The Body Snatching of John Roll: The Corpse Buyer

The investigation of what happened to the body of John Roll, robbed from his New Philadelphia grave in the middle of the night, was coming to an end. The trail had taken Roll’s friends to Cleveland, to a prominent druggist, and now would find them at three of the city’s medical colleges.


There were three medical colleges operating in Cleveland in 1881 and all three of them offered classwork on dissection and anatomy. These courses required access to cadavers with which to educate future doctors and provide them “hands-on” learning. Detectives from the Cleveland police department, and John Roll’s friends, paid each of these colleges a visit in the search for his corpse.

The detectives visited the Cleveland Medical College, Homeopathic Hospital College, and the school of the grave robbers themselves, College of Wooster Medical Department. While touring the colleges, only the students at the Wooster Medical Department treated the investigators poorly. There the students followed them around as they investigated, hissed and threatened them with foul language. It was at the Wooster Medical Department that they also found an empty shipping crate, identical to the one that shipped John Roll, addressed to the W. H. Hartness & Company.

Homeopathic Hospital College, c. 1890.

Three of the grave robbers were students at the College of Wooster Medical Department and since the detectives found the suspicious crate on that campus they decided to speak to the college’s dean. The Dean of the College of Wooster Medical Department, and also the instructor of anatomy at the college, was Dr. Henry W. Kitchen (1843-1907). Kitchen was born in Stark County, Ohio and had enlisted in the 19th Ohio Infantry at the outbreak of the Civil War. He was wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga, taken prisoner and spent fourteen months in Libby and Andersonville prisons. After the war he studied medicine at the University of Michigan and the College of Wooster.

Kitchen was a well-respected member of the medical, and civic, community as evidenced by his election to various civic positions in the city of Cleveland and county of Cuyahoga. That the detectives chose to interview such a prominent man about a grave robbing indicated that they must have believed they were on the right track. Their willingness to question the man who was a past Health Officer for the City of Cleveland paid off.

Dr. H.W. Kitchen, c. 1900.

Dr. Kitchen, when asked about the use of cadavers, informed the detectives that the supply of corpses was usually from paupers graves or from those who had made a point to leave their body to medical science. When questioned about the W.H. Hartness & Company crate on campus, Kitchen explained that it had contained a body recently shipped from Connecticut. The detective, apparently sensing some deception from Dr. Kitchen, then threatened to arrest the three student grave robbers based on the evidence already in hand.

The threat to arrest Aldridge, Leggett and Young was apparently enough to convince Dr. Kitchen to cooperate. The doctor claimed that the theft of John Roll’s corpse was totally “unauthorized” and that it was the students’ ambition to study anatomy that had led to them digging him up. After learning that the New Philadelphia party was more interested in retrieving John Roll’s corpse than in pursuing criminal charges, Dr. Kitchen made an offer. If there would be no arrests made of any of those involved in the snatching of John Roll’s corpse, he promised to do everything in his power to help them “regain possession.” William Campbell and the others agreed.

Dr. Kitchen informed the party that they could recover John Roll’s body at the city morgue the next day at 10 o’clock where it would be left. The New Philadelphians did exactly that and, at noon Tuesday, January 18, they arrived in New Philadelphia with John Roll’s remains. He was put to rest, finally, that afternoon.

The last post in this series will explore what happened to the various parties and ask some questions that are yet unanswered.

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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