Grave Robbing

May 16, 2014

"Wow! There are a lot of people in this community who are interested in grave-robbing. And lots of them are sort of old. That's pretty creepy­" That's what I said to history-buff, Larry, as we stood at the South Bend City Cemetery one recent Saturday. We were waiting for a program presented by the Center for History to begin. The plan was that Travis Childs from the Center for History was going to trot us around the cemetery in conjunction with the Saint Joseph County Library's "One Book, One Michiana" selection for 2014, Frankenstein, talking to us about local grave-robbing lore. Turns out that there is only one recorded quasi-grave-robbing episode locally, but that didn't stop what looked to be about a hundred of us, (Not all of us old either, there were some young blue-hairs too.) from tromping through the cemetery's approximately 21 acres looking at headstones and hearing Travis' riveting tales of murder and mayhem regarding a few of the over 14,000 souls resting there.

Actually, the one, sort-of, grave-robbing episode, involved not someone collecting body parts to construct a monster, a la Dr. Frankenstein, but rather some guy who stole a skull and then ended up contracting what was probably an infection which caused him to die shortly afterward. Not creepy enough, his cadaver then became something of an incredible, exploding body. Great story if you're into the lurid, or even just desserts or divine retribution.

Although I've lived in Michiana for 1/2 my life, I had never been to the City Cemetery before that Saturday, so the morning proved to be a real treat. In addition to the subjects from the murder and mayhem examples, the grounds contain the remains of a failed entrepreneurial scheme of Alexis Coquillard, and the memorials of several prominent community members from the area's past.

Of particular fascination for me is a fairly imposing memorial to Schuyler Colfax. Having spent my formative years in another community, I dimly remember Schuyler being presented as a "baddie," the sort of person that you were discouraged from growing up to become. You too may recall his story. He was Vice-president during the reign of Ulysses S. Grant when the Credit Mobilier scandal came to light in those years. (If you don't remember this, even dimly, this was an 1860's transcontinental Union Pacific railroad scheme for bilking the government and enriching the shareholders. In order to grease the tracks, so to speak, several Congressmen--Colfax had been one, Speaker of the House, in fact, before getting promoted to Vice-President--magically became shareholders during the construction phase. V.P Colfax was one of those so fortunately gifted.) Anyway, the offshoot was that old Schuyler was thought to have blotted his copybook, was sent down in disgrace and was replaced on the ticket in the second Grant term. Frankly, being ousted under a cloud seems to me to be something of a feat in the wild and wooly Grant administration. Mostly though, he caught my attention because of his name: Schuyler. Back in the dark ages of plain Marys and Josephs, names like Schuyler Colfax and Button Gwinnett were standouts.  Name aside though, in Michiana I discovered that Schuyler was touted as something of a local-boy-makes-good hero. Not only are there a street and a school bearing his moniker, but the Daughter's of the American Revolution chapter is named in his honor. I guess that is because his grandfather, William Colfax, served in Washington's Life Guard during the American Revolution. Shady or not, he legitimately did have that direct descendant thing going.

The festivities surrounding "One Book, One Michiana" now have died down for the year, but lots of Saturday mornings remain and several cemeteries beckon. Maybe I'll begin by wandering over to Highland Cemetery to check out the site of the famous Council Oak and Knute Rockne's resting place: not, however, with any idea of grave-robbing. That would be creepy.