The Avondale Horror: Cincinnati’s 1884 Burking Murders

2015-02-13T00:33:12+00:00 February 12th, 2015|

By Richard O Jones

On the night of February 15, 1884, the Avondale dairy farmer Louis Mills saw the glow of fire on the northwest horizon. The waning moon had yet to rise, so the night was otherwise dark and the orange dome foreboding.

Mills operated the Blachley Farm, founded by the late Cincinnati merchant J.W. Blachley and owned by his relatives. The glow came from the direction of the tiny log cabin on the property about a half-mile away that he rented to Beverly Taylor and his wife, Elizabeth. In another 20 years it would be the site of the Avon Fields Golf Course, but at that time, a newspaper called it “one of the loneliest places imaginable,” reachable only by a muddy lane impassible by horse or buggy for most of the year. It was particularly muddy then. A recent spate of rain had caused the Ohio River to overflow its banks, reaching a historic high point earlier that day.

By the time Mills got to the site around 10 p.m., the shanty was engulfed in flames, although the roof had not yet collapsed. There was no sign of the Taylors nor their 11-year-old granddaughter, Emma Jean Lambert, who lived with them. The landlord thought it odd that they were not at home, and presumed he would be able to find their remains in the ashes and ruins the following day.

Taylor, who had lately been afflicted with rheumatism and had not been out of the cabin for the past six months, was born a slave in Virginia and sold to a plantation in Mississippi when he was still young. After the war, around 1869, he moved with his family to Cincinnati and settled down in a cabin on Prospect Hill, just north of downtown. He worked as a carpenter and earned a reputation as a thrifty and industrious man. He put away some money, but was robbed in the mid-1870s and moved to the Blachley Farm. He worked at odd jobs until his rheumatism left him bedridden. His wife did laundry for the neighbors.

[blocktext align=”right”]There were remnants of clothing and furniture, but no trace of human remains.[/blocktext]Mills returned to the site Saturday morning. The cabin had been entirely consumed. There were remnants of clothing and furniture, but no trace of human remains. Mills informed Avondale Marshal Joseph A. Brown about the mystery.

Brown led a search of the woods and hollows in the vicinity, including a nearby well and neighboring ponds, but nothing turned up. The Taylors had one daughter, Mrs. Simon McCrea, who lived on Richmond Street in Cincinnati. They were on good terms, but she had not heard from them. The weekend passed with no sign of the missing family. On Monday, Officer Lynch went back with four hired men to search the ruins one more time, looking especially to see if there was a cellar. A local laborer named Allan Ingalls was part of the crew. Ingalls was known to be a shifty individual, the kind of man who worked as little as possible but always seemed to have money. Still, he proved to be the most diligent of searchers, although he got on some people’s nerves because he would pick up every white object he found and ask, “Is this a bone?”

Brown’s investigation reached nothing but dead ends. At around 5:30 the previous evening, young Emma Jean had gone into Wolf’s Saloon near the Four Mile House, a half-mile in the other direction from the Mills house, and bought ten cents worth of whiskey for her grandfather, who was still in bed with rheumatism. Other than that, no one in Avondale had seen the Taylor family in several days.

On Wednesday, Marshal Brown took his investigation into Cincinnati, where he made the rounds of the local medical colleges. He knew that missing bodies sometimes turned up there for use on the dissecting tables. There was a notoriously great need for cadavers and the local “resurrectionists” enjoyed a thriving trade as the colleges often took bodies for a good price. The Cincinnati area had long been plagued by the practice of body snatching. One grave robber known as “Old Cunny,” William Cunningham, had become so notorious between 1855 and 1871 that parents used him as a threat against misbehaving children. According to rumors around Avondale, Beverly Taylor had been a disciple of Old Cunny and had also practiced the dark art of resurrection. In one of the more notorious cases, in 1878, the missing body of Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of former President William Henry Harrison, turned up at the Ohio Medical College, prompting a tightening of laws.

When Marshal Brown called on the Ohio Medical College on Sixth Street, he spoke with Dr. Jonathan Longfellow Cilley, chief anatomist and the man responsible for securing cadavers for the dissection classes. Brown told the doctor about the fire and the three missing people. Cilley promised he would keep alert.

