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Offbeat Oregon History

Body-snatchers planned to hold ex-mayor’s corpse for ransom

The nineteenth century was a kind of golden age of body snatching. Digging up the freshly dead to cash the corpses in at the back door of a nearby medical school was — well, not common exactly, but far from unheard-of.

So when, around the middle of May 1897, Daniel Magone and Charles Montgomery asked a 20-year-old wood hauler named William Rector to help them steal a corpse out of River View Cemetery, Rector didn’t react the way you or I would.

A job was a job, and Rector needed the work, and although it was technically illegal, one couldn’t really get into too much trouble for it … provided, of course, that the corpse being snatched belonged to a poor person.

Body snatching as it was practiced back then was an ancillary industry to the medical profession. Medical colleges needed a constant supply of cadavers to dissect in their labs, and there was never enough available through legitimate sources to slake the demand.

Well, nature abhors a vacuum, and so does a market; so, an underground industry of body-snatchers also called “resurrection men” developed to meet the demand for fresh corpses, by stealing them out of cemeteries in the middle of the night.

This was, of course, illegal; but it wasn’t a felony, and how vigorously the law against it might be enforced varied wildly according to how rich and prominent the decedent had been. Most authorities regarded the trade as a necessary evil and didn’t spend too much energy prosecuting people who’d been caught doing it unless their victim was someone important.

So Rector agreed to take the job. He was told to meet up with Magone in the Rheinpfalz Hotel lounge in Portland shortly before dusk. There, Magone would buy him supper, and afterward they would slip over to the cemetery with their tools and get to work.

At supper, Rector was joined by the other man Magone had hired for the job, Edward Long, and by Magone’s partner in the enterprise, Charles Montgomery. Rector and Long knew each other, and may have traveled together from their hometown of Oregon City to Portland for the meeting; the newspaper accounts don’t specify.

The accounts also don’t specify if Rector and Long knew Montgomery was involved, but it seems unlikely. Montgomery, also an Oregon City man, was a little notorious, and Rector for one was frankly afraid of him. He had, about a year before, been acquitted of murder charges after shooting and killing a man named Hiram Hall on the banks of the Willamette River. Hall had had a bad reputation with the Oregon City police, and Montgomery did not (yet), so although there were no witnesses to the shooting, authorities believed his claim that it had been self-defense.

Even so, he was a known killer, so Rector was probably glad he’d brought his pistol along.

After supper, the four men left the hotel and started through the gloaming darkness toward the cemetery.

Partway there, in a dark and lonely spot, Magone suddenly wheeled on Rector and ordered him to hand his pistol over to Montgomery. Rector, thoroughly frightened, did as he was told; and then Magone, who had been a jolly enough dinner companion, showed a different face:

“I want you to understand that I am running this thing. You look to me for your pay, and if you was to back out or say a word to anybody, why —” And he pulled a six-shot revolver out of his pocket and brandished it at his two frightened workmen as Montgomery looked on impassively.

Neither of them said a word. Finally, Magone re-parked his gat and led the way onto the cemetery grounds.

He told his team that there were two targets for the night, and led the way toward the first one.

The grave marker at its head, a new wooden one doing service until the cut-stone marker should be finished, read “Cicero Hunt Lewis, 1826-1897.”

As they contemplated it, perhaps wondering where they’d heard that name before, Magone was telling them that they wouldn’t be digging Mr. Lewis up until later in the night, after they’d done their first job, which he led them to next.

When they arrived at the next marker, that is probably the moment when both Rector and Long knew something was seriously wrong and that they were both in for some trouble. Because nobody in Portland, or anywhere else in Oregon, was unfamiliar with the name that was written on the temporary marker over the grave they were about to plunder. It was the name of quite possibly the most famous business leader in Portland, a man who’d served two terms as mayor and founded several companies and died a millionaire four years before.

In fact, both Rector and Long probably had accounts in the Portland-based bank the dead man had founded, and which still bore his name: William Sargent Ladd, 1826-1893.

About nine hours later, a gardener at Riverview Cemetery was pruning some trees when he noticed the ground was covered with loose clods of dirt. Investigating, he saw instantly what had happened, and which grave it had happened to. The body snatchers had made no effort to conceal their work; there were rubber-boot tracks all around, they’d left their tools behind, the coffin lay broken and ruined nearby, and of course, they hadn’t bothered to fill the hole back in.

Down the hill, the gardener raced to alert Frederick Lind, the cemetery’s sexton, to what had happened.

Soon, the cemetery was full of private detectives, policemen, and family members of the deceased. The gumshoes went over the crime scene very carefully. It looked like someone had used a big hay knife to hack and pry open the coffin, to remove the body from it; the knife was still there, lying in the dirt. Apparently, the perpetrator had dropped it and been unable to locate it again in the darkness. It looked to be a custom forging, and it would turn out to be a very important clue.

