It was known as “Toledo’s Trunk Mystery” and for a while in 1886, it was probably the most talked about story of the day. Not just in Toledo, but around the world as it made headlines in many major newspapers. And no doubt it would be just as attention grabbing today, for this story was not only sensational, but laid bare the grisly truth of grave robbing by medical schools. A story that began in a Toledo train station where the lifeless body of a young woman was found in a large trunk. As the New York Times relates the story on September 11, 1886, the trunk had been put on the Wheeling and Lake Erie train earlier in the day in Bellevue, about 40 miles east of Toledo.
“Among the assortment of trunks that arrived this forenoon was one from which there came a terrible odor. It was placed in an isolated spot and the authorities were notified. When the detectives broke open the trunk it appeared to be filled with straw, but on pulling out a quantity, the officers found the body of a young woman. She was of medium height with blue eyes and brown hair. The clothing was of fine quality, indicating that the victim was of a family in good circumstances. In the mouth, a lot of tissue paper had been stuffed.”
Police stayed with the trunk and waited for someone to claim it and and finally a man did. He was promptly arrested and identified as Martin.E. Wilson. He told police he lived near Bellevue, Ohio and didn’t know the contents of the trunk but had been given money by “certain parties” to take the trunk to Toledo where he was to turn it over to a Dr. Hill from the Toledo Medical College on Lagrange Street. Dr. Hill, however, later said he knew nothing about it. A subsequent investigation by the Lucas County Coroner’s Office concluded that the woman had died of consumption a day or two earlier and without any foul play, but for some reason this woman’s body had been spirited away before her burial. The coroner even noted there had been puncture marks under the arms for embalming. By the next day, however, more information was forthcoming and it was revealed that the body was that of Belle Bowen, the 17-year old daughter of a well-known and “prosperous farmer” John.M. Bowen. She had died of consumption(tuberculosis) and had been buried in a small cemetery near Attica, but her grave, still fresh from the Friday burial, was exhumed that same evening. It latercame out at trial that Wilson had worked under the light of a full moon that September night to pull her body from the grave and then put it into a large trunk before loading it on the train to Toledo with a final destination at the Toledo Medical College. When news of what appeared to be a “grave robbing” surfaced, indignation grew rapidly. And it was widely speculated that this might have been part of a regular system of grave robbing that had been taking place to help medical schools obtain cadavers for research and training. The Bowen family doctor, an H.G. Blaine was arrested. It was alleged that the man who took the trunk to Toledo, Martin Wilson was his assistant and the two of them had conspired to steal the body of young Belle. Wilson also faced charges, along with several staff members of the Toledo Medical College. Back in the Attica and Bellevue area, neighbors and townspeople were irate. A number of men threatened to lynch the two medical men if they returned to the area. Meanwhile, farmer John Bowen traveled to Toledo, with the empty coffin of his daguhter to reclaim his beloved Belle.
In the ensuing trial, it was learned that the 35-year old Wilson was a medical student who had been offered free tuition by the Toledo Medical College to bring them cadavers which were rare in those days since there was no lawful way to obtain them. Wilson was eventually convicted and sent to prison, while Dr. Blaine was cleared of charges, claiming that he didn’t know Wilson had stolen the body and had merely helped him buy the large trunk. Blaine eventually returned to practice and moved to Willard Ohio. The staff members at the college were also cleared of wrong doing.
Today, Belle Bowen’s body lies undisturbed, and otherwise undistinguished in her grave at the tiny Omar cemetery near Attica, alongside her parents and other family members. There is no notation of how famous she was in death in 1886 when much of the world knew her name and her macabre story.
The practice of grave robbing was apparently in vogue for a number of years in the Toledo area, for only ten years later after this case made Toledo famous, another Toledo doctor was arrested for stealing corpses from the Toledo Infirmary cemetery. Dr. F.O. Hunt was charged with stealing the body of Edwin Cartwright from his grave. The New York Times reported that the coroner at the time, said he was believed to be “part of a gang of professional ghouls operating here for several months and reaping a rich harvest”.