Hometown Tales Podcast

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Phrenologist Grave Robber

South Bend, Ind., 1879 or 1880

Fred Auer, a farmer, finds a human jaw bone, leading to an examination of the nearby cometary where a desecrated grave is discovered. The body remains, but the head is gone from the grave.

Suspicion falls on Gordon Truesdale. Truesdale is a "handsome, broad-shouldered fellow with a fair education, but lazy and shiftless", whose passion is phrenology, the now-discredited belief that a person's character is revealed by the shape and bumps of one's head. His desire to own his own skull collection is well known among his neighbors.

Truesdale has recently been to a doctor. He asked the doctor an odd question: can a man contract a disease from corpses. When the doctor answered in the affirmative, Truesdale was visibly shaken.

Shortly after his doctor visit, Truesdale complains to his wife that his nose is painful. Self-medication fails, and in a few days his face and head have swollen to twice their normal size and "lost all semblence of human shape." His lips draw away from his teeth and his eyes are "swollen almost to bursting from their sockets" and "turned in pain".

The doctor is called in and he makes several incisions in Truesdale's face. The result is horrible to contemplate: "there oozed a mass of loathsome, detestable putrescence, so terrible in its stench that the attendants, save one" run out of the house. When the facial incisions are washed, the water pours out of holes in the scalp.

The doctor tells Truesdale that he doesn't have long to live and Truesdale confesses to his wife that he is the grave robber. He says he dug to the head of the coffin, broke it open, and, taking a knife, cut around the corpse's neck. Putting his foot on the corpse's chest, he took the "head in his hands" and "pulled and jerked and twisted it until it came off by mere force." He says that the corpse's skull can be found under some straw in the barn, and it is soon returned to the family of the departed.

Truesdale's death three days later is hideous. During his final days the odor is tremendous and can't be washed from the attendents' hands. His breath is so horrible that when one of the attendants holds his hands near Truesdale's mouth it stings "like hundreds of nettles".

Truesdale's burial is as sickening as his death. Nobody will touch the body, so they lift him using the bedsheets, dump him into his coffin, and screw the lid tight. Before a wagon can be brought, Truesdale's corpse swells and bursts the coffin lid. The lid is strapped on, only to burst again at the graveyard, where the whole mess is dumped into a grave and hurriedly covered over.

The stench lingers in the house for days. One of the attendants is quoted as saying, "It still seems as if you could cut the air in that house with a knife."

Written by Bob Rogers