There’s a reason why the Twelve Mile Circle appears on the howderfamily.com domain. It began as a genealogy and family history site. 12MC started as a minor side project, an afterthought. I never abandoned the original purpose tough, even when my geo-oddities coverage grew exponentially more popular. A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a ghoulish story tied to an extended family I’ve been researching, the Whitneys. I figured it would be perfect for Halloween.
Nancy Whitney, a tangential cousin of mine several generations removed, married George Kinyon. They were both widowed at a young age and this was their second marriage. George became an abolitionist, they had a trio of children and he lived to a ripe old age in the vicinity of Sycamore, Illinois, passing away 1896. Kinyon, however was deeply and personally involved in a weird set of circumstances immediately following the death of his first wife, Marilla Churchill Kinyon, who was only about sixteen years old.
I found an unusual reference in the "Portrait & Biographical Album, DeKalb County, Illinois" published in 1885. The book was one of those fluff histories quite common during the latter part of the 19th Century when, undoubtedly, publishers solicited biographies from local residents hoping to increase sales. I’ve read hundreds of these titles over the years although Kinyon’s biography had a strangeness to it unlike anything I’d seen before. Of Marilla, it said,
She was not taken up and buried ‘under her mother’s window,’ as Boies’ history says, but was taken to St. Charles and brought back. There was a second funeral, when she was buried in the same coffin, with the exception of a new lid, in the same grave.
It seemed such an odd thing to say, and stated as if readers would already understand the reference, knowing exactly what it meant. And of course they would, because anyone living in DeKalb or Kane County, Illinois around that time would have heard about the Franklin Medical College and Roberts’ Riot and what happened to poor Marilla’s body. Some of them may have even witnessed or participated in events that were more reminiscent of something Edgar Allen Poe would have imagined. Those facts didn’t need to be repeated so Mr. Kinyon simply skipped the details and corrected the record.
However, modern readers can use the Internet and I was able to quickly locate "Boies’ history" which devoted an entire chapter to the macabre affair. More specifically: Boies, Henry L. “The Resurrectionists.” History of De Kalb County, Illinois. Chicago: O.P. Bassett, 1868. 95-105 (Google eBook).
Resurrectionists were graver robbers or body snatchers who specialized in procuring illicit specimens for medical schools and other scientific institutions for research and dissection. Feel free to read Boies’ version — which turned out to be quite a bit exaggerated — or the summary below that I’ve pulled from several sources.
It began with the founding of the Franklin Medical College, established by Dr. George W. Richards in St. Charles in 1842. This was the very first medical school in Illinois so it’s remarkable from an historical perspective even if it shut down a few years later in the wake of Richards’ Riot.
Franklin Medical College?
The original medical school building may still be standing although research is divided on that topic. It was either this structure at 102 E. Main Street, or it stood at what is now a vacant lot across the street.
People began to notice gravesites emptied of their contents near St. Charles by 1847-1848. Perhaps that accounted for a shift of illicit activities about twenty miles farther west in 1849, over to the town of Sycamore. That March, the daughter of a local tavern overheard three men talking as she served them a meal and she became suspicious. She notified her father who asked a boy to check the guests’ wagon as they dined. The wagon hid accoutrements necessary for body snatching.
The tavern keeper decided to catch the grave robbers in the act and he assembled a small team, moving quickly to get ahead of the thieves. Only two people had died recently, a "friendless German" and young Marilla Churchill Kinyon. The grieving George Kinyon and the Churchill family were alerted to guard Marilla’s grave and a group set-off for the German’s final resting spot at the South Burying Ground to spring a trap. The wagonload of resurrectionists arrived at the cemetery to disinter the German’s body soon thereafter. One of the hidden would-be captors coughed and that spooked the body snatchers, who returned quickly to their wagon before they’d started digging. They denied everything and a local constable let the resurrectionists depart, citing insufficient evidence to detain them.
Ohio Grove Cemetery, Cortland, IL
Meanwhile, back at the Ohio Grove Cemetery, members of the Churchill and Kinyon families feared the worst. They dug down to Marilla’s grave and discovered she’d been snatched already.
The resurrectionists weren’t arrested that night, however they’d been recognized as students of Franklin Medical College. One suspect, identified either as Mr. Rude or Rood, was believed to pay his tuition as well as provide his own dissection specimens by removing bodies from local cemeteries. Students think they have problems financing their education today? Imagine having to work one’s way through college digging up graveyards illegally in search of fresh corpses! A hefty student loan debt doesn’t sound so bad anymore.
The Richards House, 511 Illinois Ave, St. Charles, IL
David Churchill, Marilla’s father, and George Kinyon traveled to St. Charles with a group of men to confront Dr. Richards and collect her body. The doctor disavowed all knowledge. A searched turned up various random dissected body parts although nothing that could be traced to Marilla definitively. There were rumors that Dr. Richards had been tipped-off by a Sycamore doctor who graduated from the school; that the body had been removed hurriedly and hidden. The group left empty-handed although they’d found a suspicious lock of golden hair, and they returned home.
