Apple Creek Cemetery – Caution: Explosive Area

Apple Creek Cemetery is the final resting place of Samuel Lautenschlager, a prominent farmer of Franklin township, who died at the age of 50 on October 11, 1894. During his lifetime he lived an ordinary life not much different than anybody else of his time. But it was under the hand of death that Samuel Lautenschlager distinguished himself from his peers: his gravesite is most unusual, in more ways than one.

Gravestone of Samuel Lautenschlager (photo by Laurie Smith)

His gravestone immediately stands out from all the rest of the monuments at the Apple Creek Cemetery. It is oddly shaped: like the remains of a dead and rotting weather-bleached tree trunk with a number of broken branches eerily protruding from either side. It becomes clear why Lautenschlager’s family might have chosen to have a gravestone carved like a dead tree after you find out how he died.

Four miles southeast of Wooster on land that used to be a part of William Tate’s farm, and in 1894 was owned by his son-in-law, Cyrus Frank, stood a large American chestnut tree. Lautenschlager and Frank had made a sharecropping deal that year on all the chestnuts they could gather from the chestnut trees located on the property.

During this time chestnut trees were abundant: 1 in every 4 trees in the eastern woodlands of the U.S.A. were American chestnut. Nearly every cabin, barn, stable, and workshop built before 1900 from Maine to Georgia and across the mid-west from Indiana to Connecticut was made from wood harvested from American chestnut trees. They grew very tall, straight, and fast and the wood was extremely rot resistant. The great American chestnut tree also produced a yearly work-free crop: a small sweet nut that could be eaten raw, roasted, or dried and ground into flour, or used as a cheap animal feed. Many farmers would turn their hogs out in chestnut tree groves to fatten on chestnuts over the winter. Chestnuts had market-value and were worth the effort to collect them.

On the morning of October 11, 1894, Samuel Lautenschlager and his 20-year-old daughter, Laura, had planned to spend the day harvesting chestnuts with Cyrus Frank on the old Tate farm. The Lautenschlagers got to the trees first and Samuel Lautenschlager nimbly climbed a large old chestnut tree to whip chestnuts from the branches while his daughter stayed on the ground to gather the nuts that fell. Cyrus Frank, walking from his house, had just made it to the edge of the field where the tree was located, and noticed Lautenschlager was already at work high up in the tree. Samuel Lautenschlager was seen standing on a high tree limb, not secured or holding on to anything, and was violently lashing at the branches around him in an attempt to get them to release their bounty of nuts. Moments later Cyrus Frank watched in horror as the tree seemed to shake Lautenschlager off like a flea on a dog and he lost his footing and fell 30 feet through the tree’s branches and landed with a dull thud on the ground. Cyrus Frank and Laura Lautenschlager rushed to aid Samuel Lautenschlager, but there was nothing they could do. Death had been instant and gruesome. His left arm was broken at the wrist, his head and face were smashed-in where it had impacted with the ground, and his neck snapped.

Samuel Lautenschlager’s gravestone forever commemorates the instrument of his death: an American chestnut tree. Ironically, not long after Lautenschlager’s death, the American chestnut tree species would teeter on the edge of extinction. Around the year 1904, a fungus, chestnut blight, was accidentally introduced into American forests via chestnut trees imported from Asia. This chestnut tree disease quickly spread by spores traveling through the air, in raindrops, and also by hitching a ride in the fur of rodents, squirrels and rabbits that used the trees for food and shelter. Our native American chestnuts, although giant trees, had very little resistance to this fungus, and once infected, their leaves would die off during the first season and then within two years after infection, the whole tree would die. Soon, thousands of dead and damaged chestnut tree trunks littered the eastern timberlands like ghostly skeletons dotting the landscape. Foresters investigated, but were unable to stop the fungus from spreading, and by the 1950s virtually all American chestnut trees had disappeared from our forests.

Lautenschlager’s unusual gravestone seems to mark not only his death, but also that of the once mighty American chestnut tree.

