San Francisco, California
It was not that Dr. John Martyn Harlow enjoyed digging up
corpses, and, in fact, in his forty-nine years, that would be only
his second exhumation, but sometimes a man had to disturb the
resting bones of another man. It was the right thing to do for the
right reason. That had included journeying to San Francisco, not on one
railroad, for it would be two additional years, in 1869, that the
entire territory of the United States would be linked by
uninterrupted rail line, but rather having to transfer between four
separate lines to arrive at the fast growing city by the bay. As Dr.
Harlow, attired in a choice suit custom made by one of Boston's
finest tailors, scanned the horizon, and its port with the neat row
of wooden buildings along the shore, each one belching smoke from a
coal stove, he found it hard to consider that hardly twenty months
prior, the whole area had been rocked by a major earthquake. None of
the folks back in Dr. Harlow or the dead man's hometown in rural
Vermont could much comprehend what an earthquake even felt like. But
there, on October 8, 1865, as one of the newspapers reported, there
existed "scarcely a house in the city that does not show some mark of
the visitation, in cracked walls, open joints, flaked plaster, or a
cranky position and many of the old heavy brick structures are so
shaken up and twisted as to be dangerous to the occupants".
Dr. Harlow, thin and slightly haunted looking, his neat salt-and-
pepper beard more salt than pepper with each passing birthday,
thought about how appropriate the miserable weather was for the scene
playing out before him. Rainy, cold, the foggy morning lent Laurel
Hill Cemetery a more macabre aura than usual. The final resting place
of numerous citizens, wealthy and poor alike, which would fittingly
include the grave of Andrew Halladie, famed inventor of the cable
car, so associated with the metropolis, the fifty-four acre graveyard
also served as a place where families would picnic and young couples
would promenade among the dead.
Moisture softened the dirt into mud, making it appear as if it
were a giant cake batter waiting to be mixed. A dampness that seemed
to permeate every cell of his body the way he had seen Scarlet Fever
do so in many of his unfortunate patients.
The grave diggers went about their work diligently. Dr. Harlow
was acquainted with the knowledge that many corpses were being dug up
to be sold to medical schools as cadavers. It was a lucrative
endeavor, but one that he did not approve of. As he watched the men
work, he wondered if they were indeed part of the grisly trade. That
was not his main concern, at least at the moment.
SWACK! Another fresh shovelful of mud was tossed aside.
Holding an umbrella, Dr. Harlow stood impatiently with two other
"Just how long will this be, Harlow?" Judge Johnson, the older of
the men, between coughs, inquired.
"Does the act of digging up a corpse creep you out, Judge?" Dr.
The Judge, one of San Francisco's most respected public officials
and a person whose social butterfly wife, Lilly, appeared to know
everybody who was anybody in the whole region, simply stated, with
disdain, "Certainly not. I shall have other commitments to attend
“Whether or not we approve, death is a natural part of the cycle
of life,” the physician's observation fell on indifferent ears.
The third observer, David Shattuck, took it all in stride. He
freely held a flask which he'd take a sip from every so often. Not
that it was a party or a celebration or anything like that that he
was attending. After all, it was his kin whose bones were being so
thoroughly disturbed. Nor was he an excessive drinker who could throw
'em down real good - at least not anymore.
SWACK! Dr. Harlow's ears perked up at the sound of a shovel as it
The Judge impulsively shoved a legal document into David's hand,
as if he were clutching a piece of cloth ablaze and couldn't wait to
get it out of his age-spotted fingers. "It's official," the Judge
coughed some more, "he's exhumed." That was not climate for a man
with a cold.
David stared at the legal papers and uttered, "Thank you, Your
Again, one of the grave diggers forcefully bore down his shovel,
hitting and splintering wood.
"For God's sake!" Dr. Harlow cried out. "Be careful." Those men
were acting like they were participating in a log-splitting contest.
David took another swig from his trusty flask, extended it via
his hand to Dr. Harlow, an edgy man who did not seem to notice the
bottle at all.
The pair of grave diggers, both youthful men, typical of the
profession that was populated by those who were unskilled at little
else or had yet to take on a respectable apprenticeship, took pride
in the fact that former president Abraham Lincoln himself had once
worked in the trade. Matthew, the stronger of the two, knelt beside
the heavy coffin to tie a thick rope around its handles. Then he
hopped out of the freshly dug burial space. Taking rope in hand, the
grave diggers attached it to the saddles of the two standby muscular
horses and slapped their rumps.
