Friday, October 16, 2009

The unquiet grave of Maggie Corbett

October settles in, moving toward Halloween; time to gather around an open fire and tell stories of odd occurrences, frightful happenings and downright horror. In Lucas County, these tales rarely involve the supernatural --- ghosts and goblins and things that otherwise go bump in the night --- because we are not a superstitious people. Superstition is not necessary. Here, truth at times has been so hideous that embroidery is not required.

This is one of those stories, so be warned --- if you have a weak stomach or a sensitive disposition, do not read it.


The old road south from Chariton 122 years ago, on that late October night in 1887, passed alongside the cemetery, following the route of today’s State Highway 14. But then it was narrow and dirt, cut deeply into a draw leading down into the river valley. The cemetery itself was surrounded by a thick hedge of osage orange, grown large and unkempt in the years after its planting in the 1860s, blocking any view from the road.

Behind the hedge that night, not far from the road, the fresh grave of a 37-year-old woman was disturbed and the body it contained removed, dragged across the grass, pulled through the hedge where hair caught and was pulled from the scalp, then thrown into a horse-drawn wagon and driven hurriedly away.

At the foot of cemetery hill, the old road turned sharply west, then angled southwest across the wooded bottom to a narrow bridge. Here the body was broken, trussed and jammed into a small wooden crate.

Soon, a buggy approached, the driver jumped down, tethered the nervous horse, placed an envelope containing cash at a predesignated spot, loaded the crate into the buggy and then drove away --- or so the driver would later claim.

You can still follow that buggy’s route and there’s still a bridge there, although now approachable on foot only.

It was now late Sunday night, October 30th. At that time, it was possible to board a train at the depot in Chariton with baggage or freight and travel on a C.B.&Q. spur line long vanished through Oakley and Lacona, Milo and Indianola, to Des Moines. The purchaser of that mutilated body paid the freight fee and saw it loaded into a baggage car, then boarded a passenger car himself for the trip from his hometown to the city where he was studying medicine.

Two days later, on Tuesday, Nov. 1, The Des Moines Leader reported what happened next:

In coming up on his train yesterday morning, Baggateman McBeth, running between Chariton and Des Moines, noticed a peculiar and very offensive odor in and about his car, after leaving Chariton. The tenacity with which this nameless smell clung to the car finally awakened his suspicion that some decaying animal matter must have been placed among the baggage, and at once went on a tour of investigation among the sundry trunks and boxes piled around the car. His attention was finally diverted to a box occupying one end of the car, and placing his nose close to the lid he located at once the source of the disagreeable odor. Calling the conductor and brakeman to his assistance, McBeth knocked off a portion of the lid, and in an instant his eyes were greeted by a sight the most revolting to be imagined. Resting against the inside corner was the head of a woman, her half opened eyes staring at him in all the ghastliness of death. As the awful vision dawned upon their sight each of the spectators involuntarily uttered a cry of horror and shrank back startled and dismayed.

The lid was nailed down and an investigation inaugurated to discover the owner of this revolting baggage for it had been shipped as such as was shown by the check attached. The conductor took the check and passed through the entire train asking the passengers individually if any of them held the duplicate check. No one responded and the train came on to Des Moines, where it arrived at 4:45 yesterday morning.

Freight Agent Duchar was called up and the matter laid before him. He in turn notified the officers, and two policemen were detailed to wait around the depot and arrest any person who might call for the box. No one claimed this singular baggage, and at 3 o’clock p.m. Coroner Griffith was summoned to take charge of it. The box was then opened. It was 22 inches in length, 16 inches deep, and 16 inches wide. Crowded into this narrow space, and lying diagonally across its greatest length was the body of a woman, evidently well advanced in years. Her lower limbs were broken and the lower halves forced upward until the feet laid almost upon the breast. The hair, a mixture of black and gray, had been shorn from the head, while the hands were crossed over the abdomen.

McBeath knew he had received the box at Chariton, but, of course, could form no idea as to the identify of the owner. It was at first supposed to be the body of a girl named Katie Dunn, a waiter-girl who had been buried there Sunday, but the evident age of the corpse negatived this supposition. At the conclusion of the investigation Coroner Griffith ordered the remains sent to Shack Bros.understaking establishment for proper care and burial in the event of its identify remaining undiscovered, and it was removed to the rooms, corner Mulberry and Sixth.

In the meantime telegrams had been sent to Chariton asking for information. Marshal Cole, of that city upon receipt of those telegrams, repaired to the cemetery, and discovered that the grave of Mrs. Jesse Corbett, recently deceased, had been robbed and the body removed. He at once instituted active measures to ferret out the criminal, and soon obtained a clue. He discovered that a young medical student named Dr. John A. Gillespie, a resident of Chariton, but attending a Des Moines medical college, had been home on a visit Sunday. He further learned that Gillespie had hired a carriage of a Chariton liveryman on the same day, and finally traced Gillespie to the baggage room, where he had checked a box to Des Moines on Sunday night. He followed the numerous threads of evidence continually accumulating, and located Gillespie as a passenter on the train, where he was recognized by McBeth, who is well acquainted with him as is also the conductor.

