Hoosier History Live! features host Nelson Price, Saturdays noon to 1 p.m. on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis.

Saturdays, noon to 1 p.m. ET on WICR 88.7 FM.
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May 20, 2017 show

From our audio archives: Two encore shows

Some people like to plant things; others like to dig them up.

This week, Hoosier History Live presents two 30-minute encore shows from our rich audio archives focusing on two memorable figures from Indiana history. The first show explores the life of errant Hoosier tree-planter John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. The second investigates the disinterment of corpses for the purpose of selling them to medical schools in the early 1900s, as practiced by Indianapolis grave robber Rufus Cantrell.

Johnny Appleseed: The facts and myths

Hank Fincken portrays colorful, eccentric Johnny Appleseed at schools, festivals and special events.(Originally aired on Nov. 14, 2009) His real name was John Chapman. He probably died in 1845 in Allen County, where the largest city, Fort Wayne, now celebrates a popular Johnny Appleseed Festival every autumn. Did he wear a saucepan on his head, as depicted in Walt Disney cartoons? What were the facts, and what were the myths or embellishments, about the folk hero of the Indiana frontier known as Johnny Appleseed?

To enlighten us, one of the country's foremost experts on Johnny Appleseed joins Nelson in studio. His guest is Indianapolis-based re-enactor and playwright Hank Fincken, who has spent decades researching Appleseed/Chapman. Hank portrays colorful, eccentric Johnny Appleseed at schools, festivals and special events.

According to most accounts, John Chapman was born in New England in 1774. He was a pacifist and a vegetarian who befriended many Native Americans - all cause for many other pioneers to regard him as a bit of an oddball, although they were grateful for his gifts of apple seedlings as they settled in the frontier. The wanderlust of Chapman/Appleseed is said to have been motivated in part by his spiritual beliefs. In addition to apple seedlings, he distributed scriptures across the Indiana wilderness in the 1830s and '40s.

This drawing of John Chapman is the oldest on record.Before that, Chapman was a true hero during the War of 1812 and helped save the lives of massacre survivors trapped in Mansfield, Ohio, according to Hank. The author of Three Midwest History Plays and Then Some (1997), Hank also portrays such historical figures as Christopher Columbus, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Here's his motto about his one-man shows: "If history were to repeat itself, it would be like this!"

You can judge for yourself as Hank portrays a bit of his Appleseed character during the show.

Some fun facts:

  • Hank has met descendants of the extended Chapman family. (Not directly from Chapman himself, though. He never married.)
  • In several regions of Indiana, particularly northern counties, residents have long been convinced that specific trees are descended from seeds planted by Johnny. Is this possible? And how far west did he travel? Tune in to get the scoop on Appleseed.
  • Hank is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Peru and Costa Rica.

Grave robbers of the early 1900s in Indianapolis

(Originally aired on March 3, 2008) Some people called them "resurrections." Grave robbers outraged people across the country more than 100 years ago; one of the most notorious was based in Indianapolis.

Joan HostetlerRufus Cantrell was a minister and a bartender, as well as a grave robber whose crimes were so extensive he became the focus of national news. Photo historian Joan Hostetler of Heritage Photo Service and The Indiana Album, who has been researching Cantrell and other grave robbers of the era, is Nelson’s studio guest to discuss the ghoulish practice of unearthing bodies and selling them for profit to physicians in need of cadavers for medical research.

According to Joan, Cantrell and his large crew (often billed as "Cantrell and His Gang of Ghouls" by Hoosier newspapers) specialized in stealing bodies from small, rural cemeteries in the Indianapolis area. (They never robbed a grave at Crown Hill Cemetery, the city’s largest cemetery.) There's some thought that Cantrell and his gang befriended grave diggers, enlisting them in their scheme. The gang sold corpses to medical schools and physicians in four states. Among Cantrell's most shocking crimes: After presiding as a preacher at his niece's funeral, Cantrell later slipped into the cemetery and unearthed her corpse. His eventual capture and trial generated national headlines.

A story from the Milwaukee Journal dated August 3, 1903, relates Rufus Cantrell’s plans to capitalize on his notoriety as a graverobber.
Grave robbing in the 1800s and early 1900s was a significant problem at all levels of society. Even Benjamin Harrison, the only president elected from Indiana, had a relative whose body was stolen. (That happened in Ohio, though, not the Hoosier state.)

As refrigeration developed in the early 1900s and medical schools could keep bodies intact for later dissection and examination, the demand by medical schools for "fresh" bodies from the black market became obsolete.

Joan, who collaborated with Nelson and photographer Garry Chilluffo on the Indianapolis Then and Now visual history book, stumbled upon Cantrell's story while researching the life of a detective who helped put the grave robber behind bars.

By the way, you can listen to one of Joan's favorite songs pertaining to this grisly topic, "The Resurrectionist" by the Pet Shop Boys.

Learn more:

Your Hoosier History Live team,

Nelson Price, host and creative director
Molly Head, producer, (317) 927-9101
Richard Sullivan, webmaster and tech director
Pam Fraizer, graphic designer
Garry Chilluffo, media+development director
Michael Armbruster, newsletter editor


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