Lane Library

Peoria vs. Anatomist Cooper

In his letter to Rixford about Cooper, Dr. Will recalled that a considerable number of hypersensitive citizens in Peoria were aroused over Cooper's anatomical museum and practice of dissection at his downtown office. In January 1851 an incident occurred that further inflamed public passions and may well have led to violence against Cooper had not his friends, the "Cooperates" as described by Lane, turned the protest into a farce. It was a time of high emotional tension in Peoria following a brutal murder and the attempted lynching of the suspects. [30]

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The Murder

In the latter part of 1850 on a Saturday, a farmer and cattle dealer named Hewitt drew some $2500 from a Peoria Bank. This fact was known to Thomas Jordan alias "Tom Tit", a notorious river thief, who imparted the knowledge to two young men named Thomas Brown and George Williams with the understanding that they would rob Hewitt of the money. They watched Hewitt's movements and when he entered his buggy and started for home they followed close behind. At the foot of the bluff at the edge of town he got down and started to walk up the bluff behind his buggy to lighten the load for his horse. Brown and Williams quickened their pace, came up with him and demanded his money. When he refused to hand it over, they assaulted him with a brick-bat, striking him on the head, fracturing his skull, and rendering him unconscious. They barely had time to rifle his pockets when they were frightened away by some teamsters coming down the bluff, and escaped by fleeing over the bluff and across the river. By some means, probably with the help of the teamsters who may have thought him intoxicated, Hewitt got up in his buggy, his horse started on and went about ten miles to a wayside tavern where he was in the habit of stopping. There his condition was noticed and he was carried into the house where he died of his wounds on the ninth day.

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The Posse

Brown and Williams had been seen running across the bluff and when it was known that Hewitt had been assaulted and robbed, suspicion pointed to them as the guilty parties. Sheriff Riggs formed a posse and set out to trail the suspects who they found out were headed south toward Springfield where they were surprised in their beds and captured on Sunday night. After their arrest they were searched and all of the stolen money but 23 dollars was found secreted in their neck-handkerchiefs, the old fashioned black silk kind. They were brought back in irons and taken out to the tavern where Hewitt, who had regained consciousness and was still alive, identified them as his assailants. The money was also identified by the banker as the same he had paid to Hewitt on the previous Saturday. On the whole, this was a rather impressive bit of police work by the Peoria constabulary.

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The Trial

Brown and Williams were lodged in the Peoria jail and, being poor and friendless, the Court appointed attorneys to defend them. When the Court convened in November 1850 they were indicted for murder, put on trial, found guilty of murder in the first degree, and on the 27th day of November were sentenced to be hanged on Friday, the 20th day of December.

In the meantime Tom Tit's collusion in the robbery had become known, his whereabouts discovered, and a stay of execution granted for thirty days to give the officers time to bring him back that he might be identified by the condemned men as an accessory to the crime.

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The Mob

The populace was greatly excited over the murder, and as the day first fixed for the execution drew near, the excitement increased. On the morning of that day, the 20th of December, men came to Peoria from all parts of the country until there was a large crowd in the streets round and about the jail. When it became known that a respite had been granted, excitement exceeded the bounds of law and order. The frenzied mob demanded that the Sheriff hang the men, declaring they would do so if he did not. The leading men of Peoria appealed in vain to the crowd to disperse, assuring them that the law would be enforced. When the mob attacked the jail to seize the prisoners, Sheriff Rigg, a naturally timid man, kept out of sight, while Deputy Irons, a man of more nerve as befitted his name, called others to assist him in barring the approach but to no avail. A part of the mob forced their way past Irons and his assistants and secured possession of Williams who gave up without a struggle. Another part of the mob dragged the scaffold from the jail yard to the center of the street. When it was seen by the deputies that they could no longer protect Brown, he was told to defend himself as best he could. This he did right effectively by securing a small brick-bat in the end of one leg of a pair of trousers and stationing himself within his small cell so as to strike any head as soon as it appeared within the door, which had been forced. His aim was so unerring and his weapon of defense so formidable that the attempt to drag him out was soon abandoned. One man received such a terrible blow that he died from the effects of it soon after.

Williams was carried out to the scaffold and placed under the beam. Then the courage of the mob oozed out, and not a man among them was brave enough to place the rope around his neck. After some parleying he was carried back to the jail to await a legal execution.

