy of further investigation. They cranked the body to their level, and it was a naked white man with a cloth bound over his head. They knew this wasn't Devin as he had died of tuberculosis and this man was not emaciated. However, they decided to check, and pulled the cloth away. 

The detective had to catch Harrison as he backed away in horror. The body was his father's. The long white beard had been cut off, his face was discoloured, but there was no doubt it was John Scott Harrison. And he had managed to travel to the medical school faster than his living son. 

Even though resurrectionists were common at the time, it was an extremely unusual bodysnatcher who would steal the body of the son of a US President.

Other members of the Harrison family had discovered that the grave had been desecrated back in North Bend, Benjamin and Carter Harrison travelled independently to Cincinnati. They employed Snelbaker to continue the search for Devin, as well as looking into who stole their father's body. The Harrison family used their high-profile status to raise merry hell. The medical college denied all knowledge, but the carotid artery had been cut, and the body drained of blood in preparation for embalming. That meant that either a doctor or medical student had dealt with the body, and not a janitor. Snelbaker continued his investigation.

He found out that a doctor had moved into a house on the corner of Seventh and Main. The man was described as 'lithe as a cat', mid-thirties, short, slender, and well-groomed. The man presented to his neighbours as a doctor, but had no practice, and seemed to work at night. He also had a buggy which matched the one seen dropping off the body at the Ohio medical college. Snelbaker was on his trail.

And he was thorough. The detective turned over all the local medical colleges, and found Devin at Ann Arbour Medical College in a pickling vat. He also found a link between Morton and the college. Devin was returned and re-buried, and guards were hired to protect the grave. Snelbaker also managed to return several other bodies to their families, but the slippery Morton gave everyone the slip once more. Pinkertons were hired to find Morton.

Years passed, and Benjamin Harrison's political career took off. He supported James Garfield's climb to the presidency, became a senator in 1881, and was nominated to become president in 1888. Benjamin lost the popular vote, but was appointed by the electoral college. He took the oath as president on March 4th, 1889. He was the USA's 23rd president, which led him to become embroiled in Irish-American politics.    

Benjamin Harrison 23rd President

There was a lot of sympathy for the Irish cause in the many Irish societies in the USA, and Charles Stewart Parnell had become a leader of the movement for home rule in Ireland throughout the 1870s. He therefore had many followers in the country. As Parnell's  movement was also implicated in violent plots, it became part of an enquiry in both the UK and the USA.

A Dr. Henri Le Caron was deeply involved in the movement. He owned two successful pharmacies, had run for mayor twice, was active in Irish-American societies, and boasted of his Civil War record as a Union Major who fought at the battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He was an active politician in the Democratic Party too. As part of his involvement with the Irish societies, Le Caron stated that he had witnessed funds raised in the USA being used to buy guns for use in violent plots to overthrow British rule. The doctor became a key witness in the enquiry, one of a few prepared to speak out against Parnell.

Maybe he should have kept his head down, as this brought him under public scrutiny, but as a British spy against the Irish, that was hard for him to do. His full past was investigated, and it didn't take long before he was unmasked in a series of explosive revelations. 

Le Caron most certainly didn't lead the troops at Murfreesboro. Far from being a war hero, he had been part of a regiment who mutinied and refused to fight. Instead of being heroic on the field, he had been cooling his heels in a Nashville Prison. Many aliases had been used by this man over the years, and eventually, they got to the truth. Le Caron was really Dr. Morton, "formerly one of the most expert grave-robbers in the West.”

Morton/Le Caron was taken under the protective custody of the British, with Scotland Yard providing a guard for a while. The investigation into Parnell fell apart, and so did the case against Morton for grave-robbing - probably for political reasons, but ironically, under the watch of the president whose father's body was stolen by this slippery man. He faced no trials for multiple bodysnatchings and thefts in two countries. 

Thomas Miller Beach - British Spy

He supposedly disappeared into obscurity, but I have another theory. I get the feeling that a man like Morton had a problem with living quietly. I did further research. In a footnote, British Intelligence records show a man called Thomas Miller Beach, was a British spy who infiltrated the Fenian Brotherhood using the name of Major Henri Le Caron. He was born in Colchester, England, on 26th September 1841, and went to Paris when he was 19. He originally had been apprenticed to a draper, but studied Pharmacy and medicine in Nasliville. Skilled at sleight of hand, Beach was able to palm evidence and documents without people realizing. Espionage reports show that he frequently crossed the Atlantic, gaining information, and making close connections in Irish societies in both Canada and the USA. He was in close contact with the British Home Office at all times, reporting to Robert Anderson. He was paid by the British Government, his earnings coming to at least £12,000/$412,379.69 in today's money. There may be other payments I can't find. Beach's father was also instrumental in passing on information directly to the Home Secretary via his member of parliament. He did join the union army, was trained in medicine, and he was subpoenaed as a witness in England at the same time as the man exposed as Dr. Morton. Morton was not called as a wtness, but Beach was. The Times newspaper was being sued by Parnell for libel.  Although Beach stuck to his story, and could not be broken in cross-examination. The Times lost the case. He also testified against Parnell at the Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime held in 1888-1889. Beach was given protection by Scotland Yard.

