The Body Snatching of John Roll: The Corpse Dealer

W.H. Hartness and Company Cleveland 1881

The four men who removed John Roll from his grave did so because there was a market for cadavers. The channels in which these “products” moved, perhaps not surprisingly, included legitimate entities. William Campbell’s trip to Cleveland to recover John Roll’s body would shed light on those channels.


William Campbell was determined to recover the body of his friend and travelled, along with Enoch Fribley (1846-1913) and Albert Bates, Junior (1852-1934), to Cleveland the Sunday following the body snatching. Fribley was a cousin of John Roll’s wife and had been Roll’s business partner in New Philadelphia. The three men had determined, with suspect John Heafner’s assistance, that the body had been shipped to a Cleveland druggist named William H. Hartness (1836-1912).

William Hartness was born in Stark County, the son of a fairly successful window sash maker in Massillon. He travelled to the west coast before the Civil War where he worked as a clerk in the city of Portland, Oregon. He returned to Ohio around 1864 and settled in Cleveland, married a local girl, and went into business as a druggist. Hartness partnered with a man named Bruce Huling (1841-1881), and opened the druggist firm Hartness & Huling on the public square. That partnership dissolved and, in 1878, the firm was known as W.H. Hartness & Company.

Cleveland’s Public Square in 1900, looking south, with the general location of the W H Hartness & Company Druggist.

The New Philadelphians, upon arriving in Cleveland Sunday afternoon, sought out William Hartness to question him about the delivery of the shipping crate to his establishment. Hartness admitted that he had been the recipient but when asked about the body Hartness refused to disclose what had been, and what he had done with, the contents of the box. He did however inform Mr. Campbell that, if no charges were brought in the case, that those contents could likely be returned. The search party then went to the Cleveland police and were told by them to wait until Monday to continue the investigation.

Monday morning three Cleveland police detectives joined the New Philadelphians and they continued their search for the body of John Roll. One of the detectives travelled to the W.H. Hartness & Company location on the south side of the public square and searched the building from top to bottom. Not surprisingly, given the visit from Mr. Campbell the afternoon before, he was unable to locate anything connecting the establishment to the snatching of John Roll. Not even the shipping crate Hartness admitted to receiving was found.

Cleveland Police Headquarters on Champlain Street, c. 1893. (Source: https://www.clevelandpolicemuseum.org)

The investigation of William Hartness’s connection to the case went cold, for now, and the investigation moved on to the possible recipients of John Roll’s corpse. The detectives determined to visit three teaching hospitals then operating in Cleveland to discover if any of them had been the recipients of the crate containing the body of John Roll. The medical schools were described in the record by the streets on which they resided: Erie (Cleveland Medical College), Brownell (College of Wooster), and Prospect (Homeopathic Hospital College).

William Campbell decided to return to New Philadelphia early Monday afternoon, January 17, 1881, to provide an update on the search to the family, friends, and the press. Campbell informed everyone of his interaction with Hartness, and claimed that the police had been less than helpful. He immediately returned to Cleveland that evening and learned what had transpired in the investigation of the three medical colleges during his brief absence.

The investigation of the medical schools will be covered in the next part.

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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