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The Execution

On the 19th of January 1851 the sentence of the Court was legally executed and Thomas Brown and George Williams, in the prime of their young manhood, paid the penalty of death by hanging for the murder of a fellow man. These were the first executions of the death penalty in Peoria County. The gallows was erected on the open prairie. The hangings were carried out in public and witnessed by no less than ten thousand people. Terraces of men and women were ranged all along the bluff in the vicinity of the scaffold, and many of them had come from long distances to witness a double death-leap from the scaffold to eternity.

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Bodies for Science

When the demand of the law was satisfied, their bodies were cut down and given to Dr. Cooper, physician and surgeon, for the benefit of science.

Tom Tit

Thomas Jordan, alias ":Tom Tit", who had planned and instigated the robbery of Hewitt, avoided detection in the Peoria area, and escaped down river. He was traced to New Orleans where he foolishly told some associates of his involvement in the Hewitt affair. The information leaked to the New Orleans police who clapped him in jail until he could be transported in irons by up-river boat to Peoria. He arrived there, near paralyzed with fear, on the morning of the 19th of January, the day of the execution of Brown and Williams. He was taken at once to the Peoria jail where Brown exclaimed, "That's the man!", as soon as Jordan appeared in his presence.

Jordan was indicted for murder but the charge was changed to robbery. He pled guilty and was sentenced to the penitentiary for 14 years, the first five in solitary confinement. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, he requested a pardon and promised to enlist in the Northern army if freed. Pardon was granted and after 12 years behind prison bars he was set at liberty. He kept his promise to enlist. He was last heard from in 1863 when he was in the Army of the Potomac. A letter sent to him at that time was never answered. It is inferred that he was killed in battle, or died of other causes.

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Anatomy Laws

The practice of turning over the bodies of criminals to doctors for anatomical dissection and experiment is of ancient origin. The Ptolemies of Egypt legalized the procedure in Alexandria three centuries before the Christian era. Since the 13th century dissection of executed criminals was sanctioned by precedent and custom. These in due course served as the basis of common law and eventually of statutory law in many European countries, for example Italy, Germany France, Holland, England, etc. The following are some of the early precedents involving dissection that were ultimately reflected in common and statutory English law. In 1505 the magistrates of Edinburgh granted to the Guild of Surgeons and Barbers the right annually to take an executed criminal for dissection. In 1540 the English Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII gave the Guild of Barbers and Surgeons of London a chartered right annually to dissect four persons put to death for felony. In 1654 Queen Elizabeth granted a "special charter of anatomies" to the College of Physicians of London whereby four bodies of executed felons were to be delivered to the College for "anatomizing". In 1663 Charles II increased the yearly quota of bodies to six. Ultimately, it became an accepted tenet of English common law (i.e., springing from an accumulation of unchallenged precedents) that judges were permitted to authorize dissection of the body of an executed criminal. The practice under common law of allowing judges to authorize dissection of executed criminals was incorporated in English statutory law (i.e., expresses the will of the legislature) by an Act of Parliament in the reign of Charles II in 1752. [31]

The initial anatomy laws in colonial America and the United States can be traced to English common and statutory laws and, like them, authorized dissection under only one condition - in the case of an executed criminal. Dissection was commonly viewed as a further punishment or indignity to be administered posthumously to a felon, and was considered a desecration of the deceased under other circumstances. The first American enactment providing for dissection was the resolution in 1647 of the Governor and Council of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that permitted students of physick and chirurgery to anatomize once in four years some malefactor in case the Court shall allow it. In 1784 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts advanced a small step further by including in its law "Against Duelling" the edict that the body of one killed in a duel should be turned over to any surgeon who might apply for it to be dissected. In 1789, immediately following the mob violence of 1788 in New York City known as the "Doctor's Riot", to which we have already referred, the Legislature of New York passed "An Act to prevent the Odious Practice of digging up and removing for the Purpose of dissection, dead Bodies interred in Cemeteries or Burial Places." This law contained the further stipulation that any offender convicted "of Murder, Arson, or Burglary for which he or she shall be sentenced to suffer Death, may" at the discretion of the Courts have the added "Judgement that the Body of such Offender shall be delivered to a surgeon for Dissection". [32]