Beach's career as a spy was at an end as he had been exposed. He wrote a book called Twenty-Five Years in the  Secret Service - The Recollections of a Spy, which was a great success, but he was in constant danger. On 1st April 1894 he died of peritonitis and was buried in London. His wife returned to America after his death. The book is still available. All the documents relating to the criminal cases of the bodysnatching committed by Morton, including the civil cases, have disappeared. All of them.

Is this the same man as the Doctor Charles O. Morton who stole the president's father? The photograph certainly looks similar. The track record and skills match. So do the need for criminal contacts, and the ability to constantly reinvent himself, adopt new identities, and face no consequences for his actions whatsoever. Beach was in all the right places, at all the right times, and had all the right skills to do everything ascribed to Dr. Morton. He was also the right age, and looked like the bodysnatcher, with the same deep-set dark eyes, hairline, and moustache. Morton and Beach spoke the same languages.

Thomas Miller Beach had friends in very high places. Who else could steal the president's father and end up with a police guard, and the cases buried? Whatever the truth, it must have been a very difficult piece of diplomacy for Benjamin Harrison.


     “So, you want to pretend you’re a Pinkerton? As a female?” His eyes darkened. “I’ve questioned one before, although he didn’t know who I was. They’re trained real well on being both sides of interrogations. You don’t want to do this. Not as a woman. He had a real hard time. You’ll have it even harder.” 

     She sat staring ahead once more, her face impassive and stony.

     “You’ve nothing to say?”

     Her eyes flashed. “Beating the hell out of me won’t change anything but my view of you.”

     Nat reached out and entwined a hard fist in her hair and dragged her backward until the chair balanced on the back legs. He brought his face close to hers, his hot breath burning into her cheek.  “Think harder, lady. This isn’t a game. Who are you?”

     Abigail felt the dragging pain at the back of her head as shards of pain lanced across her scalp. He held her, balanced between his painful grip and a clattering fall to the floor but her stubborn nature wouldn’t let her acquiesce.

     “Others will come after you, no matter what you do to me.” She darted her eyes to meet his, unable to move her pinioned head. “I won’t be the last.”



  1. You make a very good case. The whole story was intriguing, especially as I am suppose to be related, by marriage to the Harrisons. (Still working on that one.) Thanks for a great post. Doris

    1. You are? How fascinating to be connected to such an illustrious line. You now have another story to add to the family lore. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Such interesting history. If you haven't read it, you might enjoy STIFF by Mary Roach. I learned so much about body-stealing from that book. But I don't think I'd heard the information in your post before. Thanks for a great blog.

    1. Thanks for a great recommendation. I'll look that book up. And thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  3. Such an interesting and informative blog, Christine. I knew body-snatching was prevalent for medical students to further their studies. I think it was Michelangelo I'd read about, that he'd studied cadavers to get the sense of anatomy for his amazing murals and statues.

    1. Oh, I could believe he studied anatomy, amongst so many other sciences. He was such a genius. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  4. Tense excerpt, Christine! makes me want to read more.

    Intriguing blog. The Dr was certainly a character

    1. Thanks,Lindsay. I just knew he had to have help, but when I read about the Fenian spy, I knew where to look - British Intelligence historical records.

  5. It IS shocking to know that graves for robbed for bodies. I'm certain people like to think when they die they will at last receive everlasting peace, forever resting on a beloved hillside somewhere. It's a horrifying thought to think a loved one could be taken from their resting place and cut in pieces even in the name of science.
    The positive side, of course, is that these corpses did improve knowledge of the human body, how it worked, and how it might be healed.
    Pretty fascinating information, Christine. You must have done a huge amount of research for this article. I am impressed.
    I enjoyed reading THE INNOCENTS.

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah. I did d a huge amount of research. A friend alerted me to the story of the body snatching of this man, but as I dug into it, it became clear he was a British spy. I accessed the records to establish so much about him, even his pay and his boss. There's no doubt in my mind that it's the same man. He seems to be a general all-round wrong-un to me, but spying is a dirty business.

  6. Fascinating article! I recall the problem the had with Lincoln's body, where they tried to steal it -- not for medical practices, but to ramson. They made a movie about it in 1950's called The Abductors staring the great Victor McLaglen

    1. Thank you. Yes, they did that with Charlie Chaplin's body too. What a ghoulish way to make money!