By Melinda Anne Roberts
Hobby historian and “Little Wisconsin” author
Editor’s Note: Body snatching – the theft of a corpse from its burial site – was not uncommon in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Demand was high, the pay excellent.
As medical schools opened across the country, more and more students were desperate for the opportunity to dissect a human cadaver in anatomy class, setting the stage for the “great excitement” that occurred in De Pere during the summer of 1870.
DE PERE – Working in small groups, “resurrectionists” and “ghouls” scouted suitable corpses. Fresh graves were highly desirable, the unsettled earth easier to maneuver.
Sometimes women feigned the part of a grieving relative to secure the remains of a poorhouse dead.
In 1878, the corpse of Ohio congressman John Scott Harrison, son of ninth U.S. President William Henry Harrison and father of 23rd U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, was snatched; the naked body was later discovered via search warrant at Ohio Medical College “hanging from a rope down a chute beneath a trap door.”
In 1901 the Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin: Science series, Volume 3, carried a lengthy report on the “Supply and Care of Anatomical Material,” and the history of American and European body snatching on behalf of the medical community.
Several U.S. states had enacted “anatomy laws” providing medical colleges “the bodies of those dying without friends.”
It was reported by a state university medical school anatomy professor that state and county public institutions “demanded from ten to twenty dollars for each body,” but that “even then the supply is so limited” that his institution was “forced to turn to irregular channels for an adequate supply of material…[a]lthough state laws strictly forbid traffic in bodies.”
In fact, in 1893, only 49 corpses came in “through regular channels” to supply the 1,200 students in various medical schools in the Baltimore area, so “recourse had to be made to irregular sources of supply.”
Irishman Frank McShane came to Wisconsin from Sand Point, Michigan. Known to his fellow countrymen as “Sand Point Pete,” McShane spent his money on alcohol, earning him the reputation of being “a hard drinker” and “an inebriate.”
Nothing more is recorded about his life or the details of his death that summer of 1870 – but what happened after he drowned in the De Pere canal (inferably in a drunken stupor) could have originated in the imagination of Edgar Allen Poe.
Since McShane died friendless and penniless, responsibility for his burial fell to the Village of De Pere.
As his body lay unclaimed alongside the Fox River, village officials sought a resolution.
The Catholics “would not admit the body to their cemetery, on account of the manner of death.”
Two physicians practiced in De Pere, both with medical students as assistants. One, a Dr. Craig said: “Give [the body] to me to dissect; I will pay ten dollars for it and stop all further trouble regarding its burial.”
City officials refused the doctor’s offer and McShane was buried “in due course” in the “public cemetery.”
Bella French reports in The American Sketch Book, Volume III (1876) that McShane was buried “in the cemetery on the river bank, a mile or so from the village (presumably Greenwood Cemetery), in a very shallow grave” and that the theft of the body had “been arranged before hand with the grave-digger.”
The Brown County Democrat reported on April 2, 1915, that when McShane’s remains were brought to the cemetery the grave was still being dug, so the coffin was left above ground with the grave digger.
That night, the body was removed and “stone to the weight of the dead man laid in its place,” so that when the grave digger lowered the coffin into the grave the next morning he was sufficiently deceived.
George Phipps was the proprietor of a drug store on the southwest corner of South Broadway and George Street (where XO Fitness is located today).
The drug store had a cellar that Phipps did not use. He allowed others, including a butter merchant named Doane, to keep items there.
A few days after McShane’s “burial,” one of the doctors asked Phipps for permission to store a “barrel of pork” in the cellar; Phipps consented.
Soon “the stench of decaying flesh began to pollute the [summer] air” and the ensuing investigation led to the drug store cellar.
When the deputy marshal/sheriff arrived on a Monday morning to inspect the premises, he found McShane’s heisted cadaver “in numerous pieces, scattered promiscuously about.”
In the meantime “the offenders” had left town and Phipps was at Green Bay, where he had spent the Sabbath.
When he returned to De Pere, Phipps found “a tide of indignation turned upon him.”
A mob of Irishmen were “on the tip-toe of excitement…full of feelings of revenge,” believing he was a party to the atrocity.
Despite his protestations and assurances that he knew nothing about the contents of the doctor’s barrel, the enraged rabble threatened to burn Phipps’ store. A couple of men grabbed the hapless shopkeep, who was promptly rescued by the deputy sheriff. Phipps was instructed to “arm himself” and thereafter “shoot the first man that laid hands on him.”
Later that evening a large crowd of Irishmen gathered at a saloon in West De Pere with plans to exact their revenge on Phipps.
In East De Pere, citizens “turned out en masse to protect Phipps.”
Upon learning that the “bridge, locks and the banks of the river were guarded with armed men,” the West De Pere mob dispersed and the affray was abated.
“It may be well to add as a matter of history,” wrote Bella French, “that for months after” there was no market for butter from De Pere. “Every body was afraid of getting some of that which had been kept in Phipps’ cellar.”