Criminal: The Horse Thief And The Grave Robber

Jun 3, 2016

On this week's Criminal podcast, we hear about a mystery surrounding the death of a horse thief.

Host Phoebe Judge and Elana Gordon of WHYY's "The Pulse" tell the story of John Frankford, a notorious horse thief from Pennsylvania in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Frankford also frequently got arrested.

But Evi Numen of Philadelphia's Mütter Museum said it quickly became clear that he was also a talented escape artist.

"And he just keeps getting caught and escaping, so it's almost like a running joke," Numen said, adding that it didn't seem that Frankford took prison very seriously.

The State of Pennsylvania finally put him in one of the strongest prisons around, Eastern State Penitentiary, where prisoners were in solitary confinement with only a narrow skylight to look through.

Frankford lived a relatively quiet life for 19 years, according to Numen. He was well liked in the jail. But he never made it out of Eastern State alive. He died just before his release date.

Frankford's relatives were perplexed when his body was finally turned over to them after a considerable delay. His corpse was mangled, with twine stitched around his scalp, and his innards spilled out of his abdomen, Numen said. His family didn't understand why the body looked that way.

A prisoner had snuck away from his work detail into the courtyard shortly after Frankford's death. Numen said that's when the prisoner saw Frankford's body laid out on a table. Dr. John Bacon was working busily over it.

"He sees Dr. Bacon remove Frankford's heart, and he puts that on the snow, presumably to keep it fresh," Numen explained. "He's working on his skull. He opens up the skull and takes out the brain and he sets that on the snow, too."

Autopsies were not a well-known phenomenon at the time. But there was an explosion of new medical students at end of 19th century. One contributing factor was Civil War. With all these new medical students there was a need for more cadavers. It turns out doctors were running cadaver networks, and prisons were one of their favorite places to go.

But none of this was legal.

The discovery of incidents like the one involving Frankford's body led to the massive uncovering of these widespread networks. It also led to new legislation that helped prevent such body snatchings.

You can hear more on this week's Criminal podcast. Criminal is recorded at WUNC.