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At approximately 3:30 on the morning of Dec. 1, 1878, the occupants of 505 10th St. NW, a tenement located near the corner of E Street, were awakened by a loud pounding on the building’s front door. After gathering up their courage, several of the women living in the building cautiously descended the stairs to see who was calling at such an indecent hour. Their nocturnal visitor turned out to be one John Stewart, a black man whose chief defining characteristic happened to be that he was dead.
He hadn’t come on his own. He was accompanied by two grave robbers, who’d just “resurrected” him from the predominantly black Columbian Harmony Cemetery on Brentwood Road NE. The body snatchers believed themselves to be on the doorstep of the dissection room of the medical department of Georgetown University, where they planned to sell Stewart’s body to an eager batch of medical students. They were wrong—that was next door. When the intrepid ladies of 505 10th St. opened their door, the body snatchers did what anybody who’s been carrying a dead body that he doesn’t particularly want to be seen hauling around would do: They heaved it inside. There it knocked down one unfortunate occupant and sent the rest into the street screaming, “Police!” and “Murder!”
Body snatching, a practice most likely as old as the study of anatomy, was an established business in Britain and the United States in the Gilded Age. Science and morality had been at loggerheads over the issue of the use of human cadavers since at least the time of Henry VIII, but grave robbing did not become a scourge until the second half of the 18th century, when the spirit of scientific enquiry that accompanied the Enlightenment swept Europe. It was a simple matter of supply and demand; medical students required bodies to dissect, but religious and moral sentiments made them almost impossible to procure legally. This deadlock ensured both a stable price for corpses—$15 to $25 was a typical range—and body snatching’s status as a viable career option for anyone who wasn’t particularly squeamish, superstitious, or averse to working nights.
Medical schools often employed a (quite literally) moonlighting janitor to do the dirty work, but it was far from uncommon for the students to take the matter into their own hands. Generally, though, they left the grim work of procuring cadavers to professionals.
And when it came to professional grave robbers, the District of Columbia—which boasted four medical schools and some 50-odd cemeteries—had them in spades. In the last two decades of the 19th century, it was home to some of the most infamous resurrection men—and women—in the United States. William Jansen, the brother-and-sister team of Percy and Maud Brown, and the trigger-happy Marlow Gang all conducted business in the city during those years. All of them achieved the kind of public notoriety that is reserved, nowadays, for upper-echelon Mafiosi and high-profile killers.
The city’s laws against grave robbing were, until the very late 1800s, remarkably lax. Indeed,Washington had no law against body snatching per se until the 1890s. As long as the “ghouls” left the victims’ clothing behind, they couldn’t be prosecuted for larceny. As a result, police who caught grave robbers even in the act were reduced to charging them with violation of obscure laws that brought about only token penalties.
Of course, some resurrectionists went ahead and took not only the body but everything they could lay their hands on. In an April 1883 Washington Post article colorfully titled “Raising the Dead: A Physician’s Glib Discourse on a Ghastly Subject,” an old sawbones possessing a more than passing familiarity with the resurrectionist’s trade purported to “know a man…whose wife wears a dress taken off a dead woman whose grave he robbed.” It was, he added, “a common thing.”
The most colorful of Washington’s colorful cast of grave robbers was William Jansen, aka William Jensen, William Janssen, Vigo Jansen Ross, Vigo Jensen, James Jardine, Jansen the Resurrectionist, and the Resurrectionist King. Jansen, who traveled extensively on the East Coast, spent a fair share of his time in our nation’s capital and became a major media figure here. His every arrival in Washington during his glory days in the 1880s merited a mention in the newspapers, usually accompanied by a recounting of his past exploits.
Fabulous stories arose about him: It was said that Jansen “was born to be a grave robber and followed his trade by instinct”; that he “was most happy in the companionship of corpses—a Gaffer Hexam in real life”; that he sought out “high-toned cemeteries only,” shunning potter’s fields; and that he “grimly lamented his inability to rob his own grave…because no one could do such things as well.” He once bragged to a Post writer—he seemed to spend a lot of time talking to newspapermen—about his plans to snatch a body on Christmas Eve and leave it on the doorstep of Washington’s top cop, along with a placard reading “Presented to Major W.G. Brock, Chief of Police, with the compliments of W.M. Jansen, out of regard for him.”
