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October 27, 2015

Grave Robbing in Fishers- Part 3

Grave Robbing in Fishers- Part 3

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Torpedo 2Grave Torpedoes

The story of the Hamilton County grave robbers does not end with their arrests and convictions.  There is an aspect of their crimes that possibly affects us today.  During the years that body snatching was practiced, various deterrents were employed.   Watchmen, stone slabs, iron cages and other techniques were tried, usually without success.  However, after the Civil War, new technologies became available.  Funeral parlors began selling something called a “Grave Torpedo”.

The word “torpedo” is a generic term for many different types of explosive devices.  A grave torpedo, though, was a very specific object.  It was placed in the grave and attached to the coffin for the sole purpose of exploding to kill or injure a grave robber.  Although there seems to be many different designs, grave torpedoes were generally iron or steel, charged with three-quarters to a pound of black powder, triggered by wires, and cup-shaped to deflect the blast upwards.  A design found in Ohio was a small cannon.  They had brand names and were professionally manufactured.

Grave torpedoes were not the safest things to handle.  Reynolds & Son, a funeral parlor in Noblesville, Indiana, offered a “Howell” brand torpedo free with every burial.[i]  However, after two premature explosions, one a day after the burial and the other during the service, the funeral home soon went out of business.[ii]  The explosive power of a torpedo is shown by the fact that in these cases, while the coffins were undamaged, all of the dirt was thrown from the top of the grave.

These devices have mostly disappeared from the historic record and have been assumed by many people to be a sort of an urban legend.  One of the main questions asked about their existence is why many cemeteries have been moved or built over without explosions.  One possible answer is that there seems to be a roughly 25-year time frame in Indiana when torpedoes appear – from the theft of Benjamin Harrison’s father’s body (the “Harrison Horror”) in 1878 to the creation of the State Anatomical Board in 1903 when grave robbing became unnecessary.  There were some devices tried in the eighteenth century and stories of funeral directors using them until the 1910’s and 1920’s[iii], but there is little evidence otherwise.  So pioneer cemeteries and recent cemeteries probably wouldn’t have torpedoes.  Another possible answer is that black powder degrades and loses power over a long period.  The devices would have been harmlessly discarded during an excavation.  One last possibility as to why there have been no explosions when moving cemeteries is that while some places were destroyed by removing the gravestones, the actual coffins were not moved.  Anything that was buried is still there.

Torpedo 3An example of an actual torpedo is on display at the Cass County Historical Society.  It was found in a cemetery in 1940 when a grave from 1885 was uncovered by accident.  The state policeman who disarmed it said that the powder was weak but still slightly able to burn.  This discovery is important because it reminds us that the torpedoes are still around.  In many larger cemeteries, they are marked in the sexton’s records.  Otherwise, their location is completely unknown

This may be of concern today.  By the time of the grave robbing trials in 1903, a new form of explosive was available – nitroglycerine.  It was readily available because of its use in natural gas well drilling.  While there is no written evidence that it was used, there are stories.[iv]  This history should be considered when cemetery preservation is discussed.  The cemetery database being put together at the Department of Historic Preservation and Archeology at the DNR may eventually be a resource in tracking torpedo sites.  Although the probability of an explosion is now unlikely, there would be a gruesome irony in someone being injured by one of these devices a century after it had been set.

[i] Noblesville Ledger, May 7, 1880, p. 4; Noblesville Republican, April 14, 1880, p. 8, September 1, 1880, p. 1.
[ii] Noblesville Ledger, April 30, 1880, p.1; Noblesville Independent, May 1, 1880, p. 5;  Noblesville Republican, December 29, 1880, p. 5.
[iii] Interview with funeral director Joe Roberts, May 7, 2001.
[iv] The Mudsock Scrapbook: a pictorial perspective of Fishers, Indiana, compiled by Larry A. Reynolds; Fishers, Ind.: Hoosier Cider Press, 1993, p. 158.