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Title: Cincinnati's "Old Cunny"

A Notorious Purveyor of Human Flesh

Author: Linden F. Edwards

Release Date: July 17, 2021 [eBook #65856]

Language: English

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Prepared by the Staff of the Public Library of Fort Wayne and Allen County 1955

One of a historical series, this pamphlet is published under the direction of the governing Boards of the Public Library of Fort Wayne and Allen County.


B.F. Geyer, President

Joseph E. Kramer, Secretary

W. Page Yarnelle, Treasurer

Willard Shambaugh

Mrs. Sadie Fulk Roehrs


The members of this Board include the members of the Board of Trustees of the School City of Fort Wayne (with the same officers) together with the following citizens chosen from Allen County outside the corporate City of Fort Wayne.

James E. Graham

Mrs. Glenn Henderson

Mrs. Charles Reynolds


In the following publication Linden F. Edwards relates the evil deeds of Ohio’s most notorious resurrectionist, William Cunningham. The paper was originally published in THE OHIO STATE MEDICAL JOURNAL, Volume 50, May, 1954. The author has graciously granted permission to reproduce the article.

The Boards and the Staff of the Public Library of Fort Wayne and Allen County present this publication in the hope that it will interest local readers.

Linden F. Edwards

The son of Albert R. and Mary E. (Hare) Edwards, Linden Forest Edwards was born in Lewisville, Ohio, on November 25, 1899. He received the bachelor of arts degree in 1922 and the master of science degree in 1923 from Ohio State University. Dr. Edwards continued graduate study at the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and Ohio State University. In 1928 the degree of doctor of philosophy was conferred on Linden Edwards by Ohio State University.

Dr. Edwards has had considerable experience in the teaching profession. His former positions follow: instructor in zoology, Ohio State University, 1923-25; instructor in anatomy, University of Illinois, 1925-29. Since 1929 he has served in various capacities in the College of Medicine at Ohio State University.

Dr. Edwards is a member of the following professional organizations: International Association for Dental Research, American Association of Anatomists, Ohio Academy of Science, Columbus Dental Society, American Association of the History of Medicine, and the Franklin County (Ohio) Historical Society. He was a member of Sigma Xi, Omicron Kappa Upsilon, and Gamma Alpha. He is also a past president of the Ohio Academy of Medical History.

Linden F. Edwards has published several books: ANATOMY FOR PHYSICAL EDUCATION, CONCISE ANATOMY, and SYNOPSIS OF ANATOMY. He has also written the chapter entitled “Anatomy” in Trapozzano’s REVIEW OF DENTISTRY FOR STATE BOARD EXAMINATIONS and has coauthored the chapter entitled “The Maxillary Sinus” in Orban’s ORAL HISTOLOGY AND EMBRYOLOGY. He has also published scientific papers in the field of human anatomy. In recent years he has developed an interest in the history of medicine, particularly in the history of anatomy.

Dr. Edwards married Elizabeth Smith on September 2, 1925, and has one daughter. He currently holds the post of professor of anatomy in the College of Medicine at Ohio State University.

For the sake of accuracy and to be truly interpretative the historical account of any era should include a record of the evil deeds of disreputable characters as well as the good deeds of honorable ones, albeit the tendency is to disregard the former in order to glorify the latter, because of their greater appeal to the pride and esteem of their fellow countrymen.

The medical colleges and the good citizens of Cincinnati during the nineteenth century could well boast of their outstanding professors of anatomy, such notables for example, as Doctors Cilley, Clendenin, Cobb, Comegys, Gobrecht, Gross, Judkins and others too numerous to mention—names which still grace the rolls of “Ohio’s Medical Hall of Fame.” It is not the object of this paper to detract one iota from the laurels of these professors of anatomy; rather, the purpose is to depict some of the deeds and something of the character of a villainous individual by the name of William Cunningham, a “professional resurrectionist,” upon whom the professors relied for procuring their anatomical material.