Little matter that most of it was sheer confabulation produced by a sensationalistic press, cops looking to be quoted, or Jansen himself. He achieved renown as the kind of criminal—fearless, calculating but cheerful, and calm in all situations, no matter how precarious—whom the public could admire and deplore at the same time. He seemed to lead a charmed life, and he had a knack for slipping through the (somewhat loose) net of the law; indeed, despite his lengthy arrest record, he seems to have spent relatively little time behind bars. The newspapers made him out to be a kind of genteel fiend, a ghastly but delicious combination of scientific criminal and inhuman ghoul: Dr. Moriarty and Mr. Hyde.
Jansen’s origins are hazy. He was born in Denmark in the 1840s and emigrated to America, at least according to his own unreliable account, “some time before Hayes was inaugurated” in March 1877. He later claimed to have developed his taste for body snatching as a medical student in Denmark, and he liked to put it about that he was an actual physician. But his story varied; he once told a Washington police detective, George O. Miller, that he’d studied medicine in Berlin.
In any event, the young Dane wasted no time in becoming a part of his adopted country’s criminal underworld. He likely embarked upon his career as a resurrectionist in the District, but it was in nearby Baltimore that he committed his first high-profile body snatching. On Dec. 2, 1880, Baltimore police arrested him for stealing the corpses of two women, Anne Carter and Jennie Smith, from the Baltimore Cemetery. Jansen’s arrest hinged on a very odd circumstance; the deceased were mother and daughter, and his crime might have gone undetected had a relative of theirs, a Mrs. Elizabeth Joiner, not had a vivid dream that the women’s bodies had been stolen. She went to the police, and it turned out she was right.
Jansen was a meticulous type who took the time to tidy up the grave site afterward; according to a December 1880 article in the National Police Gazette, the superintendent of the cemetery “expressed surprise at the manner in which the resurrectionists had covered up their tracks.”
It was not, in general, neat work. Your average grave robber showed up at the job site with a spade or two, a good-sized sack, and, most important, at least one foot-long metal hook attached to a length of rope. Some resurrectionists employed a hacksaw to saw through the coffin lid, but most preferred simply to bash it in with whatever was at hand. Optional equipment might have included a long (6- or 7-foot) iron rod used to plumb the grave, listening for the telltale sound of metal against wood, and a ladder if needed to scale the cemetery wall.
Professionals like Jansen knew to clear only the soil over the head end of the coffin; it quickened the procedure, and a robber could just as simply remove the body without excavating all of the earth over it. After the portion of the lid covering the head had been removed, a grave robber had only to climb into the grave and affix the hook to the body, either under the chin or, as the writer of a January 1880 National Police Gazette article on the “Midnight Ghouls” chillingly put it, between the forcibly opened “jaws of death.” He could then use the attached rope to hoist the body out of the grave.
The Carter/Smith case received national attention. The New York Times picked up the story, and the Post provided this memorable description of the King of Resurrectionists: “He is about five feet eight inches high, large robust frame, black hair, swarthy complexion and with a countenance anything but open.” According to this account, Jansen seemed to be perpetually inebriated—an occupational hazard among body snatchers, apparently—and cut an appropriately funereal figure in his favorite costume: a long rubber coat, rubber boots, and heavy gloves, all of them flecked by cemetery clay.
The apex of Jansen’s D.C. career occurred in 1883, when he was arrested for stealing the same body not once but twice. Jansen entered the city in mid-January—the Post dutifully alerted the public of this fact on Jan. 20—and promptly robbed the grave of Charles Shaw, a 19-year-old “colored youth” who had been hanged the day before for murdering his sister. Amazingly enough, Jansen resurrected Shaw from a potter’s field within an hour of his burial, and with the sun still shining. “No other man on earth,” gushed a sycophantic Post scribbler, “would have had the nerve to enter a cemetery in broad daylight and exhume a corpse.” According to Jansen, he performed his resurrection in the company of one Dr. Crook, a physician at Georgetown University.
After they’d brought the body to the college, however, complications arose. According to one Post article, the fee for services rendered was $18, but Jansen claimed that the aptly named Crook had cheated him out of his share of the spoils, which were collected following a ghastly auction among the medical students present—a common procedure, it seems. Shaw’s still-attached head fetched $6; his arms and legs fetched $3 apiece.