“When he told me about the cabin fire, I remembered having noticed the articles about it in Tuesday’s papers,” Cilley would later tell the press (and testify to the same in court), “but somehow or other I got the idea that it had occurred on the previous Sunday night.”

He said that Brown had not been gone fifteen minutes when it dawned on him that he received three bodies of that description on Friday night. After double-checking the newspaper and realizing his error, he said, he went to officials at the college, who told him that he should inform Marshal Brown at once. Late Tuesday night he took the streetcar to Avondale and tried to find Brown at his home and at the Town Hall. He didn’t find him at either place so he left messages at both.

At 1 p.m. Thursday, Brown immediately recognized the bodies in the dissecting room as the Taylor family. A post-mortem confirmed murder by bludgeoning.

[blocktext align=”left”]”I could never have supposed any person would kill a fellow being simply for the money the body would bring for dissecting purposes.”[/blocktext]“This is the first case of the kind that I ever knew of,” Cilley said, “and I could never have supposed any person would kill a fellow being simply for the money the body would bring for dissecting purposes.”

The Ohio Medical College had over 300 students at the time and a considerable demand for cadavers. The law passed by the legislature in 1880 allowed colleges to accept unclaimed bodies of persons dying at public institutions or whose funeral was paid for by the government. The penalty for body snatching was severe, and those who received stolen stiffs were liable for the same charges as someone who accepted stolen goods. Since there were no restrictions on bringing a body to the medical school, the doctors on staff did not dig deeply into the source of cadavers. The Ohio Medical College charged each student $5 at the beginning of the term for the privilege of dissecting, with one body divided among five students. Paying $15 for a cadaver off the street gave the college a profit of $10 per body.

Cilley said he did not know the men who brought in the bodies. They always used fake names so he knew them only as “Jack” and “Harrison,” the latter perhaps a reference to the missing Congressman’s body a few years prior.

This case had gone far beyond body snatching; it was now a case of “burking.”

burke-and-hare-edinburgh-bodysnatchers

William Burke and William Hare

The practice of killing people in order to gain dissecting material for medical students was named after the man credited with inventing the practice, the Irishman William Burke. He lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early part of the nineteenth century. He and his partner William Hare were convicted of killing sixteen people, nine of them boarders in Hare’s house, to be illustrations in the popular lectures of famed anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. Their story inspired the Robert Louis Stevenson short story the “The Body Snatcher,” made into a 1945 film, the last to feature Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together.

“We of course are extremely anxious that if a murder has been committed the murderers should be brought to justice,” Cilley said.

Cilley said that he was on the fifth floor in the dissecting room about 11 p.m. that Friday with his assistant, Joseph Reese, when Jack and Harrison came in with three bodies.

“The men brought the bodies in the front door on Sixth Street and carried them upstairs,” he said. Jack told him the three people had been killed in a train accident a week previous. “The bodies were naked and in bags. I told Jack I would give him $15 a piece for them. I had but $20 with me at the time and give it to him, telling him I would give him the balance later.”

After Brown asked Cilley for a description of “Jack” and “Harrison,” he wasn’t sure who Harrison might be, but he had a pretty good hunch that Jack — a short, stout black man with distinctive “pop-eyes” — was the man who helped Officer Lynch sift through the ashes two days prior: the local scoundrel Allen Ingalls. He went straight to the Ingalls’s home in Avondale.

[blocktext align=”right”]“Ingalls has a brutal face, his hang-dog looks giving evidence of his guilt.”[/blocktext]“Ingalls has a brutal face, his hang-dog looks giving evidence of his guilt,” the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette said. He was 38 years old, stout but not heavily built, with an angular frame. His most striking features were his “pop-eyes, which almost start from their sockets,” the Gazette reported. He had prominent cheekbones and a decidedly ugly and vicious-looking countenance.

Brown arrested him at about 6:15 Thursday, February 21. Ingalls trembled noticeably but did not resist arrest. Brown then arrested Jeff Lout, another suspected grave robber, in a field near Ingalls’s house. Lout stood over six feet two inches, with hands badly scarred from some disease. He also had a “brutal cut of countenance.” A cousin of Ingalls’s wife and a plasterer by trade, he also trembled in fright upon being arrested but denied having done anything wrong. Allen Ingalls lived in the same house with his brother, Richard Ingalls, and another relative, Ben Johnson, so police arrested both for questioning.

