Missing Bodies in 1818 Essex Prompts Investigation


The death of “fair and promising” Sally Andrews on Christmas Day 1817 hit her mother, Sarah Tyler Andrews, particularly hard.  

It wasn’t just the exhaustion from tending to a sick adult child around the clock as she agonizingly and painfully faded away.  It wasn’t just the grief over the loss.  It was repeated nightmares in the opening months of 1818, nightmares in which she stood by her daughter’s grave and knew—just knew—that the coffin was empty.  

She visited the graveyard, now snow-blanketed, the slate headstones with their winged skulls, or urns and willows poking upward askew out of the frozen precipitation, but saw nothing other than stones, snow, and bare trees.  She told her husband about her nightmares and dread.  She told her friends.  She told her neighbors.

One day, one of those neighbors told her something back.

Wait!  First, Religion, Supply & Demand, and the “Spunkers Club”

Now, before we get to the neighbors, some context.  The good Dr. Thomas Sewall had recently arrived in Essex as a young, Harvard-educated physician and married into one of Chebacco's “first families” (as Essex was then known) when he married Mary Choate.  The couple settled into domestic bliss, community engagement, and professional success.  

Dr. Sewall was part of a boom in the medical profession that awkwardly coexisted with common tenets of Christian theology dictating that proper resurrection to Heaven required that mortal remains were complete and in their proper place—the grave.  Many Christians even considered cremation sinful because it destroyed the body.  The same was held for anatomical dissection—if your dead body got sliced up by doctors or students and the bits scattered here and there and eventually burned, buried, put in a pickle jar, or otherwise thrown into a dumpster, there’s nothing whole to resurrect.  If you’re dissected, you can’t get into Heaven!

Long before Dr. Sewall, American patriot and Revolutionary War hero Dr. Joseph Warren, who perished at the Battle of Bunker Hill, founded the “Spunkers Club” at Harvard Medical School in 1770 with the specific purpose of “snatching” dead bodies for anatomy classes.  

And this isn’t some frat-boys-gone-bad organization; it included the founder of the medical school, Joseph’s brother John among its members.  It included Patriot Sam Adam’s son and William Eustis, future Governor of Massachusetts.  All the Bright Young Things at Harvard are in the resurrection business, either hiring subcontractors or doing a little digging themselves.

Clearly, this became a problem, for in 1815, the Mass Legislature passed “The Act to Protect The Sepulchers of the Dead,” its first law against body snatching.  It was a felony offense, with penalties of fines up to $1,000, imprisonment for up to a year and even the possibility of a public whipping.  

However, an estimated 15,000 New England men and women became doctors in the 19th century.  That’s a lot of doctors.

They need a lot of bodies.

Back to Sally Andrews And Her Neighbor “Mrs. B”

A “Mrs B.” lived adjacent to the graveyard, and one night in early January 1818, she was up late tending to a sick child.  Looking out the window—what is that light among the headstones?  Maybe her eyes were playing tricks on her.  But what about that muffled sound of a “heavy team” — perhaps a horse and wagon?  Surely, her ears can’t be playing tricks on her simultaneously.  Then, a snowfall came, and the burial yard was silent and seemingly unmolested.

Of course, it was already “town talk” that “… the Colleges took bodies and dissected them to learn about diseases, and some doctors got good prices for furnishing material for those dissecting rooms.”  

More and more villagers became concerned.  But the air was cold, the snow deep, and the ground frozen, so no investigation could be done until the spring when the snow melted.

The snow melted.  An alert villager looked in the yard.  There on the ground between the graves was something that has never been exactly defined but has been described as either a length of ribbon, a comb or a hair ornament of peculiar design.  Whatever it was, it was beautiful and memorable.

People remembered that the last time they saw the ornament, it was nestled in Sally Andrew’s hair as she lay cold in her coffin, just before the lid was closed and the dirt was thrown into the grave.