This was on a Saturday. Jansen returned the following day, probably to demand additional payment, but finding no one about, he proceeded to attempt to break down the door to the dissecting room, perhaps putting another scare into the much-put-upon denizens of 505 10th St. Unfortunately for Jansen, a policeman happened by—but instead of arresting the drunk and “very boisterous” resurrectionist for attempted burglary, he booked him for profanity.
He was soon released, and having already resolved to steal the body back and sell it to a college with a better appreciation of his services, he did a typically Jansen-like thing: He showed up Monday night at the offices of the Washington Post, then at 10th and D Streets NW, and reportedly told the two newsmen present, “Come, and I will show you where Shaw’s body is.” The three walked over to Georgetown’s dissecting room, where Jansen, at least according to his companions, produced a key that allowed them entrance. This may well have been a tale the newsmen concocted in order to avoid being charged for aiding and abetting a break-in. (If Jansen had the key, why hadn’t he used it previously?)
One thing is certain: He did manage, on that Monday night in late January, to purloin Shaw’s body a second time. But thereupon ensued a comedy of errors that probably had much to do with the alcoholic refreshment that Jansen—according to a Post scribe writing some five years after his death—“could not be induced to go near a cemetery” without.
Needing a hack to transport Shaw’s body, Jansen—the reporters having made themselves scarce by this point, for their story ends with Jansen in the dissection room, “stroking” Shaw’s body “with ghoulish tenderness”—happened upon a hackman named John Mack. According to another Post article, for a fee—$2 according to Mack, $5 according to the resurrectionist—and his share of a fresh bottle of whiskey, Mack readily agreed to transport both Jansen and his very odd cargo to the Freedman Hospital, which was located very near the present-day Howard University. But Mack seems to have overindulged; he ended up taking his passengers, one inebriated and the other dead, to Columbian (now George Washington) University’s National Medical College, at 13th and H Streets NW.
At this point, an exasperated Jansen evidently took the reins. By the time they reached Freedman Hospital, the sun was coming up. Jansen got out and went to look for a negotiating partner. During his absence, however, Mack apparently developed feet almost as cold as those of his remaining passenger; he set off for the 2nd Precinct Station on U Street, where he turned Shaw’s body over to authorities.
Jansen was arrested that same day. He reportedly told the arresting officer, “I have been expecting you. I knew you would come.” A lancet and syringe—resurrectionists frequently injected their cadavers with arsenic as a preservative—were found on his person.
This time, Jansen didn’t walk away with a slap on the wrist. He was convicted of malicious trespass—this charge was substituted for the originally reported charge of transporting a human corpse through the streets without a permit—and three days later was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days in jail.
If William Jansen was a character straight out of Conan Doyle, the brother-and-sister team of Percy and Maud Brown seem to have wandered out of the Brothers Grimm. Of an indeterminate but advanced age—in 1888 Maud claimed to be 78 and declared her still-active brother to be 20 years her elder—they were undoubtedly two of the oldest people ever to ply the resurrectionist’s grim trade.
But more fantastic than their age was their personal appearance, particularly Maud’s. A 1888 Post account provided an unforgettable description of the woman whom her brother called Maudie: After luridly sketching the pair’s grim subterranean dwelling—he called it “a cave for dead bodies”—in a large house located at the corner of 3rd Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE, the reporter added:
If there had been anything lacking to add another degree of horror to the traffic in dead bodies, it was certainly supplied by the appearance of this woman. Her face was concave on one side and convex on the other, her nose was long and thin, her lips sunken, while her one sightless eye projecting from its socket, as though striving to penetrate the interminable darkness, rolled incessantly and was even more horrible to look at than the scar which indicated where the other eye had been. She was dressed in a faded black dress, but wore an immense white ribbon, tied in a bow about her lean and wrinkled neck.
Before her blindness, Maud had performed the vital task of ascertaining the locations of fresh graves, and she evidently executed her duties with macabre aplomb. In an 1888 Evening Star article on grave robbing, a D.C. police officer described Maud’s role:
She would watch the papers for funeral notices, then she would dress in black and attend the funeral, either as a mourner or as an intimate friend of the deceased. She would be a stranger to every person at the funeral, but of course the dead could not speak and those with whom she conversed about the corpse would believe that she really knew the departed.
Later that night, of course, Percy would make a visit using the information Maud provided, and she and the departed would become better acquainted.
In a long and surprisingly detailed 1888 Washington Post article, Maud claimed that she and her brother had been responsible for “possibly five hundred” body snatchings over their long careers. If so, they were remarkably careful; the pair’s appearances on police blotters were generally in connection with their various other scams, including blackmail.