A Cincinnati Commercial Gazette drawing of the burker Allen Ingalls smoking his pipe in a cell at the Hamilton County Jail, published February 24, 1884.

A Cincinnati Commercial Gazette drawing of the burker Allen Ingalls smoking his pipe in a cell at the Hamilton County Jail, published February 24, 1884.

The papers noted that Richard had his brother’s characteristic eyes but was better looking, and “talks in a straightforward manner without quailing.” He was more respectably dressed in a black suit with a standing collar and tie. The newspapers noted that all four suspects were illiterate. They each denied having anything to do with the dead bodies and were put in separate rooms at the Town Hall. Only the chief suspect, Allen Ingalls, had an actual jail cell. The authorities took every effort to prevent any communication among them, including bringing them from the jail one at a time to be interviewed by newspaper reporters in Mayor D.W. Strickland’s office, beginning with Ingalls.

The reporters worked hard and succeeded in tripping Ingalls up on every detail of his story about being approached Friday evening by a light-skinned black man or a dark white man named John Harris from Newport, Kentucky. Harris reportedly asked Ingalls to carry bodies to the Medical College and didn’t know anything about a fire or any murders.

A sudden gunshot outside the mayor’s office window interrupted the interview as Marshal Brown and two special officers were bringing in the prisoner, Jeff Lout, to take his turn in the press conference. Although there was an officer on either side of Lout, they did not hold onto him and he suddenly sprang away and darted down the road, the marshal in hot pursuit. Brown called for him to halt several times, then fired a pistol at him. That stopped the would-be fugitive in his tracks. Lout’s hands shook and he begged for mercy. Brown told him no harm would come to him unless he tried to escape again. Lout struggled to get his breath back, then made his statement. Apparently he did not know what he was being held for, as his alibi was airtight: He was in Crittendon, Kentucky. Lout did say he’d heard that Allen Ingalls was a body-snatcher, but did not know that for sure.

Richard Ingalls denied any knowledge of the crime. He said he’d retired early the night of the fire and did not hear his brother come home. He said he’d heard his brother was involved in body-snatching and had told him to stop.

Ben Johnson said that he lived in the same house with the Ingalls brothers. On the night of the fire he went into town about five o’clock, loafed around until ten or eleven, then took the last car home. He said he retired when he got home and did not hear Allen Ingalls come in.

By this time, Marshal Brown had decided that Allen Ingalls was the only person involved in the crime. The other three were still being held as witnesses in other parts of the building. Johnson, kept under guard in the basement of the Town Hall, fit Cilley’s description of the man known as “Harrison,” but there wasn’t much else against him.

About eleven o’clock that night, Cincinnati Police Detective Jim White delivered Robert B. Dixon, 55, the man who drove the wagon delivering the Taylor family to the medical school, to confront Allen Ingalls. Dixon recognized Ben Johnson as the “Harrison” they had been looking for.

Dixon said that on the night in question, a man he had never seen before, whom he now identified as Ingalls, came to his house bearing a note from Dr. Cilley to arrange for a pick-up on behalf of the Ohio Medical College. Dixon had done much work for the college, so didn’t question him much. They agreed to meet at nine o’clock at the last lamp post on the Avondale Road.

“It was very dark,” he recalled. “Ingalls and Johnson climbed the fence and brought over the three bodies in sacks, which they placed in the wagon. Ingalls walked ahead on the return and I drove after him with Johnson sitting with me. The road was so bad and the hill so steep that Johnson got out and he and Ingalls pushed the wagon a piece. On reaching the road, Johnson got in beside me and Ingalls sat on one of the bodies and lit his pipe. Ingalls told me to drive to the college and I did so, and we left the bodies there.”

***

At daybreak Saturday, several knots of excited citizens gathered at the Avondale Town Hall even though Mayor’s Court didn’t begin until ten o’clock. Ingalls had spent the night in the single cell and Johnson in the basement under the guard of Officer John Hale. Richard Ingalls, Lout, and Dixon were held as witnesses.

Johnson knew he was in trouble and spoke nervously but frankly — or seemed to — about his career as he passed the time. He said that he had helped Ingalls on three previous body-snatching expeditions. The first had been the Sunday before the previous Christmas. He remembered that detail because he was wearing his best clothes.

