Story by Bailey Berg
Photo by Carly Granato
The year was 1896. Drake University had been established 15 years earlier, and the Drake Medical School had opened its doors just four years prior. Headlines around the Midwest, however, weren’t focusing on Drake’s growing law program or influx of international students. A grave robbery had just shaken the community, and this wasn’t
the first time.
According to an article in the Des Moines Leader, on Jan. 10, 1896, police found the bodies of 73-year-old Rachel Townsend and coal miner Alexander “Sandy” Bell in the Drake Medical School. Driving past in her carriage along with her son, the wife of George Miller noticed an object lying near the grave of Townsend. Upon closer inspection by her son, Burt, the Millers made a chilling discovery.
A burial slipper found near Townsend’s grave was presented to Lorenzo Trowbridge, the son-in-law of Townsend. After determining that both graves had been tampered with, Detectives McNutt, Johnson and Harding went to work on the case. A search warrant was served for Drake, where the two bodies were found in the Medical School, identified by their burial clothing. Those responsible for the grave robbing and bringing the bodies to Drake were never discovered.
Three years prior to this, five grave robbers were caught in the act of body snatching on Drake’s behalf. According to a February 24, 1893 article in The Chicago Tribune, five individuals were arrested: Dr. John W. Overton, J.W. Martin, John E. Sloan, W.E. Burris and John W. Schaefer. At the time of his arrest, Overton was a member of the faculty at the Drake Medical School.