An April 3, 1879, Post article described one of the pair’s ruses. Maud showed up at the door of an unnamed woman with a story about her brother, who, she said, “had been wounded in the side by a poisoned arrow while serving under Custer” and had had the silver tube he wore “in the aperture” stolen from him. If another wasn’t found, she said, he would “surely die” within two days. The cost of said tube was $5. The woman gave Maud the money but evidently had second thoughts, and the Browns were caught.
In early November 1880, Percy Brown made the papers in a bigger way—this time for an attempt to blackmail Mrs. H.H. Willard, whose husband, a well-known lawyer, had died several months previously. In a letter to Willard, Percy and two confederates—Maud was never charged and was presumably not involved—threatened to reveal evidence that she had poisoned her late husband unless she coughed up $200. They claimed, in fact, to have the very bottle of poison the lady had used to dispatch her spouse.
Instead of handing over the money, Willard consulted with her attorneys, who in turn alerted the police. The police directed her to arrange a meeting with the extortionists, then followed her to the rendezvous place at 9th Street NW, across from Ford’s Opera House, operated by the same John T. Ford whose nearby theater had been the site of Lincoln’s assassination 15 years before. There she was met by young Paul B. Wright, who handed her a package containing the bogus poison in exchange for a package containing her bogus $200. Wright can hardly have been a hardened blackmailer, because not only did he not check to see if the money was real, he calmly led the detectives, whom the Post described as being “disguised beyond recognition,” to the corner of C and 10th Streets, where stood a fellow conspirator: Percy Brown. Percy was promptly convicted and sentenced to 12 months in jail.
It was only much later that both Percy and Maud Brown became household horrors to the general public, in wake of what became known as the Mount Olivet Mystery. In late January 1888, it was discovered that the body of Mrs. William T. Smith had been stolen from the grave where she’d been buried the previous day, in the Mount Olivet Cemetery on Bladensburg Road NE. Cemetery officials, perhaps not wanting to attract unwelcome publicity, turned to a private detective agency, McDevitt’s. McDevitt’s put a detective named Flinders on the case, and he soon tracked Mrs. Smith to a dissecting table at Columbian’s National Medical College. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent of Mount Olivet and several assistants arrived to retrieve her. They then surreptitiously reburied her, sans grave clothes, in the shattered coffin from which she’d been snatched.
When the sordid details of Smith’s resurrection and reburial got out, they incited a media frenzy, and reporters from Washington’s biggest papers rushed out to interview all involved—including Percy Brown, who found himself locked up at the 6th Precinct House on charges that he was responsible for the crime. There, Percy solemnly declared his innocence, swearing that on the night in question he’d been boxing—he seems have to been a remarkably spry old duffer—at a dive with the appropriately pugilistic name of Jack Rooney’s.
Meanwhile, a parade of reporters dutifully paid calls on Maud at the Browns’ “cave of dead bodies.” Maud may have been crooked, immoral, and unsightly, but she spun a great yarn, and she was in superlative form on the night in question. The papers at that time apparently printed everything anyone told them, and what Maud mainly told was whoppers. Thus it was that the Post’s readers learned that Maud was actually a Russian born of wealthy parents, was betrothed at the age of 8 to the president of the Royal Medical College in St. Petersburg, and was called upon, during the course of the Crimean War, by none other than Gen. Mikhail Gortchakoff, to do her patriotic duty for Mother Russia by translating intercepted English dispatches. This “Lady Maud” gladly did, but tragedy struck in the form of an errant cannonball, which permanently disfigured her face. One eye, she told the Post reporter, was saved by the “most eminent occulists” of Leipzig, but, as “the other eye had been carried away by the shell…it could not be subjected” to their expert treatment. Perhaps if she’d sent out a search party.
To the Evening Star correspondent, Maud, who had eventually succumbed to her grievous Crimean war wounds and gone completely blind, confided that her brother’s real name was Percival D. Angerlim. She also shared her philosophical views on grave robbing, saying, “What I can’t understand is why such persons as Percy and I are ostracised from society. Any young doctor who cuts the bodies to pieces would be welcomed in almost any family if he wanted to pay his attentions to the young lady, but we who do the least repulsive part of the work are not recognized by anybody.” She also provided an alibi for Percy, which might have been helpful had it not contradicted his own story.