Overnight, Churchill, Kinyon and their sympathizers pondered the lock of hair that might have matched Marilla. They became increasingly agitated and disturbed, vowing to return to St. Charles the next day. Their group grew to perhaps a hundred angry men armed with guns and other weapons as they marched steadily towards St. Charles. A standoff ensued at Dr. Richards’ House; and both sides traded shots, one of which traveled through Dr. Richards’ front door and struck Rude. He would later die from his wounds. Gunfire also hit Dr. Richards although not fatally. Richards appealed for mercy, someone hit him in the head with a stone, and he retreated back into the house bloodied but alive. Likely, the mob would have stormed the home and extracted the information violently had they not learned of warrants posted for their immediate arrest. They retreated, once again without Marilla’s body. Thus ended what became known locally as "Richards’ Riot."
Where Marilla was dumped?
Cooler heads stepped in. A mediator known to both sides materialized, suggesting to Dr. Richards that he would certainly die the next day if a body didn’t materialize quickly. Nobody ever confessed, no arrests were made, people didn’t ask a lot of questions, anonymous notes may have been passed, certain students slipped out of town quickly, and let’s just say someone received directions to a specific spot along the Fox River. There, Marilla’s body had been stashed hastily in a shallow grave.
That marked the end of Illinois’ first medical college. Dr. Richards moved to Iowa and died a few years later.
Those events were already part of local folklore to readers of the "Portrait & Biographical Album" written more than three decades later, when George Kinyon’s biography nonchalantly noted what I mentioned previously, "There was a second funeral, when she was buried in the same coffin, with the exception of a new lid, in the same grave." And now you know the story too.
Here are some additional sources for those who may want to understand more:
Happy Halloween, everyone!
The signs claimed "On this site in 1897 nothing happened." It was mildly amusing, maybe even a tiny bit clever the first time — the first time! — I saw one of their ilk several years ago. They mimicked the look-and-feel of genuine historical markers with faux cast iron, bold font, adorned with a couple of official-looking stars, and appearing on random walls, rocks, pillars, and homes in places where, quite accurately, nothing much special ever happened. I’m sure many people in the 12MC audience have noticed these conversation pieces scattered around during their travels.
On This Site… by ilovememphis, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license
This one was spotted by the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. The tag geolocated to a parking lot near the intersection of S. Front Street and Beale Street. I poked around in Street View for awhile, noticed a promising brick wall, and couldn’t find the actual sign in the wild, though.
The trend had likely run its course already by the time "nothing happened" signs appeared on Amazon for $29.99. Other sources priced them even lower.
Imitators delivered additional evidence of oversaturation. Variations from my very unscientific survey of photo sites included September 5, 1782 (second most common), 1832 (third most common), April 17, 1897 (adding even greater precision to 1897), March 13, 1893, June 12, 1761, April 1, 1780, and on-and-on, including one specifying that George Washington never slept there. They all held one thing in common; that on that date and in that spot, nothing happened. There’s even an entire group on Flickr devoted to nothing happening.
1782 ON THIS SITE SEPT 5, 1782 NOTHING HAPPENED by Leo Reynolds, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
Interestingly, while 1897 seemed to be a preeminent date for historical non-occurrences in the United States, it was September 5, 1782 that dominated in the United Kingdom. I’m sure an enterprising scholar could frame an entire doctoral dissertation around the definition of historic age in the U.S. versus the U.K. It’s about a hundred years farther back in the Old Country, apparently.
The example, noted above, was discovered in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. One person commenting on its page, observed:
I think whoever made this sign made a typo and used an 8 instead of a 5. It would be factually correct and even more amusing if it read Sept 5, 1752 because absolutely nothing happened on that day due to the date changes of the British Calendar Act of 1751.
That was so cool I had to look it up. Sure enough, the Parliament of Great Britain passed the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 and amended it with the Calendar Act 1751. Thus, September 5, 1752 didn’t exist in Yarmouth because the calendar skipped from Wednesday September 2 straight over to Thursday September 14, 1752 during a transition from Julian dates to Gregorian.
Humorous signs like these have been around for at least a couple of decades. Multiple Internet sources said they’ve been around "since at least the 1980′s." The date seemed plausible. However, as is typical, they all quoted from each other in circular fashion and none of them reference a reliable primary source. The earliest definite reference I found traced to a November 1990 Chicago Tribune article, Unhistory – A suspiciously long prepositional phrase which highlighted a sign affixed to a rock at the Evanston, Illinois campus of Northwestern University. It’s still there, and it’s known colloquially as The Nothing Happened Rock. I can’t believe I found the actual rock on Street View (map). That’s nuts.