More stories were told about Cunningham than of any other of the resurrectionists in Ohio, of his grave robbing episodes and of his escapades in eluding law officers. He was the bogeyman of all ill-behaved children in the environs of Cincinnati during the period when he plied his trade in corpses, which was between the years 1855 and 1871. He was known locally by various names, including Old Man Dead and The Ghoul, but he was more familiarly called “Old Cunny,” not simply because it was a contraction of his real name but since he was as cunning as the proverbial fox, and due to his adroitness and daring, he was deserving of the cognomen.

He was born in Ireland in 1807 and is described as having been a big raw-boned man with muscles like Hercules, a protruding lower jaw and an insatiable thirst for hard liquor. During the day he was ostensibly a dray-man, but at night he plied his trade as a professional resurrectionist, supplying the medical colleges of Cincinnati with cadavers which he and his hired helpers exhumed from the local cemeteries.

According to a Cincinnati physician, who knew him in a business way, “Cunny was an expert in his business.... Usually he took the body to town in a buggy sitting in the seat beside him. The corpse was dressed up in an old coat, vest and hat. He would hold the reins in his right hand while he would steady the corpse with his left arm around the waist of his silent companion. Whenever people passed and the corpse would gravitate forward and downward Cunny would slap his inoffensive partner in the face and say to him ‘Sit up! This is the last time I am going to take you home when you get drunk. The idea of a man with a family disgracing himself in this way!’”[1]


Illustrative of Old Cunny’s cleverness are the following incidents related about him. One night between the hours of eleven and twelve o’clock he and two of his confederates stopped at a saloon in Carthage to have a drink. His identity being known by almost everyone in the environs of Cincinnati and his nightly movements always arousing suspicion, after he and his helpers had departed several of the patrons of the saloon organized themselves into a posse and proceeded to follow the ghouls to the cemetery used by the City Infirmary in the rear of that institution. The party in pursuit surrounded the cemetery just as the ghouls were in the act of raising two subjects from their graves and commenced firing promiscuously at them. His two helpers escaped into an adjoining woods but Old Cunny stood his grounds and obstinately refused to obey the command to hold up his hands. Finally when one of the members of the party drew a bead on him with a rifle which failed to go off when the cap snapped he reluctantly gave himself up and begged them to spare his life.

Old Cunny was then piled into his conveyance and accompanied by his captors was forced to drive back to Carthage. On their return to that village, he persuaded his captors to stop at the saloon where he bought them several drinks. When they were properly mellowed, he was released and permitted to return to Cincinnati with his empty wagon. However, instead of continuing toward that city, he circumvented the route and returned to the cemetery, during which time his doughty captors merrily dispersed to their homes. Meanwhile, his helpers, having been well trained in their duty, had returned to the scene of their ghoulish task, had hooked the two subjects from their graves, and placed them in sacks all ready for transportation to one of the medical colleges.[2]


On another occasion, he and two of his helpers were apprehended on Reading Road near Walnut Hills with their booty which consisted of two bodies which they had just exhumed from a cemetery near Hartley and were concealed in gunny sacks. The three were immediately placed under arrest and taken to the Ninth Street police station and the bodies were delivered to a near-by funeral establishment for subsequent identification.

The following morning the suspects were released on bail, and that afternoon two unassuming individuals, unknown to the attendant in charge, called at the undertaker’s establishment and claiming they were from the coroner’s office, demanded the bodies for the purpose of holding an inquest on them. The two bodies were released without hesitation. Upon the arrival of the proprietor, when told of the incident he contacted the coroner’s office only to learn that the bodies in question had not been sent for or been seen. Inasmuch as there were no corpi delicti as evidence, no case could be made out against Old Cunny, and he and his confederates were released.[3]

In the CINCINNATI DAILY GAZETTE, under date of November 22, 1870, is a news item to the effect that a body delivered to one of the medical colleges of that city “was stolen by the enterprising sawbones of a rival establishment during the night. Old Cunny was therefore compelled to make another midnight expedition last night much to his disgust—not that he dislikes the business, but that he is now getting old, and that which was once pleasant recreation has now become somewhat of a burden.” Wonder if it ever occurred to that reporter that there is a strong likelihood that Old Cunny himself might have been the guilty one who “stole” the body and re-sold it to a rival institution? Such episodes were known to occur.