Percy was ultimately released due to lack of evidence, and the Browns presumably returned to their body-snatching, grifting ways, which Maud supplemented by moonlighting—or daylighting, in this case—as a fortune teller, a job she was no doubt well-suited for.
Compared with the Browns, who fit the traditional white and down-at-the-heels grave-robbing mold, the Marlow Gang constituted a brand-new phenomenon: a black-run grave-robbing crew. Blacks had long plied the resurrectionist trade, but they had tended to be the ones hired by white folks for a pittance to do the digging. It’s uncertain how many members the “gang” boasted, but in addition to George Marlow Sr. and a confusing array of sons, the group certainly included a man named John Jones, aka William Jackson.
Unlike Jansen and the Browns, who showed no propensity for violence against the still-breathing portion of the populace, the Marlows apparently had a fondness for firearms. It’s unclear whether this was the only reason for their carrying guns or if it was a reaction to the increasing amount of violence surrounding their profession.
Grave robbing had always been dangerous work—the National Police Gazette and the national newspapers regularly carried reports of grave robbers being met by gunfire—and as the end of the century drew near, the number of District resurrectionists who found themselves being shot at increased. In late January 1888, the Post carried an article detailing how Henry Monroe, the black sexton at the Columbian Harmony Cemetery, had fired at several ghouls, causing them to flee.
In February 1894, it was the Marlows’ turn. While robbing a grave in Maryland, in the area then called Oxen Hill, they were fired upon by a concerned citizen named Mount Ellwood. The Post described how, upon being “awakened by the barking of his faithful watchdog,” Ellwood “took down his double-barreled shot gun from the deerhorn rack over the fireplace and sneaked out the back door” to investigate. Not only did brothers John Henry (aka James, aka Jeremiah) Marlow and George Marlow Jr. end up catching birdshot from Ellwood’s double-barrel, they found themselves in jail, as well. George wound up being sentenced to six years of Maryland prison time.
At least one of the Marlow Gang members seemed mainly inclined to use his gun outside the cemetery. Early in 1895, a Post item noted that John Henry Marlow had been arrested at 8th and H Streets NE and charged with “assault to kill” after he fired three shots at his father following a dispute at the family home in Ivy City. A Post article from the previous year showed that John Henry had lately done four months in jail for attempting to shoot—his revolver had apparently failed to go off—the same patrolman, who was at that time seeking to arrest him for grave-robbery-related offenses.
If the Marlows’ field trip to Oxen Hill was not a rousing success, they had better luck with their next strategy: interstate transportation of cadavers. Instead of peddling them to local medical schools, they packed them in boxes, labeled them as merchandise, and shipped them off to medical schools in other states.
It was a good racket, and it might have gone on indefinitely but for a careless error. In early February 1896, employees of the United States Express Co., situated near the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station, found themselves in a quandary in the form of a large square shipping box that bore not one but two addresses. Evidently the Marlows, who were shipping a delivery to Detroit in a reused container, had overlooked an earlier address in Baltimore. According to the Feb. 10 Post article breaking the story, an employee “thrust in his hand, hoping that the contents would indicate whether the box should go to Baltimore or Detroit….The employee caught hold of a human foot.”
Upon further investigation, the employees discovered the nude bodies of two women, doubled up and tightly packed in oak leaves. Both bodies had been disinterred from Payne’s Cemetery, located “about a mile beyond Benning, and directly opposite the new Woodlawn Cemetery.” The employees told police that the same three black men who delivered the box that day had sent at least four boxes out previously, and that some had been so heavy they must have contained three bodies each.
One of the box bearers fit the description of George Marlow Sr. But he remained on the streets until early March, when another shipping container, this one containing the bodies of two boys resurrected from Woodlawn, was intercepted by employees of the Adams Express Co. Police, using descriptions provided by employees at both shipping companies, arrested George Marlow Sr. and John Jones.
They also arrested John Henry Marlow, but he was somehow released and subsequently made himself scarce. Indeed, he was not indicted and tried for his part in the body-shipping operation until mid-November 1899, at which time he was acquitted of all charges. Police also picked up Thomas Bowie, an old associate of the Browns’. But charges against him were dropped after it was determined that an eyewitness who had placed him at the scene had, in the words of a Post reporter, “a spite against Bowie, and sought to implicate him in the affair.”
