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Hoosier History Live

Nov 10, 2023

It's a creepy chapter of Indiana's history, but probably appropriate to explore during the season known for all things ghastly. Graverobbing in central Indiana had been an "open secret" for decades before several arrests in 1902 and subsequent trials drew national attention, according to Chris Flook, a public historian and senior lecturer at Ball State University's department of media.

Rings of graverobbers in Indianapolis and Hamilton County had been plundering small cemeteries in the Hoosier capital city and rural cemeteries. They sold corpses to various medical schools that were desperate for cadavers. (These medical schools predated the formation of – and were unaffiliated with – the I.U School of Medicine.) Chris Flook, who will be Nelson's studio guest, describes the grisly conspiracies in a new book, "Indianapolis Graverobbing: A Syndicate of Death".

Key figures in the graverobbing rings included Rufus Cantrell, an itinerant African American preacher known as the "King of the Ghouls", and his competitor, Hampton West, a white, former Confederate soldier who was based in Hamilton County. They were hired to ransack cemeteries by the medical schools, including the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons, that sought cadavers to use in training students. In his book, Chris Flook describes the impact of racism in the arrests and trials of the conspirators.

"Racism played a decisive role in how the participants were adjudicated", Chris notes. "The Black graverobbers received a disproportionate amount of blame and punishment for a criminal conspiracy created, managed and maintained by white doctors at some of the medical schools."