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How the Pinkerton Detectives Took Down Chicago Grave Robbers in 1857

The infamous agency got its start protecting corpses from professional body snatchers.

allan pinkerton chicago grave robbers
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The history of grave robbing for the purpose of medical study dates back to the eighteenth century. As the study of medicine advanced, cadavers were needed for research and teaching. However, laws at the time kept the supply of cadavers well below the demand. Because of this, medical schools often tuned to grave robbers, known as resurrectionists, for their needs. The resurrectionists would steal the bodies of the recently deceased from their graves. In some places this led to murder, most famously with Burke and Hare

In Edinburgh, it was discovered that two men, William Burke and William Hare had turned to murder to obtain fresh corpses and the money they could bring. The outrage over these killings led to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which made it significantly easier for schools to legally obtain bodies. [i] In the United States, laws were much slower to catch up, which meant that grave robbing remained a problem throughout the 19th century.

Some of the most famous grave robberies happened in late 1850s in Chicago, Illinois, where four corpses had been stolen from the Potter’s Field section of the Chicago cemetery. The theft was discovered in October 1857. The bodies had been buried on or about the 25th of October. A day or two later, the gravedigger observed signs that the graves had been disturbed. He dug them up and found the coffins empty.

Related: How the Stratton Brothers Became the First British Killers Busted by a Fingerprint 

The city aldermen were notified of the theft and the fact that the gravedigger and city undertaker suspected City Sexton Martin Quinlan of being involved. The sexton was the government official in charge of the cemetery and had the power to arrest anyone causing a disturbance in the cemetery or otherwise violating cemetery regulations. Quinlan’s law enforcement powers likely meant that he had a friendly relationship with the local police. This would explain why, instead of reporting the crime to the police, the aldermen turned to the North-Western Police Agency, a private detective agency, to investigate. [ii]

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  • Allan Pinkerton, the founder and head of the North-Western Police Agency, 1860.Photo Credit: Author's Collection

The North-Western Police Agency—later called Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency—was founded by Allan Pinkerton and Edward Rucker. Pinkerton has said the agency was founded in 1850. However, the earliest record dealing with the creation of the agency is from 1855. Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency would go on to become the most famous private detective agency of all time. The agency gained attention for its work uncovering an 1861 plot to assassinate then President-elect Abraham Lincoln to pursuing some of the most wanted men in the expanding western frontier, included the gangs of Jesse James and Butch Cassidy. [iii] In 1857, however, the North-Western Police Agency was still simply a regional detective agency based in Chicago.

Allan Pinkerton took the case and assigned one of his operatives, James Finncan, to watch Martin Quinlan on October 27. Finnican and a second operative watched Quinlan the next day but turned up nothing against him.

Related: Abraham Lincoln Penned This True Crime Tale in 1846 

On the 29th, George Bangs and another operative, probably Timothy Webster, visited the cemetery to plan surveillance. That night, Webster led five other operatives into the cemetery. They spent the night and observed nothing unusual. The following night a seventh operative was added to the group.[iv]

Allan Pinkerton, in his book Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches, described the detectives’ work. He wrote that the men at the cemetery were under the charge of Timothy Webster.

These were so stationed that every entrance to the cemetery should be guarded, as well as all the new-made graves thoroughly watched. As no word could be spoken lest it might frighten away any culprit before he could be captured, I found it absolutely necessary to devise some simple, though silent and effective means of communication. To effect [sic] this I decided upon using several sets of heavy chalk-lines, such as are generally used by carpenters in laying out work. The ends of each line were attached to small stakes driven in the ground about three feet apart. The operatives' station was between these stakes; and, in order that every man should be forced to not only remain at his post, but remain continually awake and vigilant, I required the line to be gently pulled three times, beginning with a certain post, and extending rapidly, according to a pre-arranged plan, and the same signal repeated after a lapse of about one minute, in reverse order. This was the general signal that everything was as it should be, and nothing new had transpired. This was repeated every fifteen minutes, so that by no possibility could any dereliction of duty pass undetected. [v]

Seven spent October 30th through November 5th at the cemetery. Despite the group's vigilance nothing happened during this period. On the sixth, only four operatives staked out the cemetery. The operatives were identified in the reports as “A” [Finncan], “B,” “D” [Webster?], and “F.” Due to the small number of detectives available that night they diverted from their standard plan and took up positions at the northwest corner of the Catholic Cemetery, near the exit on North Avenue, where wagon tracks were found after the four bodies went missing.

chicago grave robbers
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  • Map of the cemetaryPhoto Credit: David Rumsey Map Collection

At about ten o’clock on a night described as “unusually dark,” they took their places. It is possible that when the detectives entered the cemetery the grave robbers were already there, because no one witnessed them entering. Regardless, between 11:30 and midnight a buggy was spotted traveling away from the cemetery on North Avenue. Finncan and the operative identified as “D” left their positions and followed the buggy. The detectives kept a safe distance behind, even crawling at times to remain unseen. As the buggy turned south, the horse increased its speed to a trot while the operatives ran after it.

Finncan caught up to the buggy, grabbed the rear axle to slow it, and ran to the side of the road, not wanting to be seen. By grabbing the axle, Finncan had disarranged the horse’s harness. The buggy stopped and a man exited to fix the harness. As the detectives watched, they smelled the corpses and decided it was time to move in. They ran up and arrested the man fixing the harness. He was immediately recognized as City Sexton Martin Quinlan. Quinlan recognized the arresting officer and called him by name.

Related: Who Really Killed Dr. William Chapman?  

