Cadaver Campaign

Newspaper clipping from 1895 edition of the Topeka Daily Capitol.

“Gov. Morrill Calls Out State Troops to Protect The College” was the headline of the Dec. 12, 1895, Topeka Daily Capital.

The trouble had started on Dec. 9, 1895 when it was discovered that the grave of Mrs. I. O. Van Fleet had been robbed of its corpse. Mr. Van Fleet suspected that the Kansas Medical College in Topeka was involved and a search warrant was obtained. In one of the dissecting rooms police found a body lying on the floor, a sheet thrown over it. The sheet, “was thrown back, exposing the head. The hair and skin on the face had been removed. Mr. Van Fleet was called to identify the body. When he arrived he cried out, ‘My God, it,s my wife!’ and his heart-rending sobs could be heard plainly downstairs…”

In each of the following two days another grave was found to have been robbed of its corpse and the body found in the college’s dissecting room, according to the Topeka Daily Capital.

As news of this event spread there were rumors that mobs would march on the college. Fifteen policemen were sent to the college to defend it. Some of the college faculty had come prepared with Winchesters. They were evidently expecting an attack at any time. A number of students also came to aid in the defense, but authorities convinced the students and faculty to leave, arguing that their presence would probably only provoke an attack.

At the lodge of the Ancient Order of United Workmen, a mass meeting of several hundred members was held to denounce the college and everyone connected with it. On the street outside the lodge a hundred men were congregated talking over the latest news of the grave robbers. This crowd was composed of the curious and “the usual notoriety seeking gang and they passed the time away by shouting ‘Bring the rope,’ ‘Somebody lead ahead,’ ‘I’ll go with six other good men,’ and various joshing expressions.”

Dr. Mitchell, the city physician, had the bad luck to ride by. A local loud-mouth had accused Mitchell of taking part in the grave robbings; the crowd surrounded Mitchell, cursing and jostling him, and he had to be rescued by four policemen.

Undersheriff Wilkerson of Shawnee county was convinced the medical college was going to be attacked “and [that] the feeling was so great against them that no deputies could be procured.” Wilkerson asked Gov. E. N. Morrill for assistance, who responded by calling out two units of the Kansas National Guard. Light Battery B of Topeka and Company H of Lawrence were ordered out on the evening of Dec. 11, 1895.

The following morning Maj. Gen. J. W. F. Hughes and Gen. Barker met with law enforcement officials. The Generals reported that the police were still very uneasy, fearing that an attack would be made upon the medical college Thursday night, and it was deemed best to retain the troops at Topeka on duty until early Friday morning, when they were relieved, there being no further prospect of trouble.

The Cadaver Campaign ended peacefully. There was no violence against the medical college or its faculty or students. The National Guardsmen returned home, the campaign having cost the state $340.51.

Later a grand jury returned indictments against several students and faculty. One student and one person not connected with the college were convicted, but the conviction against the student was reversed on appeal and the other man was pardoned by Gov. John Leedy.


Company D 22nd Infantry

Company D 22nd Infantry

Interestingly, Gov. Leedy later had another connection with the trouble at the medical college. In 1898 during the Spanish-American War he issued an officer’s commission to a Mr. L. C. Duncan, who had been a student at the college at the time of the grave robberies. Duncan was commissioned as a captain in the 22nd Kansas Volunteers as an assistant surgeon. The 22nd was sent east for further training, and while there, Capt. Duncan was put on trial by court-martial for robbing graves in Virginia.

(Reprinted from Benedict, Bryce D. “Guardsmen Called up for the “Cadaver Campaign,” Plains Guardian, June 1998, p. 19.)