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The St. Louis Body-Snatchers

It reads like the beginning of a horror story.

“At 8 o’clock Monday evening three very rough-looking men entered a saloon known as the ‘Gravois Cave’ on a corner opposite of the cemetery. ... The men remained only a few minutes and when they went out they separated going in different directions and leaving a light spring-wagon, in which they had driven up, standing at a hitching post. They had been gone perhaps the greater part of an hour when they returned and again patronized the bar to the extent of several rounds of drinks. Their appearance had been rough enough before, but now, if possible, it was infinitely worse. Their bronzed hands and wrists were dirty, their boots covered with mud, their trousers rolled up or stuck in their boots bore unmistakable evidence of contact with fresh clay, while even their slouched hats were besprinkled with the same material. After a few minutes’ stay they went out, climbed up in the wagon and drove away into the darkness.”

And so begins the account of the case of Ernst Doepke, one of the few, if not one of the last, people in St. Louis to have been arrested for grave-robbing. He might have gotten away with it had it not been for the saloon-keeper, John Stromberg, who "had not lived in the world so long without learning a thing or two.” He had recognized Doepke "known to be a vault cleaner" and had set out to warn the cemetery's guard. The rest of the newspaper article, which appeared in the December 15th, 1875 issue of the local daily The St. Louis Republican, tells how Stromberg and his fellow citizens confronted Doepke and his conspirators at the gates of the cemetery and held them for the police, and how it was found in their wagon picks and spades, a coffin, and a corpse wrapped in a blanket  – "the incontrovertible proofs of their work."

The sensationalism of the article is only partially the result of 19th century journalistic license but it also reflected the moral outrage and fear felt by many at the time toward the resurrectionists, those men who seemingly had no concern for disturbing the peace of the dead. Personal sentiment and religious beliefs helped reinforce a natural revulsion toward the desecration of the dead, but these feelings were to be challenged by the growing needs of medical training.

In 1840 with the founding of the Missouri Medical College there was suddenly a demand in St. Louis for human remains for anatomical instruction. In the coming years the St. Louis Medical College, as well as several other medical schools, would open. For the most part, cadavers for medical study were provided from among the relatively large number of unclaimed bodies in the city's hospitals and mortuaries.


Several students dissecting one cadaver at the MO Medical College, 1889.

Several students dissecting one cadaver at the MO Medical College, 1889.


But emotions often ran high over the fears. In 1844 a riot broke out when some children allegedly discovered human bones in the yard of the St. Louis Medical College. Another time a young girl went missing from her home. Her family, part of the the German immigrant community, feared that she had been taken to the Missouri Medical College for dissection and a large party of German St. Louisians rushed into the school. The founder and anatomy instructor of the College, Joseph Nash McDowell, later told how he hid from the mob among the cadavers in the autopsy room by lying on one of the dissection tables covered in a sheet.


Joseph Nash McDowell, founder of the Missouri Medical College.

Joseph Nash McDowell, founder of the Missouri Medical College.


Around the time of Doepke's arrest, the Missouri legislature had created the State Anatomical Board which would oversee the distribution of human remains to medical schools. The bodies of the recently deceased who were unclaimed within 48 hours were able to be used for dissection. However, there were whispers that sometimes the supply never quite met the demand. Where then did the needed bodies come from?

When the barkeeper John Stromberg had recognized Doepke as a "vault cleaner" it was no secret. In the city's census and directories, Doepke listed his occupation as a driver and vault cleaner. It was in this capacity that he was known to the medical schools of St. Louis. It is not a job title used today, but it describes what he did which was to remove the human remains left after the dissection classes.

This was a somewhat regulated position. In 1865, Doepke had won the contract from the City of St. Louis to haul away the city’s slop and “night-soil” - the euphemism used for the organic waste from kitchen and homes, like animal parts and human feces. Doepke also reportedly had a contract to bury the bodies of the indigent who died in the city's hospitals. He made his living transporting the dead and other unpleasant matter, which would otherwise be a serious danger to public health without adequate removal and controls.