The Simpsons, Episode 347, "Goo Goo Gai Pan," March 13, 2005
Fair Use screen grab
Nothing Happened signs have become a part of the collective consciousness. A parody sign debuted on the Goo Goo Gai Pan episode of The Simpsons, first aired on March 13, 2005. "On this site, in 1989, nothing happened," appeared as the family walked through Tiananmen Square, an obvious reference to the momentous events of that year and subsequent efforts to wipe it from Chinese memory.
The joke has grown a little threadbare over the years although people are still discovering Nothing Happened for the very first time, and expressing their amusement. I suspect that they’ll be around for awhile.
I was thinking recently about a huge multi-vehicle accident that happened in Virginia a few months ago involving 77 vehicles in thick fog. It was a terrible tragedy that made me wonder whether it was the worst possible, or whether there were others even more extreme. I didn’t know that an even larger pileup had already happened in England only a few days ago. That’s the scary part. Accidents involving fifty, a hundred, even two hundred vehicles or more happen somewhere around the world with alarming regularity.
That prompted me to abandon my quest to find the most extreme accident caused by fog. At some point the distinction became meaningless. The overwhelming sample size and the resulting destruction was way too large. Instead, I highlighted a single example from several nations. They all followed similar patterns involving motorists driving too quickly in low visibility and often without lights, and then unable to stop when an accident appeared before them. What may have been fender-benders under ideal circumstances transformed into huge chain reactions in the fog.
Sheppey Crossing in Kent
The English incident happened on September 5, 2013, on the A249 at Sheppey Crossing, a bridge over the Swale from the Kent mainland to the Isle of Sheppey. Numerous news sources covered the event. The Independent noted that the accident involved 130 vehicles and caused a nine-hour delay. They described it as "the mother of all rush-hour pile-ups."
Visibility was very bad, down to 25 metres in thick fog… Drivers described being able to see no further than two or three car lengths ahead prior to the crashes, which left a trail of buckled vehicles stretching for several hundred metres, including cars thrown on top of each other and others flipped on to their roofs.
The Mirror more colorfully asserted, "Witnesses blamed ‘idiots’ for driving at speeds up to 70mph and failing to use their fog lights."
SOURCE: Screen grab from Google Street View image, I-96, Lansing, Michigan, July 2011
It was difficult to select only one example from the United States because of the frequency of large scale multiple-vehicle collisions. I went with the January 12, 2005 pile-up on Interstate 96 at mile marker 116 outside of Lansing, Michigan (map).
Typically Michigan in January should be extremely cold. Freak conditions caused the temperature to rise above 50° Fahrenheit (10+° c), rapidly melting snow and creating a thick fog by afternoon. The Lansing State Journal described "a sudden and blinding afternoon fog, resulted in Michigan’s worst roadway disaster in recent history, involving more than 200 vehicles, injuring 37, and killing two," in Hell on Earth.
The interstate highway was closed in both directions for twelve miles. Photos from the aftermath can be found on Michigan Fire Ground.
California also had more than its share of massive pile-ups caused by fog in the San Joaquin Valley and also closer to Los Angeles, for example a 200 vehicle smashup on I-710, the Long Beach Freeway, in 2002.
E17 Motorway at Nazareth, Belgium
The tiny Belgian nation experienced an oversized disaster on the E17 motorway near Nazareth (southwest of Ghent), on February 27, 1996. Fog, again, was the culprit. This one was particularly horrific with ten people killed from the collisions and ensuing fire. Over 200 vehicles crashed.
The tragedy is still remembered. Nieuwsblad.be published an article in late 2012, Monument commemorates pileup on E17 ("Monument herdenkt kettingbotsing op E17"). Please pardon the imprecise auto-translation into English:
At the entry and exit complex Deinze / Nazareth the E17 is a memorial placed on the night of Wednesday to Thursday. The artwork is in memory of the deadly pileup on February 27, 1996… At the entrances and exits complex on the E17 had that morning a treacherous fog formed. This exceptional whim of the weather caused an unprecedented pileup. Dozens of trucks and cars drove on each other.
Images of the memorial can be seen on the Nazareth, Belgium website.
Tranarpsbron, Klippan, Sweden
Sweden made the news earlier this year on January 15, 2013, for a hundred vehicle pile-up on the E4, atop the Tranarps Bridge (Tranarpsbron) in the southern part of the nation. As described at the time by The Local,
Photographs from the scene showed the dense fog that contributed to poor visibility, and lines of cars and trucks spilling haphazardly across the lanes of the low bridge near Helsingborg. The accident occurred just before midday on the Tranarp Bridge just northeast of Helsingborg, and the roads in both directions have been shut down since.
The Swedish press placed the blame on dense fog, slippery roads, and a recent change in the law that allowed trucks to forgo snow tires when conditions warranted. Apparently roads were in worse shape than some truck drivers anticipated. Fog compounded the issue and they couldn’t react in time to avoid collisions.
I know I’ll think twice now before venturing onto a freeway during foggy conditions. Failure to adjust driving patterns to weather conditions seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.