While one operative took Quinlan into custody, the other drew his pistol on the two men that remained in the buggy. Suddenly, the horse backed up. As the buggy moved, the detective’s leg was caught in the wheel. While he was so engaged, the two men leaped out of the opposite side of the buggy and ran. Both detectives, already knowing the identity of Quinlan, left him and chased the others. A few shots were fired at the suspects but they were not caught. When they returned to the buggy, Quinlan was gone. He was found heading home and arrested. Two bodies, one male and one female, were in the buggy. Both bodies had been packed in canvas bags and tied down. Quinlan and the buggy were taken to the North-Western Detective Agency office and held until morning.

chicago grave robbers path
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  • The black line follows the grave robbers’ path from the cemetery to where their buggy was stopped.Photo Credit: David Rumsey Map Collection

Martin Quinlan appeared in court the following day and was held for trial while George Bangs and another operative looked for the men who had escaped. [vii]

In a stroke of clever thinking, Bangs and the other detective boarded the buggy and let the horse choose their destination. The horse brought them back to Wright and Currier’s livery stable on Michigan Street. The description of the man who rented the buggy led them to Eli York, a medical student at Rush Medical College. Bangs, who had been deputized for this case, arrested York.

York appeared in court the day of his arrest. Justin Isaac L. Milliken released him on $800 bail, posted by Rush Medical College President Dr. Daniel Brainard. [ix]

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  • Photo Credit: Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division, CCW 1.118.

Martin Quinlan and Eli York appeared in court again on November 21st, 1857. At this time the grand jury found nine indictments against Quinlan, four of which included York. It was a tense scene at the courthouse, as a fight broke out between the attorney representing Quinlan and York and the attorney representing the Pinkertons. The Chicago Daily Times reported on the fracas:

This was more than [Quinlan and York's] counsel bargained for. He was only retained to defend the city sexton, and had reason therefore to suppose the city office-holders who have agreed to foot the bill, would decline to pay for defending York. The counsel did not feel very good-natured about it, and having been notified that the case was about to be called for trial, he proceeded to the courtroom and expressed his opinion of the matter. His opinion did not happen to be very complimentary to the detectives, whom he berated roundly for having given such evidence before the grand jury as caused that body to include York in the indictment. York, he said, had been examined before a magistrate, who had acquitted him on account of the insufficiency of the evidence to justify holding to bail. Yet, in the face of this, the grand jury had indicted him in no less than nine different bills. It was a personal matter with these detectives, and he continued to speak of them for some minutes.
When he had done, the representative of the detectives [Edward A. Rucker] asked permission to say a word. He said several words, among which were words to the effect that the true number of indictments against York being but four, the counsel in saying there were nine, had uttered five falsehoods.
At this moment the indictments flew from the legal gentleman’s hand in every direction, and his fist made a singularly rapid forward movement toward the other party’s nose. The other party dodged the blow and was about to return it in kind, when the medical student “went in” on the other party’s anatomy. “Mr. Sheriff!” shrieked the court, as the coat-tail of a portly individual disappeared through the door. “Police!” shouted the state’s attorney. “Two upon one—take ‘em off!” bawled the spectators. At this critical juncture, a policeman jumped up from somewhere in the crowd, and seized the belligerent attorney by the collar. “You’re my prisoner!” he screamed, tugging and pulling with all his might to get the man off. That ended the fight. [x]

York and Quinlan were in court again on January 11th. The state announced it would not pursue charges against Eli York. Martin Quinlan pleaded guilty to two of the indictments against him and was fined $500. [xi]

Quinlan’s fine closed the book on this case, but resurrectionists continued to operate in Chicago and elsewhere for decades as antiquated laws continued to deprive medical students and researchers of the cadavers they required.

Related: London’s Ancient Outcast Graveyard  

rush medical college
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  • Photo Credit: Reprint from Andreas, A. T., History of Chicago, From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Volume 1. Chicago: A. T. Andreas, Publisher, 1884


[i] Bailey, Brian, Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls, 166-67; Edwards, Owen Dudley, Burke and Hare, xviii-xix. 

[ii] Chicago Daily Times, November 8, 1857 and Chicago Tribune, November 9, 1857.

[iii] MacKay, James, Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye, 70; Morn, Frank, The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, 37; Recko, Corey, Murder on the White Sands: The Disappearance of Albert and Henry Fountain, 36.

[iv] That six and then seven operatives staked out the cemetery is backed up by Allan Pinkerton’s report to the city aldermen. That Webster led the operation was written by Pinkerton years later. Allan Pinkerton to Russell Green, December 14, 1857, Chicago City Proceedings Files, 1833-1871, File 0303A, Illinois Regional Archives Depository, Ronald Williams Library, Northwestern University; Pinkerton, Allan, Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches, 77.

[v] Pinkerton, Allan, Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches, 77-78.

[vi] Edited out of final publication

[vii] Allan Pinkerton to Russell Green, December 14, 1857, Chicago City Proceedings Files, 1833-1871, File 0303A, Illinois Regional Archives Depository, Ronald Williams Library, Northwestern University.

[viii] Ibid.; Chicago Daily Times, November 8 and 12, 1857; Chicago Tribune, November 9, 1857.

[ix] Arey, Leslie B., Northwestern University Medical School, 1859-1959: A Pioneer in Educational Reform, 30; Goodspeed, Weston A. (ed.) and Daniel D. Healy (ed.), History of Cook County, Illinois, Volume 2, 236; Chicago Daily Times, November 8 and 12; Chicago Tribune, November 9, 1857; Allan Pinkerton to Russell Green, December 14, 1857, Chicago City Proceedings Files, 1833-1871, File 0303A, Illinois Regional Archives Depository, Ronald Williams Library, Northwestern University.

[x] Chicago Daily Times, November 22, 1857.

[xi] Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1858.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons