Busted, Dr. Sewall, Grave Robber of Chebacco Parish Receives … Justice?


A quick investigation into the disappearance of eight more bodies buried in the Old Burial Ground in 1818 led to the arrest of Thomas Sewall, the Harvard-educated physician who’d married into one of the first families of Chebacco Parish (as Essex was then known).  It was estimated the bodies had been illegally exhumed over just six months and stolen for medical experimentation.

Suffice it to say:  this was a local scandal and a personal injury to the 1,200 residents in Chebacco.  Locally, Reverend Crowell of Chebacco and Reverend Thurston of Manchester were livid and eager to see the doctor punished to the fullest extent of the law.  One can only imagine the awkward conversations Dr. Sewall had with former friends and no doubt with family members as well.  But one man, Dr. Reuben D. Mussey of Hannover, NH, wrote to Sewall’s mother-in-law to assure her that the Choate family still had friends.

Maybe elsewhere, just not in Chebacco.

Friends in High Places

In desperate need of a competent attorney, Dr. Sewall hired one of the best American legal minds of his—or frankly any—era.  Daniel Webster, New Hampshire’s former representative in the U.S. Congress and future three-time US Secretary of State, became Sewall’s counsel with a pricy $20 retainer payment.  

A grand jury produced an indictment against the doctor for “receiving a human body.”  The next day, Sewall’s mother-in-law Miriam and brothers-in-law David and Washington Choate were called upon to give statements, followed by ten other Chebacco residents who testified.  On May 2, Sherriff Michael Brown notified Dr. Sewall to appear before the Supreme Court in November to stand trial.

Meanwhile, on June 23, Second Parish Reverend Robert Crowell led a solemn reinternment ceremony for the victims and delivered a lengthy sermon.  The parish sexton and assistants reburied eight empty coffins, a sign of respect in a common grave at the front of the burial yard.

The sermon itself was a verbose jeremiad outlining all the Biblical and theological arguments against body snatching, which could be accurately summed up as “an indignity towards the dead and a terror to and punishment of the living”
especially body snatching for money, which was “an outrage upon decency and humanity.”

In November, Dr. Sewall and Daniel Webster arrived at the Supreme Judicial Court in Salem for the trial of Massachusetts vs. Sewall.  Solicitor-General Daniel Davis brought multiple counts against the doctor.  The specifics are unclear—Defense Attorney Webster was able to get the original April indictment dropped, either because the charge itself didn’t mention a specific decedent or was otherwise “inaccurately drawn.”  However, it’s unclear if that phrase refers to the prose format or the impreciseness of a sketch of a lump of flesh.

Solicitor Davis produced two additional accounts, one for Sally Andrews and the other for William Burnham—both basically identically worded that Sewall did “receive, conceal and dispose” the remains of a corpse.  Webster charged Sewall another $100 for his services (about $1,683.59 today).  It was a pricey sum.

Then the legal proceedings soon slowed, no doubt resulting in more pain and expense for Dr. Sewall.  The justices decided to postpone the trial until the following April and then postponed it again until November 1819.  Despite Webster’s pleas for leniency on behalf of his client, a jury of his peers found Sewall guilty of two counts of knowingly and willfully receiving, concealing, and disposing of the bodies of Sally Andrews and William Burnham.  He was fined $800-$400 for each corpse—and ordered to leave the Commonwealth.  

The most famous Massachusetts body-snatching trial was finally over.

Proof of Second Acts in American Life

For Dr. Sewall, there were a few bright spots in the otherwise sordid, expensive, and frankly catastrophic events between 1818 and 1820.  

First was the birth of his son Thomas, born the same day as his first criminal complaint hearing.  Then, despite the scandal and moral censure, his wife, Mary Choate Sewall, and some members of his family actually stuck by him.  Finally, there was Daniel Webster, with whom Sewall had developed a deepening friendship.

Webster apparently suggested that Sewall relocate his family to Washington, D.C., for a fresh start.  Sewall agreed, while also spending the years of 1820–22 settling old scores, bringing lawsuits against no less than nine of his former Chebacco patients, including Sally Andrew’s older brother Ebenezer, for unpaid bills.  (Amazingly enough, the court awarded Dr. Sewall over $200 in damages, although it is not certain if any of his former clients ever paid up.)

Webster introduced the doctor to Washington society, and in 1821 or 1825 (sources vary), Dr. Sewall became one of the founders of the medical school at Columbian College, now a part of George Washington University.  He became a professor of—what else? —anatomy, eventually becoming the chair of the department.  He maintained a close relationship with Daniel Webster, whose son Fletcher even stayed with the Sewalls in 1826.

Over time, Sewall became a prominent local physician and temperance activist, producing a series of eight anatomical lithographs of “alcohol-diseased stomachs.”  Hundreds of thousands of copies of the set were printed and distributed to prisons, hospitals, schools, and poorhouses across the United States.  New York even sent the folio to each household in the state!

Sewall gave the commencement speech to the Columbian College Medical School’s Class of 1827 on the importance of good moral conduct.  In 1828, he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church and became a professor of religion.  He actively promoted the political career of his brother-in-law, Rufus Choate, and became a personal physician to three—yes, three! —U.S. Presidents.  

He died in 1845 of tuberculosis at age 59.

Robert “Rob” Fitzgibbon is an Essex resident, a Library Trustee, and a former member of the Essex Finance Committee.  He writes about colorful local history on his Substack Block, “Chebacco Parish.”  Special thanks and kudos for this three-part series on Dr. Sewall goes to the Essex Town Clerk’s office for its research assistance on the body-snatched victims.  Also, to historian Christopher Benedetto and James Witham of the Essex Historical Society for their support.