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:
- Grave Robbers’ Cache includes lat/long coordinates for other sites in the story
- Body Snatchers, Gunfights and murder — the Tale of Richards’ Riot from Neighbors of St. Charles Magazine
- The Legend of the Franklin Medical School from the St. Charles Heritage Center
- The Franklin Institute – Illinois’ First Medical School; A History of Resurrection and a Primer on the Art of Grave Robbing, by Rodney B. Nelson, III, MD, FACP
Happy Halloween, everyone!