The original version of the Illinois law under which Cooper received the bodies of Brown and Williams following their execution was passed by the State Legislature on 3 January 1825. It was entitled an "Act to Prevent the Disinterment of the Dead". The first portion of the act deals rather verbosely with grave robbing: [33]

If any person or persons shall open the grave or tomb where the body or bodies of any deceased person or persons shall have been deposited, and shall remove the body or bodies or remains of any deceased person or persons from the grave or place of sepulture, for the purpose of dissection, or any surgical or anatomical experiment or any purpose, without the knowledge and consent of the near relatives of the deceased, or shall in any way aid, assist, counsel or procure the same to be done, or shall aid or assist in any surgical or anatomical experiment therewith or dissection thereof, knowing said body or bodies to have been so taken or removed from the place or places of their sepulture, every such person so offending, being thereof duly convicted, by indictment before the circuit court, shall forfeit and pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, and shall be imprisoned in the common jail of the county, not more than twelve nor less than three months, at the discretion of the court, the fine for the use of the county to be paid as other fines are required to be.

The Act further states, with respect to dissection:

Provided that the provisions of this act shall not be construed to extend to the dissection of the body of any criminal, where the same has been or shall be directed to be delivered up for such dissection by competent authority.

The above provision for dissection was strengthened in 1833 by Section 156 dealing with murder in the Illinois criminal code which states that the "punishment of death shall be inflicted by hanging" and "the court may order, on the application of any respectable surgeon or surgeons, that the body of the convict shall, after death, be delivered to such surgeon or surgeons for dissection." This principle was reaffirmed in the Illinois Statutes of 1845 with the revision, however, that such dissection can only be made if there is no objection to it by some relative of the convict. [34]

Prior to the executions of Brown and Williams, Cooper applied to the court for their bodies in accordance with the above law. Under cover of darkness on the cold winter night after the executions, the bodies of the hanged men were hauled by wagon to his office in the center of downtown Peoria and, with care to avoid public notice, carried up the back stairs to the dissecting room on the third floor. Any hope on Cooper's part that the clandestine removal of the bodies to his dissecting room for "anatomizing" would go undetected and unchallenged was quickly dispelled. His previous advertising of anatomy courses, and the certain knowledge that bodies for these courses could only have been obtained by robbing graves, had already inflamed the populace against him. Now he was preparing to dissect criminals in his office on Peoria's main street. To make matters worse the crime, near-lynching and public hanging of Brown and Williams had created a fractious mood among the townspeople. Furthermore, they had not forgotten the lethal anatomy riot caused by zealous anatomists just two years before at St. Charles in upstate Illinois, an incident to which we shall later refer. [35] [36]

Cooper, as he was prone to do, had overstepped the bounds of community tolerance. Hand bills were soon printed calling for a mass meeting to protest his dissections, and Lane has amply described the ensuing confrontation from which Cooper was fortunate to emerge unscathed.

Later in 1851 Cooper took both a long and a short range approach to the problem of lessening future conflict over his dissections.

Resolution on Dissection

The desired long range solution was, of course, to legalize dissection; and so in June of 1851, at the first Annual Meeting of the Illinois State Medical Society of which he was a founding member, Cooper introduced the following resolution calling for investigation of means whereby legalization of dissection could be achieved. [37]

Whereas, The present laws and public sentiment of the people of the State of Illinois are strict and binding, holding the Physician and Surgeon legally responsible for the performance of their duty, but at the same time are hostile to those means by which a practical knowledge of pathology, skill, and surgical anatomy is obtained; therefore

Resolved, That a Committee of three be appointed to investigate the subject of legal dissections in all its relations and bearings, and report the same to this Society at its next annual meeting.

The resolution was adopted and the Committee on Legalizing Dissection was appointed consisting of Drs. E.S. Cooper, Chairman, J.C. Frye and Wm. Chamberlain.

When the Report of the Committee was called for at the second Annual Meeting of the Society in June of 1852, Dr. Cooper as Chairman of the Committee stated that the intent of the Resolution was not to prepare a report for the Society but to memorialize the Legislature on the subject. No further communication to the Society was forthcoming from Cooper's Committee, and the Legislature did not act to legalize dissection until many years later. Apparently Cooper did not pursue the matter vigorously in Illinois, but we find him introducing a similar resolution before the California State Medical Society after his move to San Francisco.

Lane Library