Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Missing Corpse

The theft of Manhattan millionaire Alexander T. Stewart’s corpse from its ornate vault on November 7, 1878 shocked Gilded Age New York. It triggered one of the biggest police investigations in the NYPD’s history, and inspired Mark Twain’s satiric short story, The Stolen White Elephant. But because the body was never recovered, the public soon lost interest and the case became a grotesque footnote in the city’s wilder past.

The Missing Corpse: Grave Robbing a Gilded Age Tycoon is about a crime that does not initially seem substantial enough to warrant a book. No one was murdered: the ‘victim’ was already dead. Because the police bungled the investigation and the body snatchers were never caught, the whole affair in retrospect seems like life imitating vaudeville. But attorney Wayne Fanebust’s absorbing account of Stewart’s post-mortem abduction reminds us why the case was a public and media sensation in 1878.

When A.T. Stewart, who was widely known as the ‘Merchant Prince of Manhattan’, died in 1876, he was worth an estimated $40-50 million. Although his wealth put him on a par with Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and other Gilded Age tycoons, New York high society snubbed him because of his common origins and he was a lonely, isolated figure. Because he and his wife failed to have children, he dedicated himself to the building of a Long Island suburb, where he wanted to be eventually buried. Pending the completion of this final resting place, his remains were interred in St. Mark’s churchyard in Manhattan. When they disappeared in November 1878, the press and public went into a speculative frenzy: would there be a fabulous ransom demanded, or was the stunt a backlash against often-tyrannical Stewart personally?

A.T. Stewart's Fifth Avenue mansion circa 1869 (Library of Congress)

Grave robbery was appalling but common in nineteenth century America, as medical schools needed cadavers to experiment on and paid well for them. The theft of a millionaire’s bones dragged the practice from its traditional arena of police blotters and private shame and put it on front pages everywhere.

The Missing Corpse: Grave Robbing a Gilded Age Tycoon is more than just an account of New York’s most macabre ‘missing persons’ case. It’s also a journey into the shadows of nineteenth century America, where ostracized millionaires, body snatchers, phoney clairvoyants, and other misfits wallowed and occasionally made history.

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