"He's been dead for seven years," Judge Johnson barked. "What
could you possibly hope to find?"
"I hope to find the truth," Dr. Harlow spoke with truthfulness.
In what gave the impression of occurring as fast as a bolt of
lightning hitting a tree, the rope slipped off the coffin, which then
began a perilous slide down six feet of mud, eliciting a "For God's
sake!" cry from Dr. Harlow. As the one closest to it, the healer
immediately dived to his knees to grab the handle to slow the
crashing fall, but the weight of the coffin dragged him with it. Part
of the coffin cracked open, as if an egg shell dropped carelessly by
a child onto a kitchen floor - "DAMN!", was the only word that
streaked in the good doctor's mind - and the bones of a foot came
protruding out. Dr. Harlow flashed a wicked grin at the grave
diggers, who, without hesitation, leaped back into the grave to re-
attach the rope.
Moments later, in the compact cemetery hut, lit by lantern, the
thundershowers heavier and splashing annoyingly through holes in the
roof, Dr. Harlow and David watched as the grave diggers removed the
bulky lid. Full of anticipation, the out-of-towner could feel his own
heartbeats as pronounced as the precipitation that fell on him. The
corpse came into view. David took another gulp from his flask as he
noted how rotted to black the remains had become. Perhaps his
brother-in-law being dug up like a deep-rooted bush wasn't such a
wise idea after all. Then again, it had been his mother-in-law's
decision. His presence was purely as the law required to be "the
family member of record" to witness and receive the documentation of
Dr. Harlow, at once saddened by the sight of his deceased friend
and former patient, but also elated at what the opportunity would
mean for the medical world, carefully touched the head. His fingers
gently glided to the top of the cranium, ending at a large lump.
Memories of two decades earlier came flooding back, swimming like a
school of minnow in his mind. This was, however, not the appropriate
time to reminisce. David nudged him, "Doctor Harlow?"
"David. You're second kin," Dr. Harlow stated as he regained his
composure, "By law, well, I won't force you. Do you want to?"
"I reckon it's only fitting."
David positioned himself at the top of the coffin. He had to be
strong, not physically, but emotionally, spiritually, that was
the important thing. Not a religious person by any stretch of the
imagination, David yet felt that a higher power did govern the
Universe and surely there was a purpose for his standing in the
cemetery at that moment in time about to do the unthinkable. David
placed a hand on each side of the cranium and, in one rapid motion,
with Dr. Harlow holding the body down, twisted off the head, the
movement punctuated with a creaking sound.
"You feeling right?" Dr. Harlow asked as David handed him an open
hat box filled with cotton.
Passing the skull to Dr. Harlow, he mumbled, "Right as rain."
Dr. Harlow, cradling the precious cargo, nestled it in the bed of
white. Suddenly, the notion of something missing came over him like a
cold shiver. The physician with the once dry turned soggy garments
snapped his own head back toward the open coffin. "Where is it?", he
demanded of no one in particular. Dr. Harlow, who began to search
frantically, broke off a piece of coffin wood, then impulsively
tossed it aside. "Not here. I know he was buried with it."
David indulged himself another comfort sip from his trusty flask
as he and the soiled grave diggers looked at one another, confused.
Had this visitor from back east gone mad? Had he contracted the much
feared Scarlet Fever, possibly from one of his patients? Was the
stress of what he was doing getting to him?
Dr. Harlow grabbed the lantern and peered into the coffin. "It
simply must be...A HA!" A partial smile of relief adorning his face,
he lifted up a Tamping Iron, and what an impressive rod it was -
three feet in length, one-half inch in diameter, weighing thirteen
pounds, one end pointed, the other with a crowbar tip. The perfect
tool for a railroad foreman to have in his arsenal. Taking it in one
hand, Dr. Harlow absentmindedly rested his other on the decayed body
in the coffin.
"Extraordinary," David blurted out.
The grave diggers watched restlessly. To them, this was just
another gig. Just another corpse in just another coffin in just
another cemetery. No questions asked. That was, as long as they
were paid in gold coins, preferably, or good old US of A currency.
Finally, one of them asked, "Sir, shall I remove the remains?"
Dr. Harlow could hardly take his eyes from the Tamping Iron, but
managed to reply, "That's quite all right. I have what I came for. Do
you mind finishing? I haven't much time to prepare it for the
"I'll put him to with what dignity is left him."
The healer placed the cover on the box and proceeded to carry
both the head and the Tamping Iron out of the hut.