The Investigation

On the morning of Friday, April 17, 1818, a group of villagers, including the pastor Reverend Crowell, the sexton, the grave digger, and Sally Andrew’s parents Jacob and Sarah, arrived at the graveyard with shovels and picks, and their suspicions to get to the proverbial bottom of the matter.  They exhumed Sally Andrew’s coffin.  

The coffin was empty.

Horrified, the assembled begin digging at the gravesite of the next most recent deceased.  They, too, find that coffin empty.  The grim labor must have gone on for some time, for grave after grave was exhumed and the contents checked.  Eight graves were without their occupants.

That night, the outraged citizens gathered in an impromptu town meeting to discuss the heresy.  The villagers appoint William Andrews, Thomas Choate, and Nathan Burnham to head a committee to investigate the matter and pledge a $500 reward (about $10,000 in today’s money) to “whoever will give any information of the atrocious villainy, to detect and to bring to justice, either the traders of the abominable traffic or their inhumane employers.”  On April 25th, the local broadsheets ran advertisements of the reward.

As a protest and a reminder of this terrible crime, eight empty coffins were left standing open and empty by the burial yard for passersby to view.

The Missing

Who were the unfortunate deceased whose bodies were snatched?  The list included Samuel Burnham, died March 5th, 1818, age 26; Mary Millet, died March 4, 1818, age 35; Sally Andrews, died of consumption on December 25, 1817, age 26 (Sally was one of Dr. Sewall’s patients); William Burnham, died of consumption and old age on December 23, 1817, age 79; Elisha Story, died October 21, 1817, age 65 of lethargy (Mr. Story has also been under Dr. Sewall’s care and his estate had recently settled the doctor’s bill of $11.62); Isaac Allen

Son of Joseph Allen, died Oct 16, 1817, of an abscess at age ten; Phillip Harlow, 

Son of John Harlow; died Oct 11, 1817, of a nervous fever at age ten.

Also among this list was Caesar (aka Cesar) Conway, an enslaved Black man owned by Francis Choate, Esquire, in 1765, who died in July 1811 of consumption, age 70.  Caesar was emancipated upon the death of his owner in 1775, with the stipulation that he would not become a financial burden to the Choate family.  It is unknown what he did for an occupation or exactly when his body was “resurrected.”

What is interesting about this list is that seven out of the eight were interred—and exhumed—within the most recent six-month span.

Busted!  Awkward run-ins at the Dump

It didn’t exactly take the dexterous mental exertions of a Sherlock Homes to cast suspicion on Dr. Sewall.  The good doctor was THE doctor in town and had ministered to several of the deceased.  He taught anatomy to medical students as a sideline.  The Choate House where he and his wife lived was roughly less than 500 feet northeast of the burial ground, with nothing but a shallow creek and a grove of willow trees in between.  And why did the good Doctor build that shack in the grove of willow trees anyway?

The morbid details have been lost to history, but suffice it to say that the committee made the search of the premises, and “identifiable parts” of three corpses, including Sally Andrews and William Burnham, were found.  According to New England grave-robing historian Dr. Frederick Waite, Dr. Sewall was literally “caught red-handed” with the parts while lecturing anatomy students.

Dr. Sewall was arrested.  Dr. Waite dryly noted that “two steps of faulty technique”—the unshielded lamp in January 1818 and the dropping of the hair ornament—led to his discovery and arrest.

It was a professional and personal disaster, not just for him but for the entire Choate family.  In particular, the Reverend Crowell of Chebacco and Reverend Thurston of Manchester were, in a word, livid and eager to see the Doctor punished to the fullest extent of the law. 

Next up, Dr. Sewall is tried and held to account for grave robbing.  Or was he?  Thanks and kudos to the Town Clerk’s office of Essex for their research assistance on the body-snatched victims.  To historian Christopher Benedetto for his correspondence and support.  To James Witham of the Essex Historical Society for his correspondence and support.

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.”  On October 28, Fitzgibbon will speak at the Essex TOHP Burnham Library about a 1930s-era double murder in Rockport (then called “Sandy Bay”) that remains unsolved.  Hear him, 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28, at the 3rd-floor auditorium of the Essex Town Hall.