By this time, District lawmakers had finally gotten around to stiffening the sentence for body snatching to one to three years of hard labor in the District Jail. A March 6, 1896, Post article recounted how George Marlow’s and Jones’ attorneys sought to quash the indictments, arguing reasonably enough that the law made no sense, because there was no “hard labor” in the jail and that anyone sentenced to more than one year on a single charge had to be sent to the penitentiary. Both were sentenced to two years in the jail nonetheless, and their convictions seem to have quenched the Marlow Gang’s thirst for body snatching, at least insofar as indicated by their lack of subsequent arrests reported by the newspapers.
By the late 1890s, the golden age of Washington body snatching had passed. Across the Northeast, laws concerning the use of corpses for medical research were being revised. Under the new provisions, persons who died as paupers, or in asylums or prisons, and whose bodies remained unclaimed were routinely turned over to medical schools, thus reducing the need for resurrectionists’ services. Increasingly, too, medical colleges began to successfully encourage the more liberal-minded citizens to donate their bodies to science.
These twilight years were not kind to any of the District’s hardest-working resurrectionists. Maud and Percy Brown migrated from their “cave for dead bodies” to an even more infamous dwelling, Ryder’s Castle, a large, “ramshackly old building” located at 421 and 423 New Jersey Ave. NW. (The two were most likely connected; hence the term “castle.”) The dilapidated three-story building was variously described as “the most curious old shell in the District,” “a famous old headquarters for vags and thugs,” and “the haunt of decrepit old women, fortune tellers, and unfortunate persons generally.” George Ryder, the castle’s purported owner and presiding monarch, seems to have preferred serving time in the workhouse to making the legally required sanitary improvements to his building. It was condemned in 1886, although various Washington Post articles make it clear that tenants continued to live there at least into the late 1890s.
The place was the perfect home for two elderly grave robbers. At Ryder’s Castle, anything might—and did—happen. In June of 1895, the police—the 6th Precinct station house was located just two doors away—raided the castle, hauling off, in the memorable phraseology of a nameless Post writer, a “motley crowd of white and colored women and several old soldiers upon whose pension money the disreputable characters live for several days each quarter.” A subsequent item described how, in September of that same year, three “colored girls” were arrested in the castle as they “indulged in riotous joy over a ‘growler’” (a pail or can filled at a saloon and taken home) and charged with vagrancy. The police were even called in to quell various disturbances arising from religious meetings that were being held “for the colored people assembled” at the location. During an address by the Rev. Mr. Mason, a brief item in the Post’s Oct. 2, 1895, edition reported, Mary Jane Grayson of Cabbage Court “was seized with a fit, and uttering one whoop she tumbled to the floor,” causing a sensation. At another, similar meeting, the Post reported, “Mary Harris, a well-known colored vagrant…became boisterous on account of the intoxicants she had imbibed.”
Meanwhile, Maud and Percy were finally showing their age. Maud apparently turned her attentions full time to fortune telling. Percy, meanwhile, found his way back into court in August 1893, but he was a shell of his former, grave-robbing self. Arrested for disorderly conduct during a carouse through the thoroughly disreputable Castle Thunder slum district in the police’s 5th Precinct, he was described by the Post’s court reporter as “a white-bearded, aged man” with a “very unsavory reputation” who had “probably sold more unknown ‘stiffs’ to medical students than any other man hereabouts in his weird calling.” He didn’t cut a very fine figure; according to the Post, he “appeared to be on the verge of delirium tremens” and “was shaking like the proverbial aspen leaf.” When the court told Brown it appeared he’d been drinking, he responded simply, “I have to drink in my business.” The court sentenced him to 24 days in the workhouse.
By 1896, he was on his last legs. The last public mention of him and his sister occurred in January of that year, when the Post reported that officers of the Humane Society had removed 5-year-old Abbie Ryder, George’s “daughter”—her paternity being as shady as everything else in Ryder’s seedy domain—and appointed “heiress to Ryder Castle,” from his custody in order to save her from “disreputable people and bad surroundings.” In court, Ryder assured the judge, who was apparently tired of hearing cases involving Ryder’s Castle, that the building’s only remaining inhabitants were Percy Brown, “who is old and partly paralyzed and had refused to leave the place”; his “wife,” Maud; and “a colored man named Hawkins.”