“I was sitting in my room one evening and Ingalls walked in and said, ‘Ben, I have a point to make tonight and I want you to lend me one dollar.’ I asked him what he meant by ‘a point’, and he said he meant a body for the medical college. He said, ‘I can make $15 in about three hours at this,’ and I said, ‘Why don’t you let me in on it? If you make money that fast, I want some of it.’”

Cincinnati Evening Post drawing of the burker Ben Johnson, published the day of his execution, September 12, 1884.

Cincinnati Evening Post drawing of the burker Ben Johnson, published the day of his execution, September 12, 1884.

That night, they drove out to the “colored cemetery” on Warsaw Pike, sharing a bottle of whiskey on the way.

“When we got to the graveyard, he jumped out, grabbed a shovel and dug into the grave like a demon,” Johnson said. “When he reached the coffin he tore part of the lid off and grabbed the body and threw it to the ground. I never saw a man act like him. He was more like a madman than anything else. He then got the sack from the buggy, rammed the body into it and then he drove to the college and got the money.”

[blocktext align=”right”]”I never saw a man act like him. He was more like a madman than anything else.”[/blocktext]He didn’t know until they got to the Ohio Medical College and spoke with Dr. Cilley, who knew Ingalls as “Jack,” that Ingalls was an old hand at body-snatching, and had delivered as many as four bodies in one night.

“Jack gets the bodies from the cemeteries by paying the sextons two or three dollars apiece,” Johnson said. “Ingalls won’t say a word against the doctor, not a word. You can’t get him to. Just what scheme he and Dr. Cilley have on now, I don’t know.”

Johnson said that at their last delivery before the Taylor family, Cilley told them that he needed several more “points,” by the end of the month. According to Johnson, Cilley said, “Get points if you have to hit someone over the head.”

“He said he’d help us out of any trouble,” Johnson said, “and you see the fix we’re in.”

Cilley would deny saying such a thing, even in jest.

Johnson arrived in Mayor’s Court wearing a “seedy broadcloth suit with an extravagance of collar and cuff,” the Times-Star reported, his face wearing a pained expression, with long lines in his forehead and his eyes sunk deep in their sockets. He had spent a restless night weeping in his cell, and had eaten no breakfast. Ingalls was in the same shabby clothes he’d been arrested in and wore “a ghastly smile” as he gazed at the crowd. He reported sleeping well and had a steak for breakfast.

Both were formally charged with murder by Hamilton County Prosecutor Pugh, who called it “the most horrible crime ever committed in this state or country and the men are evidently guilty.”

In a trembling voice, Johnson pleaded “guilty,” and Ingalls “not guilty.”

In addition to Marshal Brown, Officer Lynch, and Detective White, witnesses included Dr. Cilley and the wagon driver Dixon, who was placed under a $2,000 bond as a witness. Dr. Cilley signed the bond papers himself.

The knots of people had grown to a crowd of several hundred, mostly men and boys, and grew increasingly louder in their shouts for vengeance. Officials feared there would be an attempt at a lynching, although the Commercial Gazette determined that “the spirit of the men lacked earnestness.” Still, five Cincinnati officers joined as many Avondale police standing guard and forming a passageway from the entrance to the waiting patrol wagon. The crowd began hooting even louder when the doors finally swung open as Marshal Brown and Officer Lynch pushed Allen Ingalls and Ben Johnson, manacled together, toward the wagon. Brown and Lynch forcefully pushed the accused burkers into the wagon. The instant the doors closed the driver lashed his team and lurched away, even before the prisoners and officers were fully seated. They sped away with the irate crowd trailing behind, shaking fists and shouting curses.

***

Ingalls stuck to his story about the light black man or a dark white man. Marshall Brown followed him into his cell at the Hamilton County Jail and managed to get something closer to a confession, but Ingalls kept laying the bulk of the blame on his partner.

“On Friday morning,” he told Brown, “Johnson came up to my room and said, ‘I’ve got three points out there.’ I asked him where they were and he said, ‘Why those old folks living out there on the hill. They’re no good. Let’s go tonight and knock them on the head and haul them in.’”

