In Episode 283 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the former Rhode Island State Burial Grounds in Cranston, searching for the place where Grave 599 was exhumed in November 1883. The remains of Caleb Brown were being retrieved by an undertaker hired by his sister to be reinterred in a family plot. When the grave was exposed it was discovered that Brown’s head was missing. Who took it and why (and how) is a mystery.
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[OUTDOOR SOUNDS / BIRDS]
RAY: There are a lot of big buildings surrounding us here in Cranston, Rhode Island.
JEFF: There are. There’s a lot of razor wire and high fences too!
RAY: That makes sense. The Rhode Island Department of Corrections prison is on the other side of the road from us. There are some large buildings that are currently the Rhode Island Department of Human Services right next to us as well.
JEFF: Right. That used to be the hospital for the insane back when that was the term they used.
RAY: And there’s a medical hospital over that way. There’s a lot of state services buildings here in this huge complex.
JEFF: This whole area is about one square mile. It was once the village of Howard in the southern section of Cranston. The state purchased the land in the mid-1800s to turn it into a prison, alms house, asylum, and so on.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: This area was also the land used for the Rhode Island State Burial Grounds. Hospital patients and inmates who had no loved ones to claim them, were buried here with nothing but a small, numbered marker as a record as to who lies below. Sometimes, though, after burial even years later… family will sometimes pay to have a body dug up so it can be buried in a family burial ground someplace else.
RAY: Oh… are we here to find a lost grave?
JEFF: We are, Ray. We’re looking for grave Number 599… one such grave that was dug up to for reinterment. But gravediggers were shocked to find the head… was missing.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 283 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thank you for coming along with us as we explore this weird land called New England. We’re always on the looking for strange stories of ghosts, monsters, aliens, roadside oddities, and odd history. If you’ve got a weird tale to share from your hometown, please reach out to us anytime through our Web site. You can find a link in the episode description.
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RAY: Okay, Jeff… we’re looking for a headless corpse in Cranston, Rhode Island?
JEFF: We are. And this one is a head-scratcher, Ray.
RAY: Ahhh I get it… HEAD scratcher. Headless corpse…
JEFF: Right. Sorry about that. So, have you heard of the term “ghoul?”
RAY: Sure! Ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties.
JEFF: Right that old Scottish prayer is a classic. But what do you think of when talking about just the term “ghoul?”
RAY: I guess I think of something ghostly? Or maybe a kind of demon-like monster.
JEFF: Sure. I think that’s where most people’s mind goes today. But back in the nineteenth century, the term ghoul referred grave robbers.
RAY: Grave robbers?!
JEFF: Yup. It used to be a pretty big problem for cemeteries and graveyards. Shady characters would sneak into cemeteries, dig up corpses, and rob them of any jewelry or even gold teeth if they had them.
RAY: That’s awful! I never understood the idea of burying people with expensive jewelry anyway. What’s the point of that?
JEFF: Yeah, we get sentimental sometimes. But you know who else was one of the biggest perpetrators of grave robbing?
JEFF: Medical schools and students.
RAY: Ohhhh man… I guess that makes some sense though, right? I’m guessing they’d snatch fresh corpses to bring them back to school and dissect them?
JEFF: That’s exactly right. Or the schools would secretly pay ghouls to bring in bodies. The medical schools wouldn’t ask too many questions as to where they came from. So what better place to target than a grave at the state burying grounds where inmates and patients of the asylum only get a number if no family claims them at the time of death.
RAY: I guess a cemetery like that wouldn’t be guarded like other boneyards.
JEFF: True. Right near where we’re standing among these old asylum buildings and the prison, were the burying grounds where something awful was discovered back in 1883. Something that shocked the state, and left a gruesome mystery.
RAY: Then let’s head back to 1883, and try and figure this out.
RAY: It’s the afternoon of November 15th 1883 here in the Howard section of Cranston, Rhode Island. It’s a pretty autumn day, which is a stark contrast to the dark work that lies ahead for the Undertaker. A man named Reade. Reade has been hired by Mary Wood of Anthony village in nearby Coventry, Rhode Island, to come to the burial grounds and exhume her brother… grave number 599.
JEFF: Grave 599 belongs to Caleb R. Brown. Brown was an inmate of Cranston’s Hospital for the Insane since June of 1879. He was 21 years old at the time. Caleb passed away July 2nd of this year when he was only 25 years of age. At the time of his death, there was no family to claim his remains so he was buried here among hundreds of other inmates who also had nowhere else to go. The marker 599 was placed as his headstone. A few months later, Mary Wood petitioned Superintendent Hunt of the asylum to collect her brother’s remains to be reburied in Crompton next to the grave of their father who died by suicide four years earlier. The Superintendent approved. Which is pretty standard practice when it comes to these matters.