Nearby they found another clue, not a very important one but very piquant nonetheless: A single shoe, one of the pair the late Mr. Ladd had been buried in, lay by the edge of the grave where apparently it had fallen off his foot.

Near the Ladd home, another interesting clue was discovered. It appeared someone had tapped the telephone line there and connected it to a telephone receiver. Police recognized the phone as one that had been stolen two months before from a railroad station house on the east side. Apparently someone, during the grave robbery, had been listening in on the Ladds’ telephone line.

Another very important clue was quickly discovered as well: The trail of muddy bootprints led straight down the hill, across Macadam Road, and down to the riverbank, where the marks of a rowboat’s keel showed the corpse had been taken away by water.

When all the clues had been observed and inventoried, Charles, old Mr. Ladd’s son, and heir asked the sexton to have the grave refilled and restored, empty for the time being. It had become clear that the resurrectionists were well away and the corpse could not be expected to be recovered anytime soon, and leaving the grave open in hopes of a quick resolution seemed pointless.

“It is very clear that the purpose of the robbers is to conceal the remains, in the hopes that a reward will ultimately be offered for them,” the Portland Morning Oregonian’s reporter wrote, in the next day’s edition. “They are undoubtedly men who are aware of the wealth of the heirs of the man whose remains they have stolen. There is no doubt that they are men of experience, for there is every evidence of a thoroughly matured plan to carry out the crime. The fact that the headboard and one shoe were taken points to the intention of the thieves to use these as means of proving that they are in possession of the remains, and, as soon as the search for them somewhat abates, some member of the Ladd family will probably receive one or the other of these as a ghastly reminder that the men who have the body of the dead millionaire are still within call, and are only waiting for a reward to return it to the grave.”

All of which was true, in every particular, with the sole exception of the “men of experience” part, as would become painfully obvious within a matter of hours.

The whole scheme started to unravel right away. Detectives had taken a particular interest in that hay knife, and one of them had recognized the workmanship as being similar to the work of a blacksmith he knew in Lake Oswego. So the flatfoots lugged it over to his place, to see if he recognized it.

He sure did, he told them. He’d forged it to order for a farmer with a place down by the river, a man named — you guessed it: Daniel Magone.

Meanwhile, State Sen. George Brownell of Oregon City had been reading about the outrage in the morning papers, and it was reminding him of a very strange conversation he’d had a month earlier with a constituent. The constituent was asking him whether he thought Mr. Ladd’s grave should be connected with electric wires, you know, for a sort of burglar alarm to protect it from grave robbers. The question had seemed silly at the time, but on the morning of May 18, after reading the article in the Oregonian, suddenly it didn’t anymore. Brownell picked up his telephone and called the police. The constituent, he told them, was a young man named — uh-huh, that’s right: Charles Montgomery.

Detectives were on their way to have a word with both men just a few hours later.

Magone, as befitted the ringleader of such a gang, was silent as the very grave and would not tell the cops a thing. But Montgomery, who, although already somewhat hard-boiled, was still young, cracked under questioning and copped to the rap. He then led the cops to the spot by the riverbank where he and Magone, with their hired helpers Rector and Long, had cached their, uh, prize.

Then he spilled the beans, very thoroughly.

This is the story that came out:

Daniel Magone, at the time of Ladd’s death, had been a wealthy and respected citizen. He had a valuable piece of farmland on the banks of the Willamette about a mile and a half downstream from Oregon City, which he’d inherited from his father; a beautiful wife named Henrietta; and an adorable young daughter. Life was good.

Until suddenly it wasn’t. The depression is known as the “Panic of 1893” caught Magone at the worst possible time and he found himself unable to make his mortgage payments, and he lost his farm.

And then, two years into the depression, he lost his daughter, who drowned in the river before his eyes as he struggled to reach her and save her.

This double blow seems to have sent Magone over the edge. He took to muttering darkly about how the fix was in, the rich were getting richer, and the big-spending elites needed to be made to pay. Many people of his neighbors started avoiding him.

One who did not was Charles Montgomery. “Charlie,” 22, was a much younger man than Magone, who was in his 40s. But Montgomery was also probably just a little cracked, as evidenced by the murder charges. In any case, the two men became regular drinking buddies.

One day after the two of them had had supper together, Magone asked Montgomery to come out for a short walk with him. They strolled halfway across the Madison Street Bridge, and then, in the middle of the river, Magone stopped and took hold of Montgomery’s coat.

“These are desperate, hard times, Charlie,” he said, according to Montgomery’s confession. “I don’t know how we are going to get along, getting poorer all the time. I think if I can’t get ahead some other way pretty soon I’ll go out to the cemetery and dig up Ladd’s bones. I guess they’d give me something handsome to get them back. What do you think about it?”

