Graverobbing in Chattanooga
Chattanooga Times, november 1894


Chattanooga Times saturday, 24 november 1894, p8

A Case That Demands Immediate Investigation --- A Case of Not Guilty, but Please Don't Do It Again --- The Evidence Produced in Court Yesterday.

According to the evidence heard at the trial of John Hurst and Griffin Jones, the alleged grave robbers, yesterday, an organized gang of grave robbers is at work in the Potter's field, and the chances are that if the graves of that field were opened today and thoroughly examined it would be found that in nine out of ten cases the bodies have been removed and taken from the cemetery. How that could be done when County Sexton Hale is paid to watch the cemetery is not at first apparent. After hearing all the evidence in the case yesterday morning 'Squire Hill said: "I cannot hold the prisoners to court on the evidence before me, but I believe that they are not only guilty, but that another party, one of the witnesses, is in with them in the work of robbing the graves."

The case was called was called at 10 o'clock, and the assistant attorney-general not being present. Deputy Sheriff Wassman, the officer in the case, prosecuted, while J. Hodge McLean defended the prisoners. The first witnesses called was County Sexton Hale. He was a had witness for the state, swearing positively that he knew nothing about any robberies at the Potter's field and had known of no graves being robbed since he has been the sexton. He said that the defendants have worked for him. Jones till the 12th of May and Hurst till the latter part of last July. Since the dates when they were released from the service they have worked but little at the field. The body of Charles Gowen was buried there in the field Saturday afternoon at 2 o'clock. The body of a man named Moore was buried there latter part of last month. He left the cemetery Saturday about 3 o'clock p.m. He never told Assistant Sexton Mitchell that the graves were being robbed. Did tell him to report to him if anything went wrong. No graves have been tampered with for two years.

Assistant Sexton Mitchell was introduced. He said that when he was employed by the sexton to work at the field the was told to watch for students, who might rob the graves, but that he was not to go out of the house if he heard any noise that night, as some parties were coming to bury stillborn infants of prominent people who wished secrecy. "Hale told me that I was not hired to watch these people, and if I heard them I was not to go outside of my house." The second grave witness dug was for a man named Moore, on or about the 28th of last month. While he was digging the grave witness stated that Jones came to him and asked him if Hale had told him anything. "Did he say anything about some little boxes to be buried?" Witness told him what had been said and Jones replied that he was the man who would bury the infants. Witness suspected something was wrong, but said nothing. After dark he heard someone moving in the cemetery, and soon after Jones appeared at the house and asked for a pick, saying he wanted to gather some herbs. Witness thought it was a strange time of the night to gather herbs, but gave Jones the pick. Witness heard someone later at his door, and being afraid, blew out his light. The party outside spoke and gave his name as Hurst, saying that he had come to bury the stillborn infants referred to.

Witness said that the morning after the occurrence he went to the grave of Moore to satisfy himself and found the dirt loose and the grave not quite filled. He threw the dirt out and began a search for the infants, but found none. After digging for some time he struck the adult coffin and found the screws loose in the lid. On raising the lid he found the coffin was empty. He at once covered the coffin and replaced the dirt. He told Hale and Hale told Jones that when "you do that kind of work again you must cover the graves well." There was no more said, but witness, to make himself sure, went to Mrs. Fowler, who lives near the cemetery, and told her that he had found a grave empty and that it had been robbed the previous night. He also told a man named Burnett of the robbing. He told Hale that the bodies were gone.

The witness then told of the latest robbery, which occurred last Saturday night. He said that Saturday he buried two bodies and left a third in a wagon at his house. At dark, while he was digging the grave, Jones and Hurst came to him and tried to persuade to go home, saying that Hale did not intend to pay him for his work. Finally Hurst said "You had better go away, for there will be more little boxes to bury tonight and you may get killed if they find you watching them." Witness feared trouble and left. On the way to town he told the the watchman at the county bridge to look out for two men who might pass on the way to the city with a body in a wagon. The watchman told him to report to a deputy sheriff, and he found Deputy Wassman, to whom he told the story. The officer, being busy then, witness was told to report again if the grave was robbed during the night. At supper the witness told Sexton Hale that he feared a grave would be robbed that night, but Hale told him to rest easy, as he would not be hurt. Witness told Hale that if the body was gone in the morning he would find out who robbed the grave and report it to the officers. The next morning the witness visited the grave and found it torn up, as was the other one. He threw the dirt out, in search of the little boxes again, but found none. At the bottom of the grave he found the big coffin, with the screws loose , and on lifting the lid found that the body had been lifted out. He then told Hale of the second robbery and said that he had reported it to Wassman. Hale said "You did wrong to tell the officers."

When Hurst was arrested Jones called on the witness at the cemetery and asked him why he told the officers, and said "My God, you have ruined us. For the Lord's sake, don't tell the officers I have been here." He then ran out of the cemetery toward the city.

On cross-examination the witness said he had not seen the defendants take any bodies away from the graves, but believed that Hale knew the bodies were being taken from the cemetery. No one was with him when he opened the graves.

Jones, on the stand, denied everything, and said that he had not told Mitchell that he had ruined him. He said that the only object of his visit to the potter's field at the late hour of the night was to gather mullin leaves. When cross-examined he admitted that he lived in bushtown, where mullin leaves grow in abundance. To get the leaves at the cemetery he said he had to walk eight miles. The leaves at his house grow in the yard and all about the place.

Hurst said that he knows nothing about the robberies and that he never buried any infants in the field. He had no conversation with Mitchell on Saturday.

Sexton Hale was again called to the stand and denied the story to the effect that he had told Jones to cover the graves better. He testified that Mitchell had said nothing to him about the robberies.

M.M. Hope was called to impeach the state witness, Mitchell. He said that he would not believe him on oath.

W.F. Montgomery was introduced. Has known Mitchell for thirteen years and had always found him a truthful and reliable man. On one occasion Mitchell and the witness differed in depositions.