An Andover Grave Robbing, 1824

By John A. Hodgson, Andover Historical Society

Mary Wadleigh Hilton, wife of Charles Hilton, died in East Andover on Tuesday, October 12, 1824, at the age of 72, after a five weeks’ illness. She had lived in Andover almost all of her adult life, had borne her husband seven children, and had outlived him by twelve years. After her family and friends spent a few days in preparation and mourning, they buried her on Friday in the Old North Church cemetery, next to her husband. She was the third Hilton to lie in their family plot there; her mother-in-law, Hannah Pike Hilton, had been the very first person to be interred in this cemetery, in 1794.

On Saturday morning, a young man who lived in the Hilton household went to the cemetery to place a temporary marker on Mary Hilton’s new grave (her permanent headstone, of course, would not be ready for some time yet). The following day, however – a Sunday, when many worshippers would have visited her plot before or after the service – the new grave appeared to have been disturbed. “The grave was opened, and the body was gone.”

Although records of the scandalous incident are sparse, it is quite clear that the Andover community’s suspicions quickly fell on one particular person, a young man named Zenas Johnson. Zenas was something of an outsider, although not exactly a stranger: he hailed from Vermont, but at this time he was living with his brother-in-law’s family in Salisbury. He was a bright, hardworking, apparently devout lad, from a good family; in many respects, he was not a likely target for community opprobrium.

But Zenas Johnson, in these unhappy circumstances, had one huge mark against him – a mark that, in most other social situations, would have been a significant distinction in his favor: he was a medical student at the University of Vermont Medical School at Castleton. (His Salisbury brother-in-law, Dr. Jesse Merrill, was the leading physician in that town; Johnson would have been doing an internship with him.) The venerable forensic question, cui bono (To whose benefit?), now made him immediately suspect. Who else but a med student or a doctor would want a cadaver?

That suspicion, as a formal inquiry began, quickly hardened to communal certainty, for the circumstantial evidence was compelling. One of the gravediggers recalled that Johnson was “looking on while the grave was digging.” Johnson had hired a neighbor’s wagon and had gone off with it that Saturday afternoon for four days. He had left Dr. Merrill’s house with the wagon late Saturday night, headed apparently toward East Andover; had returned before daylight Sunday morning to change his clothes; and then almost immediately had left again, not returning until Wednesday. One of Mary Hilton’s daughters confronted Johnson with her suspicions; “he at first denied having any knowledge of her death or sickness—but afterwards he said he saw her grave.”

At the trial next year, further damaging testimony was elicited by the Attorney General, who prosecuted the case for the State, from Dr. Jesse Merrill, Johnson’s brother-in-law and host. Dr. Merrill acknowledged that Johnson “knew about the death of Mrs. Hilton, which was a subject of conversation in the family.” And while he “recollected of [Johnson’s] once saying that he had nothing to do with digging up the body of Mrs. Hilton,” he also “remembered a conversation once with Mr. Johnson before the grave was disturbed, in which he said that from the singularity of Mrs. Hilton’s disorder he thought she would be a good subject for dissection.” Ouch!

Johnson’s only defense at the trial (when one of his lawyers was Ezekiel Webster, Daniel Webster’s older brother and an eminent jurist in his own right) was to bring forward witnesses to testify that he had stopped at a house in Concord (with a wagon) that Sunday morning, had called there again on Tuesday and stayed the night, and had also called at a house in Warner earlier that Tuesday. But although he had at the time first told others that he was going to Boscawen with that wagon to transport some raftsmen who were working there, and later told several people that he had been visiting relatives in Westmoreland (on the Connecticut River, west of Keene), he produced no evidence to support either claim. Why, the Chief Justice asked in his charge to the jury, had he not done so? “How easy . . . would it have been to prove, by producing those raftsmen, where he actually was?” Again, “this was not a case of so little consequence to the defendant that he might not have brought evidence that he had actually been at Westmoreland.” The jury needed little time to deliberate, and found Johnson guilty. He had been present that morning during the trial, but did not appear in the afternoon when he was called to hear the verdict, and thereby forfeited his bond of $250. Mary Hilton’s body was never recovered.

What of the aftermath? Local feelings ran high for a while. Of the many newspapers that reported on the case, one editorialized, “For the information of those who prowl about grave yards, and invade the sanctuary of the dead, we would state that the amount of the bonds in this case is no criterion of the abhorrence in which the people of New-Hampshire hold the crime of ‘digging up’ their neighbors and friends.” Another noted that “this business of a Physician’s robbing the grave, is a new charge against the faculty.” (It was not so new; and only five years later, in the aftermath of another grave robbing in a Vermont village close to Johnson’s medical school in Castleton, some three hundred village men, some of them armed with farm implements, marched on the medical school in a successful effort to recover the just-stolen body of a local woman. This was the “Hubbardtown Raid” of 1830.)

Johnson, for his part, returned – probably quite quickly – to Vermont and completed his medical studies. He received his medical degree with honors in 1826, having written a thesis on Cynanche Trachaelis (croup). Probably thinking it wise not to open a practice anywhere in northern New England where his reputation might have preceded him, he moved to Lower Canada and worked there for a few years. Then he returned to the United States, to live first in Ohio and then in Indiana, where he became a pioneering physician in Koskiusko County.

And what had happened to Mary Hilton’s body? Certainly Johnson did not have time to convey it all the way to his medical school at Castleton, Vermont. But he apparently had family and friends in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, and he could have taken it there. Such a journey would have been consistent with the evidence that he had traveled through Concord and Warner (and also through Keene, another place he claimed to have visited on that wagon trip). Johnson subsequently would have been loath to produce evidence that he had been at Westmoreland precisely because he would not want his witnesses there to be forced to testify just why it was that he had visited them and what he had brought with him in that wagon. The best guess, then, is that Mary Hilton’s body, preserved in brine, was stowed somewhere in the Westmoreland area for a while until Johnson could retrieve it and take it on to Castleton.

Mary Hilton is memorialized in the Old North Church cemetery, but she does not lie there. Her gravestone stands amidst a row of Hilton family members, between her husband’s and her mother-in-law’s. Unusually, it is inscribed on the back as well as the front. On the reverse of the small marble marker is the legend, “Niece of Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn.” (Dearborn, an older brother of Mary’s mother, was an eminent soldier and statesman, and had been Jefferson’s secretary of war. He probably paid for Mary’s headstone.) Beneath this large inscription of his name and relationship to Mary is a smaller inscription noting her final fate: “Body stolen after burial.”