Friday, December 23, 2016
The Irregular Guide to New York City Entry #1: A Kidnapped Corpse
(Above: St. Mark's Church in the Bowery)
On the corner of Tenth Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, you’ll find St. Mark’s in the Bowery, the second oldest church in Manhattan. Beneath the St. Mark’s churchyards are stone burial vaults. One of these belongs to Peter Stuyvesant, whose spirit is rumored to haunt the vicinity. (If you see a ghost with a wooden leg, that’s probably Pete.) Inside another vault lie the remains of a wealthy businessman named Alexander Stewart, who was buried at St. Mark’s in 1876. Three weeks later, his corpse was stolen and held for ransom.
Grave robbing (also known as body snatching) was quite common in the nineteenth century. Back then, if you paid a midnight visit to a New York cemetery, you were likely to spot groups of shovel-wielding thieves tiptoeing around in the dark. These might have been common crooks raiding coffins and pulling the rings off of skeletal fingers. Or they could have been medical students searching for fresh corpses to dissect.
(Above: body snatchers!)
But the grave robbers who stole Alexander Stewart’s body from St. Mark’s in the Bowery were after a much bigger prize—$20,000, to be precise. And they got their ransom from his grieving widow. No one knows for sure if the body that was returned to St. Mark’s actually belonged to Mr. Stewart, but rumor has it that his family took special measures to ensure his remains would not be disturbed. It is said that if the vault is ever opened, the church bells will ring, alerting the city that grave robbers are on the prowl once again.