That morning, Ingalls and Johnson called on old Beverly, who was home alone and received them from his bed. They talked cheerily and Ingalls asked the old man if he would like them to come back later with some whiskey. “I would like that first-rate,” Beverly Taylor said.

He confessed to going into town and talking to Dr. Cilley to let him know he’d have some “points” that evening. Dr. Cilley gave him a note to take to the expressman Dixon. That night, they took several drinks from a bottle of whiskey that Johnson had and were feeling pretty good when they got to the Taylors’ just after dark.

“Johnson had a locust club a little longer than a policeman’s club,” he said. “The door was not locked and we bolted right in. The old man was sitting at one side of the fireplace and the woman was sitting in front of the fire smoking a pipe and the little girl was working about the room. As soon as we got in, Johnson stumbled and the club fell onto the floor. He picked it up quickly and turned to the old woman. He struck her and she said, ‘Oh, God! Oh, God!’ and he hit her again. Her pipe fell in her lap. The old man saw it and cried, ‘What have you done!’ He turned and hit the old man and he stiffened, and then he turned to the girl. She was looking at him and could not say a word.

[blocktext align=”right”]“He began knocking them all on the head, striking right and left just as though they were a lot of cattle.”[/blocktext]“He began knocking them all on the head, striking right and left just as though they were a lot of cattle. He hit the old woman first. She made a good deal of fuss and struggled. I grabbed her by the throat and choked her to death. The others didn’t give us much trouble. About one blow settled the little girl.”

Neither of the men set the cabin on fire, Ingalls said, but they had left a fire burning in the fireplace and it had likely sparked.

Ingalls said that Beverly Taylor had given him the idea to become a resurrectionist in the first place and even gave him some pointers on how to come by points.

***

A postcard depicting the defense of the Hamilton County Jail during the 1884 Courthouse Riot.

A postcard depicting the defense of the Hamilton County Jail during the 1884 Courthouse Riot.

Allen Ingalls and Ben Johnson were both in the Hamilton County Jail at the end of March, 1884, during the famous Cincinnati Courthouse Riot, which was sparked by a manslaughter verdict in the premeditated murder of horse trader William Kirk. Part of the backlash included a determination by court and jail officials to see that justice would be served as strictly and efficiently as possible. Since both Ingalls and Johnson had already confessed to the crime, both fully expected to be sentenced to hang, and soon. Ingalls cheated the hangman by doing the job himself on April 30.

Ingalls’s address at the Hamilton County Jail was Cell No. 21, a four-by-eight-foot apartment with one small barred window four feet off the ground overlooking a ventilator court. The thick iron door had a small barred opening at eye level and a three-by-six-inch slit near the bottom for passing food inside and dishes out.

Ingalls had been particularly despondent after the riot. His depression was compounded by the death watch over the prisoner Red McHugh, scheduled to hang the next day, whose cell was directly across from his.

Around 4 a.m., a prisoner near Ingalls’s cell No. 21 was lying awake and heard what he described as “between a gurgle and a grunt,” but thought little of it. Men often made strange noises in their sleep. At 8 a.m., Ingalls did not respond to the call to pass his pan out of the cell to get his breakfast. The prisoner serving him simply pushed the bread through the hole to let Ingalls sleep. At 9 a.m. turnkey Nick Megley passed around the corridor and opened all the cells to allow the prisoners their morning exercise. Ingalls did not come out.

About 9:30, prisoners George English and Sam Loeb were scrubbing the corridor near Ingalls’s cell. William Wright, a prisoner who wrote letters for the illiterate inmates, approached and asked them to rouse Ingalls and ask if he wanted to write a letter to his wife. English called at his cell door, and receiving no answer, pushed it open to find Ingalls suspended by a piece of blanket, the other end tied to the grating of the window, which was little more than four feet off the floor. English stood there for a long moment in silent horror, taking in the dead man’s blood-shot eyes, literally popping from their sockets, his tongue protruding from his mouth, froth about his nostrils and lips. His legs were bent at the knees, a foot from the ground, his toes touching the floor.

English shouted an alarm and Megley arrived with a knife to cut the prisoner down, then lit a match for light. English and Loeb placed the cold body on the iron cot next to a neatly folded pile of clothes topped with a felt hat. While waiting for support, Megley went through the clothes and found a letter in the brim of the hat. Written on a small scrap of paper, it instructed the sheriff to deliver his body to his wife. Wright confessed that he had written that note for Ingalls several days prior. Ingalls said that he expected to meet the hangman within a month and wanted to make sure the medical college did not get his body.

