The Body Snatching of John Roll: The Aftermath

grave robbers

John Roll was finally put to rest on Tuesday, January 18, 1881. The snatching of his body from his grave a few days earlier shocked the local community, though grave robbing was occurring throughout Ohio at the time. How much did the medical community know about these grave robberies? What happened to those involved?


After finally burying her husband, Cornelia Roll and her children moved into the household of her father. She would never remarry and cared for her father, Daniel Fribley, right up until his death in 1904. Cornelia died in 1917 and is buried next to her husband in Fair Street Cemetery.

It is not entirely clear what happened to John Heafner following the events of January 1881. The record does not indicate that he was ever prosecuted for his role in aiding in the transportation of John Roll’s corpse. It should be pointed out that he was not included in the deal to not prosecute made between Dr. Henry W. Kitchen and William Campbell. Heafner does appear in some later newspaper accounts, but only in the transfer of real estate.

Doctor Ezekial P. Buell, who helped educate William Aldridge, died later in the year of John Roll’s grave robbing. William Leggett’s educator, Dr. John Hill, moved to Indiana and continued to practice medicine until his death in 1904. How much did these two well-respected, local doctors know about their students’ activities? Had they robbed graves themselves in the past?

Reference to William Leggett’s death in the New Philadelphia Times, January 26, 1888.

Whether or not William Aldridge completed his medical education is unclear, but it hardly matters as he died in 1884, only a few years after playing his part in the crime. His classmate, William Leggett, did complete his education and go on to be a respected physician in his own right, though he would also die within a decade of the crime. The other grave robber, Franklin Young, practiced medicine in Stark County until his death in 1917. Did any of their patients know about their grave robbing past?

The man who dealt in corpses, William Hartness, closed his druggist business in Cleveland shortly after the John Roll incident. He returned to the west for a period, leaving his wife and children comfortably back in Cleveland. He did not return to Cleveland until around 1900. Hartness died in Cleveland in 1912. How many corpses had Hartness trafficked in during the years he operated his drugstore on a busy corner on the Public Square?

Section in the University of Wooster, Medical Department, Eighteenth Annual Catalogue, 1881-1882 discussing the schools approach to studying anatomy and dissection.

The man who purchased from Hartness, Dr. H.W. Kitchen, suffered very little from his role in the John Roll affair. He continued as one of the prominent medical practitioners and educators of Ohio, served as president of the Cleveland Board of Health and surgeon of the Cleveland Grays. He was elected clerk of the Court of Common Pleas in 1882 and served two terms. Later he became president of the State Banking & Trust Company of Cleveland and played an active role in its management. Dr. Kitchen served as chairman of the Republican Committee of Cleveland, played a prominent role in the Masonic Lodge, was a member of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce and a number of professional associations, clubs, and the Grand Army of the Republic. Dr. Kitchen died in 1907. How many corpses, robbed from their graves by his students, did he purchase for his anatomy classes?

The day that the paper carried the story about John Roll’s grave robbing another article, right next to the Roll article, detailed another, botched body snatching. Christina Huffman, recently deceased at the age of sixty, was buried in Carroll County’s Mt. Tabor Cemetery on January 4, 1881. Two men dug up her corpse, loaded it into a sleigh, and headed west into Tuscarawas County. Tracked by a local Sheriff shortly after, the pair were forced to dump Ms. Huffman’s body on the side of the road in order to make their escape. Had Aldridge and Leggett been responsible for this grave robbing as well? How many graves in Tuscarawas County from the 1800s lie empty because of the practice?

We’ll never know.

Happy Halloween!

Advertisement from a New Philadelphia undertaker for protection from grave robbing, 1882.

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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