Montgomery did not at first think Magone was serious. But, over the following months, he learned that yes, he was. And although Montgomery did not at first want to get involved, the thought of the fabulous riches they could shake the Ladds down for finally brought him around. The sum Magone had in mind was $50,000, which would be worth $1.8 million in modern money.

So, Magone got everything ready. He stole the telephone from the train station and hid it near the graveyard, ready for use. He found a pair of laborers hungry enough to take on resurrection work — Rector and Long — telling them the corpses were those of paupers who were being exhumed to sell to the medical college as cadavers, and promising them each $50 for the night’s work — the equivalent of about $1,800 in modern currency.

Then came that supper at the Rheinpfalz, and that memorable stealthy trip to the graveyard, shovels in hand.

Before getting started, the resurrection gang slipped up to the Ladd home, which was adjacent to River View cemetery — William Ladd had actually been one of the cemetery’s founders. There, Montgomery tapped the phone line out of the Ladd house, attaching it to the stolen telephone, so that he would know if an alarm were given.

Then, leaving Montgomery there to listen on the phone, the other three went to the grave.

“Magone’s first work was to stoop over the grave, and slash about its borders with a hay knife,” the Oregonian’s reporter wrote. “’I guess that will fix their burglar alarm,’ he said.”

Then the four of them got busy with their shovels.

“They worked more furiously as they realized what the consequences might be, Magone growing frenzied as they neared the coffin,” the Oregonian reporter recounts. “He turned around several times and thrust his pistol before him into the darkness, at a fancied sound; then replaced it in his pocket and worked like a fiend.”

Finally, they got the casket out on the grass, and Magone hacked it open with the hay knife.

Considering Ladd had been dead for nearly four years, the patriarch’s mortal remains were in tip-top condition; they had, of course, been very carefully embalmed. So at least he wasn’t smelly or falling apart. But Ladd was a big and heavy man, and, being prosperous, was very well fed. The four lads struggled to wrangle their heavy burden down the steep hillside to where their getaway boat lay tied by the river. And by the time they got there, they were too exhausted to go back for their second intended prize, the much fresher body of the late Mr. Lewis.

(Lewis was also a wealthy Portland merchant, although not of the same social prominence as Ladd.)

The four of them were so exhausted, and the morning was by now drawing so near, that they just dumped the body into the boat and cast off, leaving all their tools behind in the graveyard for the detectives to find. And in so doing, of course, they more or less sealed their legal doom.

In court, Montgomery pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Rector’s attorney, S.H. Gruber, had a good deal to say, but he had to be somewhat delicate about it. The thing was because body-snatching is illegal, it didn’t really matter, legally, that Rector basically went through with the corpse-napping scheme at gunpoint. Since he knew very well that stealing corpses for medical experiments was against the law — a point he couldn’t very well dispute, being as the operation was undertaken with great stealth in the middle of the night — the fact that he’d thought he was helping steal a less important corpse for a less unpopular purpose was really no defense at all.

Nonetheless, the attorney made that case to the judge; the judge patiently explained that it would not help his client; and the attorney thanked him and withdrew it.

Then the real audience for Gruber’s speech went back to the newsroom and wrote the story up. Gruber’s client was going to jail, that was clear and unavoidable; but at least his neighbors, and his wife’s friends, would know it wasn’t entirely his fault.

Although Montgomery and Rector both cooperated with the authorities, and neither Magone nor Long would speak a word, in the end all four men ended up drawing the same sentence: Two years. The charge was illegal disinterment.

“Lucky for them it wasn’t blackmail or ransom or kidnapping yet, or extortion. Because they hadn’t even had time to write a note to the Ladd family,” said Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk, in an interview with KGW’s Ashley Korslein for an episode of the Wicked West podcast. “Their thought was that they were going to hold it for ransom, but they were so awful at what they did, that they left too much evidence. I guess that was the good thing for them, was that they were found out quickly, otherwise they would have spent a long time in prison.”

Magone’s trial took a while because he was so obviously unhinged and the question of insanity had to be doped out: Was he crazy enough to need to go to the asylum rather than the prison? In the end, the answer was no, and he ended up finishing up his two years in the regular penitentiary (he’d already served 16 months of it by then, waiting for trial), as did the other three.

As far as I’ve been able to learn, none of them got in any further trouble after they were released.

As for the Ladd family, they purchased a new coffin to replace the one Magone had hacked up, laid their patriarch to rest in it, and re-buried him. But this time, they dug an extra-wide hole, and instead of filling it back in with dirt, they poured in concrete!

It seems a pretty safe bet that no grave robber, resurrection man, body snatcher or ghoul has disturbed old Mr. Ladd’s long-suffering bones since.

(Sources: “The Graverobbing Ghouls: Episode 4,” an episode of the Wicked West podcast by Ashley Korslien published Nov. 16, 2022, by Vault Studios and KGW TV; archives of the Portland Morning Oregonian, May, and June 1897)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

Continued Next Week

 

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