[blocktext align=”left”]The body was cold to the touch, and the doctor immediately offered a one-word diagnosis: “Dead.”[/blocktext]Dr. William Starker happened to be in the building tending to another inmate, so was soon on the scene to examine the prisoner. The body was cold to the touch, and the doctor immediately offered a one-word diagnosis: “Dead.”

Word spread quickly around the jail. The police wagon pulled up to the front door, and a crowd followed it as it sped away toward Habig’s funeral parlor. By 10 a.m., Ingalls’s body lay in a zinc icebox in Habig’s dead room, a crowd already gathering to peer in the windows hoping to get a glimpse of the famous burker. Two police officers stood guard, but soon felt overwhelmed. Officials decided that the best way to avoid a violent scene would be to give the people what they wanted, so they allowed an orderly procession through the dead room. Habig’s men covered all but his face with a blanket. The attending morticians tried in vain to shut the corpse’s eyelids, but one eye could not stay closed and glared back at the gawkers in a ghastly wink. About 5,000 people paraded through the room over the next few hours. Some smiled at the sight and laughed nervously when they left the room. Some seemed about to pass out. No one shed a tear. When he would be buried two days later, only his wife and one of his sons attended. The papers seemed to delight in the postmortem examination that concluded the burker died a slow, painful death.

***

On May 25, 1884, after a three-day trial, a jury deliberated for 59 minutes before finding Ben Johnson guilty of murder and sentencing him to the gallows. “Johnson heard these words… without a tremor or the least change in the expression of his countenance,” the Commercial Gazette said. September 12, 1884, the judge decreed, would be his final day on earth.

[blocktext align=”right”]He wore a new black suit that would serve as both his baptismal attire and his death ensemble.[/blocktext]Ben Johnson spent his last night in religious reverie. At seven o’clock that evening, the Rev. Dr. I.W. Joyce baptized him into the faith of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He wore a new black suit that would serve as both his baptismal attire and his death ensemble. Johnson turned away other visitors and all reporters, though the latter group remained outside the burker’s cell, straining to listen to the conversations between Johnson and his approved visitors. He spoke of religious matters and sang the hymns “Come to Jesus” and “Around the Walls of Zion,” in a loud, off-key voice. Between eleven o’clock and midnight, he prayed fervently, referring to himself as a sinner without revealing any particular sins. At 1 a.m., a cadre of reporters were finally allowed into his cell and the prisoner went about preparations for bed without paying any attention to them. After a while, he stopped, sat on the side of his bed, lit his pipe and stared at his visitors.

“How do you feel?” one asked.

“Like being left alone,” he said, then took off his pants and climbed into bed, his pipe still clenched between his teeth. He glanced around the room, his eyes falling on the table that contained pieces of fruit along with some magazines and religious books. In the center, a bouquet of flowers sent by his sister-in-law drooped in a goblet.

“Your bouquet is withered,” a reporters said.

“It will last as long as I will, I reckon,” he said.

His final night was a restless one. Guards said they heard him crying frequently, moaning the words, “I am saved. Jesus is good.”

In the morning, he had a breakfast of fried chicken, then spent his last hours swinging madly from one mood to another. At times, he seemed almost cheery, convinced that he would soon be in a better place, and would break out into hymns. A dark gloominess would then take over, the light go out of his eyes, and he would say, “They can persecute me here, but they can’t up yonder.”

The crowd began gathering outside the jail at seven that morning. Sheriff Hawkins issued strict orders that no one be admitted to the courtyard where the gallows stood until 9 a.m. When the gates finally opened, those holding tickets to the event only had to show them to enter. Some enterprising people managed to collect tickets from those already inside and began selling them to those outside. Hawkins stopped that practice by ordering that once admitted, no one be allowed to leave. The sheriff had distributed only 100 tickets; more than 500 people, almost entirely men, crowded into the courtyard. They smoked cigars and made grotesque jokes at the prisoner’s expense. No one expressed sympathy.

At three minutes past ten o’clock, a procession of deputies followed the prisoner to the gallows. When Hawkins invited him to address the audience, he walked to the very edge of the platform.