[DIG DIG DIG UNDER NEXT FEW LINES]
RAY: So undertaker Reade and his assistants begin to dig up the grave number 599 – the grave of Caleb Brown.
[DIG DIG DIG]
RAY: They had just barely dug below the surface when their shovels hit something.
JEFF: Look at that! It looks like pieces of wood.
RAY: Oh man… could that be pieces of the coffin?
RAY: The men continue digging, and find more broken wood. They’re careful. It’s becoming clear that this now may be a crime scene.
JEFF: Okay, they’re rolling out two large stones. They weigh maybe 40 or 50 pounds each. Now everyone is concerned.
RAY: Concerned over some rocks in the ground?
JEFF: Concerned because grave diggers don’t carry heavy rocks to put on top of a coffin. They just add dirt.
RAY: Good point.
JEFF: They’re beginning to suspect these rocks may have been brought here to smash open Brown’s coffin.
RAY: Okay… they’re just about down to the coffin now. Yeah. It’s definitely been broken open.
RAY: They’re opening what’s left of the coffin.
JEFF/RAY: Woah! I don’t believe it!
RAY: There’s a corpse there… but he has no head!
JEFF: He’s hardly a corpse. There’s skin draped over a skeleton. But his hands are resting on top of his chest the way an undertaker would place them before burial. Man… he couldn’t have weighed much when they buried him four months ago.
RAY: Jeff! The. Head. Is Gone!
JEFF: Right, there’s that.
RAY: Who would crack this casket open just to steal his head?!
JEFF: There’s also some clumps of blondish hair mixed in with the dirt. Caleb Brown had blonde hair.
RAY: No one can tell if the head was surgically removed or forcefully removed.
JEFF: Superintendent Hunt is appalled by this finding. Suddenly, they notice a few of the other nearby graves seem to be sunken down a little bit. So he orders three of them to be dug up and examined.
[DIG DIG DIG]
JEFF: The graves are opened, but the bodies below are intact. What’s left of Caleb Brown is removed a few days later and buried next to his father in Crompton, but his head is never seen again. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Everything we know about this story comes from a November 19, 1883 Boston Globe article that covered the story.
JEFF: So the article did speculate as to what may have happened to the head of Caleb Brown. But it’s gruesome.
RAY: It is.
JEFF: The theory is that some professional body snatchers… or ghouls… have been known to dig down far enough to just expose the top part of a coffin where the head is. They then crack that part open with nearby rocks or other tools in order to expose the head and upper body… and then… ugh… I almost can’t say it.
RAY: I’LL say it… the ghouls jab a big fish hook up from under the jaw, and use a rope to drag the corpse out of the coffin. Often… there’s breakage. In this case, maybe Brown’s head popped off because the skeleton was so frail.
JEFF: Awful. Gruesome! But the only problem with this theory is that okay, if these ghouls came to snatch his body because they sell them to medical students or schools. Fine. It’s terrible, but I get it. And the head pops off. Uh oh. But wouldn’t they have tossed the head… you know evidence of the crime… back in there and rebury all of it before running for it?
RAY: That’s a good point. So maybe someone wanted Brown’s head or brain only? He was a patient at a psychiatric hospital.
JEFF: Ahhhh… I’ve seen this movie. Young Frankstein? Mel Brooks? Whose brain did I put in my creation, Igor?
RAY: Abby Someone… Abby Normal.
JEFF: The other thing to consider is that these ghouls MUST have been after the body, because I can’t imagine any of the people buried here were interred with anything of value. No rings, to jewelry, no fancy clothes.
Ray: Right. So someone was after this kid’s body. And they must have gotten to him pretty soon after he was initially buried in July of 1883 because no one noticed the dirt was disturbed when they first started digging.
JEFF: Which leaves the mystery of what happened to Caleb Brown’s head. Was some mad scientist trying to LITERALLY get into the head of a psychiatric patient? And if so, why this one? Or was it some ghouls trying to snatch a body, things went wrong and so they quit while they were… ahem… ahead?
RAY: That’s awful, Jeff.
JEFF: I couldn’t help myself.
RAY: And that brings us to After the Legend where we dig deeper…
JEFF: I get it!
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Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.