Evidently not all of Old Cunny’s contraband was destined for the anatomy laboratories in Cincinnati, as judged from a news item in the CINCINNATI DAILY GAZETTE, dated January 20, 1870. According to this news report “Cunningham, the resurrectionist, deposited a box at the U. S. express office marked ‘Glass with care, C. O. D. Dr. M. P. Hayden, Leavenworth, Kan.’ Suspicions of the company’s agents were excited, and when they opened the box it contained the body of a negro woman prepared for the dissecting knife and served up in a sack. The freight was returned to Mr. Cunningham.”


Old Cunny’s villainous nature is well illustrated in a story told of him when he took ghastly revenge on some frolicking medical students who had played some sort of a joke on him. According to the story, he became so enraged with the students that he knowingly dug up the body of a smallpox victim which he delivered to the dissecting room, as a result of which the unprotected students promptly became infected with the disease.[4]

Although Cunningham probably was booked in the police records of Cincinnati more often than any other of its citizens during his time, not all of the charges brought against him were based on his resurrection activities. As mentioned previously, he was addicted to strong liquor, and because of that weakness he was occasionally booked on charges of drunkenness and disturbance of the peace. Thus, for example, in the CINCINNATI DAILY GAZETTE on January 13, 1870, we read that “William Cunningham, an express driver, who will be remembered by all who have attended the medical colleges in this city, managed to get arrested last night. He first fired his brain with whisky then fired off an enormous revolver on Central Avenue.” The report goes on to say that he had on his person more than seventy dollars in greenbacks, a sum according to the write-up slightly larger than usual for station-house visitors.

... fired off an enormous revolver....

Evidence that Old Cunny enjoyed a lucrative income from his nefarious business is furnished by an editorial in the CINCINNATI DAILY ENQUIRER on February 21, 1871. It comments upon the poor conditions of the Wesleyan Cemetery in that city, pointing out that “several of the graves look as though they had been robbed by a professional body-snatcher. The heads of the graves about two feet square in area are sunken lower than the rest.... Indeed, after a consideration of the ease with which any one can get into the grounds, it is not a matter of surprise if Cunny or some other professional has often paid nocturnal visits to the Wesleyan and obtained subjects for the various medical colleges.” It then goes on to say that “When men of small means, and endowed with a bare living, can afford to purchase fine residences and building sites, can drive home four-hundred dollar carriages right from the manufacturer, things do begin to look somewhat suspicious.” It may be assumed that, by inference, the editorial writer refers to none other than William Cunningham.


As is the usual fate of all culprits who fail to learn that “crime does not pay,” the law finally caught up with the hero of this tale. Old Cunny’s end is best described in a feature article which appeared in the August 31, 1871, issue of the CINCINNATI DAILY ENQUIRER, entitled “The Champion Resurrectionist Caught.” Under this caption it is pointed out that

“Everybody knows ‘Old Cunny,’ the resurrectionist, whose occupation for many years past has been to supply the various medical colleges of the city with subjects for dissection, and, who, it is understood, has amassed quite a handsome competency at his contraband employment. “Twelve or fifteen years ago, when he was in the prime of manhood, Cunny was so adroit and careful, though daring withal, that he carried on the business almost without molestation. But of late years his increasing age and infirmity have several times thrown him into the hands of the officers, though by singular good fortune he has hitherto escaped punishment.”