“Friends,” he said loudly and firmly, then stopped. When he continued, his voice contained a nervous tremor. “I don’t know that I have many friends here, but I hope we all will meet as friends before God. I feel that God has forgiven my sins. I want to say to you that I am innocent of the crime charged, but I must suffer. I say I did not commit the crime which is laid against me.”

Johnson paused, and seemed to be searching for something else to say when a gust of wind caught the canvas that had been hung along the jail yard fence to block the view from the outside, creating a loud snapping sound like the crack of a shotgun. Everyone in the courtyard but the prisoner started at the sound. Johnson, merely looked in the direction of the noise and opened his mouth to speak again when a deputy told him to step back. He whirled, confused, and turned completely around. The deputy led him to the trap door, and the prisoner balked, as if fearful it would give way underneath him. Two deputies jostled him into position, then one of them strapped his knees and ankles together while the other placed the noose around his neck, carefully arranging the knot under his left ear, according to tradition. The crowd defined “deathly quiet,” without a rustle or murmur. Even the breeze that had snapped the canvas died away. The deputies moved away and another pair stepped forward and placed the black death shroud over his head, reaching far down onto his shoulders with a slit up one side to accommodate the noose and two dangling pendant strings that the deputies tied around his waist so that no skin showed anywhere. “All ready?” the sheriff asked when the deputies stepped back.

“All ready,” one said, and the prisoner’s knees buckled a little as the sheriff pulled the lever. The silence broke with three distinct noises in rapid succession: the loud crack of the trap door meeting the frame of the platform; the sharp crunch of breaking bones underscored by the dull thud of the slack rope pulling taut; and finally, a wicked bass twang as the body bounced six inches and pulled the rope taut again. The body slowly spun one time before three doctors stepped forward and took turns measuring his heartbeats. The crowd began to murmur. Eleven minutes later, the doctors pronounced him dead.

Coroner Muscroft stepped to the edge of the scaffold and said, “Gentlemen, the sentence of the law has been executed and you will please leave the yard.” Nobody moved. In an irritated tone, Muscroft reiterated: “Gentlemen, please leave the yard at once.”

A Cincinnati Commercial Gazette rendering of the scaffold at the Hamilton County Jail, May 2, 1884.

A Cincinnati Commercial Gazette rendering of the scaffold at the Hamilton County Jail, May 2, 1884.

The crowd started, but as it did a “cheeky cuss” (according to the Post) clambered up the scaffold, pulled out a pocketknife and sliced at the dangling rope. A deputy gave him a rough shove and nearly sent him to the edge of the platform. The man, determined, stepped forward and begged for a piece of rope. The deputy declined, but then Sheriff Hawkins stepped forward and instructed him to untie it, cut it up into pieces and distribute them to the crowd as souvenirs.

“A scene of utmost confusion followed,” the Post said. “Men climbed over each other and shouted to the sheriff at the top of their voices in their eagerness to get pieces of the rope.” The deputy tossed the piece into the crowd, the men fighting for them like beggars scrambling for loose pennies.

Johnson, too, was worried that his body might end up on a dissecting table, and so had made arrangements to be buried in Indiana near his mother, even though he hadn’t seen her since he was three years old.

Although there was mild indignation at the Ohio Medical College’s complicity in the matter, no charges were ever filed against them. There would be many more “resurrections”, but Allen Ingalls and Ben Johnson occupy a similar place in history as William Burke and William Hare as some of the most ghoulish murderers to ever stalk the earth.


After 25 years as a writer and editor for the Hamilton Journal-News, in 2013 Richard O Jones gave up the grind of daily journalism for a life of true crime. His first book, Cincinnati’s Savage Seamstress: The Edythe Klumpp Murder Scandal, was published in October, 2014, by History Press. His second book, The First Celebrity Serial Killer in Southwest Ohio: Confessions of the Strangler Knapp, is set for a Spring 2015 release. He is also the publisher of Two-Dollar Terrors, a series of novella-length true crime stories, and keeper of the blog True Crime Historian.

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One Comment

  1. Diana April 16, 2017 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    I am a amateur historian and tour guide at. Spring Grove cemetery. I have told this story before, but your account offers more information. Thank you.
    There are so many stories…..

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