The Body Snatching of John Roll: The Victim

body snatchers grave robbers

The clandestine removal of corpses from burial sites, or “body snatching,” was a common practice during the 19th century. The goal of the snatchers, or “resurrectionists,” was to dig up a recently deceased person and sell the corpse for dissection or anatomy lectures at medical schools. As you will discover, Tuscarawas County was not immune to the practice.


John Louis Roll (1839-1881) was born in Switzerland and immigrated to the United States as a young man, though not much is known of his childhood or parentage. He had arrived in New Philadelphia, Ohio by the early 1860s and established himself as a “news merchant” in the city and partnered with one of the county’s established families, the Fribleys. John married Daniel Fribley’s (1812-1904) daughter, Cornelia Fribley (1844-1917), in May 1865 and the couple initially set up housekeeping on South Broadway.

John Roll’s business did well and, at one point, he partnered with the local newspaper to service subscribers of the paper and make sure that they received their paper in a timely manner. John and Cornelia began raising a family, having two children by 1870, and John became a respected member of the local Masonic Lodge. During the 1870s John and Cornelia made the decision to relocate to the town of Galion, Ohio in Crawford County. The family, numbering five children now, relocated but kept close contact with John’s professional contacts and Cornelia’s family in New Philadelphia.

Advertisement for John L. Roll’s shop in New Philadelphia, 1869.

The family purchased a home on Orange Street in Galion and John Roll opened his new business in town. John was a competent businessman and a thoughtful father and husband. Evidence of this is found in the fact that, shortly after he and Cornelia began having children, John wrote out his last will and testament to ensure for the care of his wife and children after his death. Additionally, he took out a $10,000 (equivalent to almost $250,000 today) life insurance policy to be paid to Cornelia in the event of his death.

That untimely death occurred on January 8, 1881, at the age of 41, after John became ill with pneumonia and was bedridden for nine days. Cornelia’s family arranged for his body to be transported back to New Philadelphia for burial. John’s family, and his coffin, arrived in New Philadelphia on Monday, January 10, 1881. John was buried that same day, with the local Masonic Lodge officiating and crowds of mourners, at the Fair Street Cemetery. Cornelia and the children, immediately following the funeral, moved into the home of her father Daniel Fribley.

Fair Street Cemetery, New Philadelphia.

The Friday after John’s burial, Fair Street Cemetery’s Sexton John Knisely (1847-1927) discovered that Roll’s grave had been tampered with. It had snowed the evening before and footprints and drag marks were visible all around the grave. Knisely notified the family and friends and they immediately investigated the grave by digging down to the coffin. They found that John’s coffin had been broken open and his body removed. Another nearby grave had also been tampered with, but the inclemency of the weather must have prevented them from finishing the job. The snowfall that had occurred during the grave robbery enabled the investigators to follow the tracks of the perpetrators all the way to Beaver Dam Road.

As the family and friends searched for more evidence over the weekend, they learned that the night of the body snatching a local young man had purchased a large shipping box from a New Philadelphia merchant. They further learned that the young man had that box, and its contents, shipped via the C. T. V. & W. railroad to Cleveland the day after the grave robbing. That young man was John Heafner (1856-?) of Warren Township and he had not acted alone.

We’ll examine John Heafner and his accomplices in part two of the story.

John Roll’s obituary, January 13, 1881.

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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