In April 1899, when the city was riveted by news of the discovery of the body of a black woman in the coal vault of the Ryder’s still inhabited Schloss, the Browns were clearly gone, for though police at first suspected that resurrectionists might have been responsible for placing the body there, they finally determined, according to the Post, that “no one pursuing that calling has resided in the old negro tenement for some years.” Whether Maud and Percy breathed their last in Ryder’s Castle or went elsewhere, we’ll probably never know.
The Marlows also disappeared into that abyss reserved for people whose names don’t appear in the City Register, censuses, cemetery registers, or newspaper obituary pages. What became of George Marlow père is unknown. As for his namesake, who did six years for the failed Oxen Hill heist, he was arrested in October 1899, on the frankly embarrassing charge of stealing a dog tag from the pet pug of a Mrs. George H. Harries. The dog, noted the court reporter dryly, was “hurt by the transaction.” The following June, George Jr. again found himself behind bars, this time for robbing the chicken house of Randolph Violet at 16th and Joliet Streets NE, in Brookland. His final notice occurred in the Post and bore the headline “Twelve Headless Chickens.” It was an inglorious going-out for a member of the notorious Marlow Gang.
As for Jansen the Resurrectionist, his end was grim but suitably dramatic. By the mid-1880s, Jansen, who continued to travel peripatetically up and down the East Coast, seems to have lost his taste for grave robbing, although it’s also possible that he’d become so well-known that he could no longer walk past a cemetery without being hauled off to jail. In any event, Jansen hit upon the idea of turning his career as a body snatcher into theater.
After borrowing the requisite funds from one Judge Hilton, on May 18, 1884, Jansen made his dramatic debut at the Theatre Comique—a well-known vaudeville theater on 11th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The Theatre Comique, whose motto was “A Feast Awaits You Fit For Royalty, at Plebeian Prices,” had surely seen its fair share of strange acts. But never had it seen anything like Jansen’s The Resurrectionist King.
Half lecture and half demonstration of the resurrectionist’s art, Jansen’s sparsely attended performance rapidly degenerated, according to the incredulous Post theater critic in attendance, into farce, with Jansen speaking inaudibly in his thick Danish accent and sneaking belts of liquid courage at the side of the stage while the audience contributed catcalls such as “Now he’s had a drink; I hope he’ll speak louder” and “What kind of a show is this, anyway?” The low point occurred when the “body” that Jansen theatrically hoisted from its unfinal resting place “smiled audibly,” inspiring one wag to shout, “Lookout, Doc, he is very ticklish!”—a witticism that in turn launched Jansen’s “corpse” into a fit of giggles. Needless to say, the critics were not kind, and Jansen’s dramatic career ended, ingloriously, after one night.
Almost three-and-a-half years later, Jansen made yet another curtain call—his last. On Nov. 4, 1887, the Post published a brief article titled “Body-Snatcher Jensen: Has He Committed Suicide in New York?” He had indeed. Finding himself broke in a “fifteen-cent lodging house” on Pearl Street, and “with starvation staring him in the face,” the Resurrectionist King decided to put a revolver bullet in his head. According to the New York Times, he had been working as an attendant at the Ward’s Island Lunatic Asylum and had perhaps been driven to the deed, in part, by “trouble with his wife.” Another Post story, published in 1900—evidence of Washington’s enduring fascination with Jansen—had it that he “blew out his brains…before a desk sergeant in a New York police station,” but this sounds like someone’s creative embellishment. The famed body snatcher was, depending on which rough estimate you choose to believe, either 40 or 45 or 50 years of age.
The Post, which had done much to solidify Jansen’s reputation, published a long obituary on Nov. 6, 1887. “The King of Ghouls,” began Jansen’s final review, “is dead.” “He was proud, strange to say, of his work,” it went on. Indeed, “He loved his business, ghastly as it was, and followed it with the same enthusiasm that spurs other men to nobler deeds in respectable walks of life.” It was a sizable obituary, surprisingly respectful. And, in a sense, it serves as the obituary for not just Jansen, but for a whole class of persons who dedicated themselves, albeit for frankly pecuniary reasons, to the thankless task of providing medical schools with much-needed teaching tools.
Another kind of final notice, however, had appeared the year before in the form of a tiny item in the Valentine’s Day, 1886, edition of the Post. It advertised a sale by the police of property accumulated at police headquarters, most of which had been taken from “the fighting portion of the population.” Among the items listed were “two spades and a hook used by Jansen, the body-snatcher.”
The three items went for 65 cents.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Greg Houston.