Marshal Cole boarded the first train for Des Moines, and arrived at eight o’clock last evening, with a warrant for the arrest of Gillespie. Cole was taken to the undertaker’s where he immediately recognized the body as that of Mrs. Jess Corbett, who had died of typhoid fever about one week ago. Accompanied by Sheriff Palmer, the marshal went to the East Side where he found Gillespie in the offices of Dr. Lease. He was taken into custody, and being unable to give bonds owing to no justice of the peace being accessible, he was confined in jail. When seen by a reporter at the undertaking rooms of Shack Bros. last night, Gillespie was very much cast down and the picture of despair. He claims to have had nothing whatever to do with the affair. His presence at Chariton Sunday, he says, was occasioned by the illness of his mother, whom he went to see that day. The circumstantial evidence against him is very strong, but it is possible he can prove his innocence. Marshal Cole will take Gillespie and the remains back to Chariton this morning at 9 o’clock, the former for trial and the latter for interment.


Back in Chariton, as the story of what had happened spread rapidly, outrage erupted and fears for the safety of Gillespie grew among authorities and the class of people to which Gillespie belonged --- merchants and lawyers, county and city officials and physicians.

Several remembered and some had participated 17 years before in the lynching of the man who killed Sheriff Gaylord Lyman, Hiram Wilson, tossed from a courthouse window with a rope around his neck.

Gillespie's parents, James and Clarissa (Anderson) Gillespie, operated a general merchandise store on the square and moved in those circles; and John himself, among young men of the town who considered themselves to be its elite.

Maggie Corbett, on the other hand, was poor and Irish. Her family had arrived in Lucas County before 1870 as day laborers to build railroads and mine infrastructure and when she died, only Chariton’s black population ranked lower in the pecking order than the class of people, now rising in anger, to which she belonged. In 1880, her husband, Jesse, and been enumerated as a peddler of pumps. She left young children, now motherless.

So as a precaution, the noon train returning Gillespie to Chariton on Tuesday was stopped at Indianola Junction, about three miles west, and he was taken to the county jail from there by carriage.

Maggie’s body arrived at the depot by train, was removed to the undertaking establishment of Bradrick & Son, identified by her family and then reinterred.

The county grand jury happened to be in session when Gillespie was returned to Chariton and so it began to consider his case immediately and continued its investigation into Thursday when he was indicted on a charge of grave robbing and bond was set at $2,000, then a considerable amount.

His bond, according to The Chariton Democrat of Nov. 3, “was promptly furnished by men good for twenty times the amount. And had his bond been fixed at twenty times $2,000 it would have been just as promptly furnished.”

Gillespie, for his part, maintained silence. His family and friends, however, retained Chariton’s leading lawyers, Theodore M. Stuart and the firm of Mitchell and Penick, to represent him. The county attorney, Col. O.A. Bartholomew, would prosecute.

The Democrat, in concluding its Nov. 3 report, opined that when all was said and done “it will appear that Dr. Gillespie wanted a corpse and was willing to pay for it; other parties wanted a little money and were willing to furnish the corpse.”

The Chariton Herald, in its Nov. 3 report, noted that “all kinds of rumors, some that seem almost unnatural, are afloat concerning this crime, a crime that most people shudder to think of, and are loath to excuse in others even in the interests of science.”

The case against Gillespie came to trial before a jury in the old brick courthouse during early January of 1888.

During it, according to a Democrat report of Jan. 12, Gillespie --- who had at first denied any involvement --- changed his tune. He testified that he had “received an anonymous letter proposing, for a certain consideration, to furnish him a corpse, on Sunday night, at the bridge south of the city. He took a team, went there, desposited his money in a designated place, took the box, and returned to Des Moines.”

“The evidence,” according to the Democrat, “failed to show any guilty participation of the doctor in the actual fact of the grave robbery. Under the law he was perhaps guilty of an offense for purchasing the body. But that was not the crime for which he was indicted and under the instruction of the court he was very properly acquitted.”

Ah, those technicalities.

The grave robbers were never identified, and while Gillespie may have been telling the truth, it also is quite possible he was a liar, that at most he participated in the desecration of Maggie Corbett himself or, at the least, commissioned men whose names he knew full well to do it for him.

He completed his medical education, practiced for five years at Coin, Iowa, then moved west to Fresno, California, where he established another practice before his trail faded into obscurity.

Maggie’s grave, just inside the main cemetery gate and south, is peaceful now, overlooking passing traffic on Highway 14 and the wooded hills beyond.

At the base of the hill, just beyond the entrance to the south cemetery drive, a lane turns right along the road’s old route into a small parking area. Here not that many years ago a desperate man hanged himself from a massive oak, since taken down.

Beyond, the grass-covered trail follows the route of the old road west, then southwest to the bridge. It’s a lovely walk on a sunny day, but not I think on a dark night in late October.


This account is based primarily upon reports found in The Chariton Democrat of Nov. 3, 1887, and Jan. 12, 1888, and The Chariton Herald, also of Nov. 3, 1887.


Anonymous said...

Frank, remind me not to read your blogs past midnight -- ! Deb

Wanda Horn said...

I can't believe that I grew up in Lucas County and have never heard this story! And people think nothing ever happens in Iowa!

Ed said...

You should have saved that for a campfire on a night with no moon!

Virginia Cox said...

I had never heard this story either and I'm not sure it's such a good one to read at night with the rain pounding down and the wind howling.