The news item then goes on to state that

“Yesterday morning about one o’clock, the attention of two police officers was attracted by the figure of an old man driving at a rapid rate down a Cincinnati street followed by a crowd of men and boys running after him, hooting and hollowing ‘Stop him! Shoot him!’ and the like. The officers called him to stop, but he only laid whip to his horse and drove past them. The horse, however, was lame, and the load in the wagon seemingly heavy and after a short race one of the officers grasped the bridle while the other took charge of the driver. The driver was Old Cunny, who, returning after a night’s work at his ghoulish employment, had been delayed on his road home by an accident to his vehicle. In the wagon was found a sack containing the dead body of a man, while a similar package on the seat beside him contained the remains of a child, a boy ten or twelve years old.”

Cunny was taken to the police station and ensconced behind iron bars; his contraband was put in charge of the coroner, and he entered a plea of not guilty. After paying bail to the sum of $300.00, he was released from custody to answer to the charge of illegal possession of dead human bodies at the next session of the Common Pleas Court.

On September 12, 1871, there appears a statement in the same newspaper to the effect that Cunningham had been indicted on five counts. No record could be found as to whether or not he appeared in Court to answer these charges or whether or not he was found guilty and sentenced. The next news we hear of him is in the October 23, 1871, issue of the newspaper in which it is mentioned for the first time that Old Cunny was a patient in the Cincinnati Hospital and that he “regarded the announcement of his demise yesterday morning as an error.” The news item goes on to say that he was suffering a temporary derangement of his system from the use of too much poor whisky but that he promised to be out in a few days ready for business, which he claimed was being sadly neglected during his illness.


It is not known whether or not he was able to fulfill his promise. However, it is known from the announcement in the local daily press that Old Cunny met his demise on November 2, 1871, at the age of 64.[5] According to Juettner that was not the end, however, of his earthly remains; for on authority of this author, prior to Cunningham’s death, he had sold his body to the Medical College of Ohio, and when he died it was turned over to that institution by his “bereaved widow” who managed to get an additional $5.00 bill for his giant carcass. This author also made the claim that, at the time when he wrote the statement, “the skeleton of Old Cunny is to this day the pièce de résistance in the museum of the Medical College of Ohio.”[6]

Juettner’s claim as to the eventual fate of Old Cunny’s skeleton has been verified by a statement received recently from the Department of Anatomy, University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine, where the skeleton is now housed.

This is not the last we hear of Old Cunny’s widow, who has been described as being “a bony, brawny-jawed Irish woman, with a mouth like an alligator.” She had evidently taken up Old Cunny’s business where he left off, judging from a news item that appeared in the OHIO STATE JOURNAL of December 6, 1878, under the date line Cincinnati, December 5. According to this news report, a gang of resurrectionists consisting of five persons was arrested in that city, included among which were two women, one of whom was “the widow of Cunningham, of former notoriety in this business.”

Upon such depraved characters as the Cunninghams did the anatomists of the nineteenth century have to rely for the procurement of their anatomical subjects prior to the passage of anatomy laws, which made it unnecessary to resort to the nefarious and odious practice of body snatching. Inasmuch as the identities of the procurers and of the bodies which they delivered to the medical colleges were unknown to the anatomy professors, all business transactions having been carried on through an intermediary person—usually the janitor—the professors were consequently absolved of being a principal or accessory to the crime of body snatching. Granted that anyone who would be so wanton as to make his livelihood by desecrating places of human sepulture was deserving of all the villifying names hurled at him; nevertheless we should not lose sight of the fact that the sins of commission of the ghoulish resurrectionists were made possible by sins of omission of the public and of their representatives in the legislative halls, who refused for so many years to support an anatomy law, which, as time has proved, abolished the need for resurrectionists.


Juettner, Otto: Daniel Drake and His Followers (Cincinnati, 1909), p. 395.

Cincinnati Daily Gazette, December 24, 1870.

Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, February 3 and 4, 1871.

Juettner, loc. cit., 395.

Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, January 3, 1872.

Juettner, loc. cit., 395.

Transcriber’s Notes

  • Silently corrected a few typos.
  • Retained publication information from the printed edition: this eBook is public-domain in the country of publication.
  • Conjecturally restored the reference to footnote 5 to the least implausible place in the text.
  • In the text versions only, text in italics is delimited by _underscores_.


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