 Chouteau's Pond near 14th Street looking east, circa 1860.

The western end of Chouteau's Pond near 14th Street looking east, circa 1860. The rapidly growing city of St. Louis created dangerous sanitation issues. Mill Creek, which had been dammed to form Chouteau's Pond, was also used as an open sewer. The filthy conditions of the pond would lead the city to drain it and divert the flow of the creek into buried sewers which would flow into the Mississippi.


Having the duty to transport and bury the city's indigent in the municipal cemetery, or "potter's field," Doepke would also likely have been involved in the legitimate distribution of cadavers to medical schools.

At the time of his arraignment, some in the city were concerned Doepke would be supported in his defense by the faculty of the medical schools. But the newpapers reported that this was not likely to be the case. "It was understood that up to a year [prior to his arrest] Doepke was supplying some of the colleges with subjects for dissection, but that he had a crooked ways of dealing, shipped the choicest stiffs away to Ann Arbor and other places, and played his employers here some bad tricks. He thus lost their patronage."

But this may not have been entirely true. Not much remains of the records of the early medical colleges in St. Louis, but the cash book for the Missouri Medical College for the years 1877 to 1900 survives. On May 24th, 1877, while his case was still yet to be decided on appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, Doepke was paid $40 by the College for cleaning the vault.  Obviously his conviction and ongoing appeals did not dissuade the MO Medical College from hiring him.


Doepke paid $40 in 1877 by the MO Medical College.

Cash book from the MO Medical College 1877 showing payment of $40 to Ernst Doepke for "cleaning vault."


Born in Prussia, Doepke lived for most of his life in St. Louis at 1613 Carr Street. He and his wife Anna had a son George, who was born in 1867.

On May 8, 1861 he joined the 4th regiment of the US Reserve Corps, part of the pro-Union forces gathered in eastern Missouri to counter the troops Missouri Governor Jackson had stationed at the so-called Camp Jackson. But Doepke was mustered out in August 1861. On September 15, 1862 he again enlisted, this time in the 11th regiment of the Enrolled Missouri Militia, a part-time pro-Union military force in St. Louis used mainly to guard garrisons.

He rose from the rank of Private to 1st Corporal, but his time on active duty might have been short. Although he enlisted in 1862 he wasn’t called to active service until April 24th, 1863. 22 days later, on May 15th, he was relieved from duty. Whether his short service is a reflection on the need for troops in St. Louis or on his character is not known.

But if he had the reputation of a hard man, it was probably well deserved.

Only three months after becoming a US citizen in 1868, Doepke was involved in a disturbing street-brawl. For some unreported reason Doepke got into an argument with a street warden near his home on Carr Street. They scuffled, rolling in the filth along the street's gutter. In the fight, Doepke bit the lip off the other man.

After his arrest at the cemetery charges were brought up against Doepke. His fellow grave-robbers, G.W. James and Anselm Boswell, were not charged as Doepke was seen as the ringleader.

Under Missouri law at the time, it was only a misdemeanor for anyone to remove a body from its place of internment. However, in the process of removing the body from his grave, the coffin was also stolen. Doepke was convicted of stealing a rosewood coffin with the purchase price of $35 – and sentenced to two years in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

He appealed that the coffin was in fact made from imitation rosewood with little resale value. His conviction was upheld by the St. Louis Court of Appeals. He continued the appeals process until the case was heard by the Missouri Supreme Court in October of 1878. The court decided that the value of the coffin should not be based on its original cost, but on its resale value. Doepke’s lawyers had demonstrated that there was little resale value for used coffins. On that basis the MO Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

With only a misdemeanor applicable to his crime, his case was dropped.

After the dismissal of his case, Doepke continued to be employed by the Missouri Medical College. He is again mentioned in the MO Medical College cash book. On August 24th, 1885 he was paid $25 for removing ashes.

He died on May 13th, 1910. Presumedly he rests in peace.

Ernst Doepke's headstone.

Ernst Doepke's headstone.

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