But the monument above Samuel Lautenschlager’s grave is not the only unusual thing about his gravesite. What is buried below would literally blow your socks off: high explosives.

Samuel and Julia Lautenschlager's monument (photo by Laurie Smith)

Samuel Lautenschlager’s body rests for all eternity with a large grave torpedo safeguarding his remains. A modern day person often associates the word torpedo with an underwater weapon launched from a submarine or naval warship, but before WWI, a torpedo referred to any hidden explosive device, or landmine. At the time of Samuel’s death, the Lautenschlager family apparently feared body-snatching ghouls would find the relatively new Apple Creek Cemetery an enticing place to loot. So they had Wooster undertaker, David Y. Landis, install an “immense grave torpedo” in the grave. These devices were used to deter thieves from stealing bodies, not valuables, and were basically a spring-activated bomb buried with the coffin. If robbers tried to dig up the coffin, the shell would explode, injuring or killing the thieves.

So, why would anybody in Wayne County be worried about their loved one’s body getting stolen out of a grave? Between 1865 and 1890, the number of medical schools in the U.S.A. almost doubled and many popped-up in Ohio. The competition between medical schools became fierce and those that could offer students the best practical experience: a lot of dissections, were the most popular. This created a need for a lot of cadavers, but bodies were hard to come by: many churches objected and many states only permitted the bodies of executed criminals to be used for dissection. This left many medical schools with no way to get enough cadavers for their classes and were forced by the laws of supply and demand to do business with grave robbers. Locally, the University of Wooster operated a medical school between 1869-1896 and some local people may have worried about the security of bodies buried in local cemeteries.

It was during the late 1870s that public outrage over body-snatching reached a fever pitch in Ohio because of a notorious incident involving the body of a former prominent U.S. House Representative, John Scott Harrison, son of President William Henry Harrison, and father of future U.S. President, Benjamin Harrison. After he died, his family went to great measures to secure his body in his gravesite: carefully constructed cement walls, filled with heavy rocks and logs, and hiring a night watchman. Soon after the funeral, they noticed the grave of a young boy next to Harrison’s had been disturbed. Outraged that robbers would steal the body of a boy they went to a Cincinnati medical school to search for the young boy’s body. Finding a trap door in the floor of the medical school they opened it and found a rope descending into the darkness. When they pulled the rope up they found dangling from the end, not the body of a boy, but the body of John Scott Harrison! After this incident many people in Ohio felt if the body of somebody like Harrison could be stolen it could happen to anybody.

Thomas Howell's patent for his Grave Torpedo device.

The public outcry motivated an underemployed Circleville, Ohio watchmaker, Thomas Howell, in 1881, to invent and patent the grave torpedo to solve the problem of grave robbing. Did these devices really work? Yes, according to a news article published in the Richwood Gazette newspaper in 1881: it was reported that a grave robber was killed when, “three men who attempted to rob a grave near Gann in Knox County, Ohio met with a horrible obstacle, when nearing the coffin, they struck a torpedo.”

However, 1881 also marked the year in which Ohio enacted the Anatomy Law which placed restrictions under which medical colleges and teachers may receive bodies for dissection and penalties for having unauthorized corpses in their possession. By the turn of the century grave robbing had significantly declined. Cadaver storage and preservation had improved and legal avenues for obtaining bodies for dissection were more readily available. Furthermore, many cemeteries outlawed the use of grave torpedos during the 1890s because it was too much of an occupational hazard for anyone working in the cemetery. So the need for stealing fresh human corpses declined and body snatching and grave torpedos soon became a thing of the past.

Nobody knows exactly where or how many grave torpedos were buried in cemeteries across Ohio, but Wayne County reportedly has one lying in the grave of Samuel Lautenschlager at the Apple Creek Cemetery.

Comments

  1. I’ve seen that monument many times and I’ve always admired it for being so unusual. That’s an amazing story!

  2. I live in Apple Creek and walk past that gravesite on my daily walk. What an interesting bit of history! There are two more gravesite that have tombstones made to look like dead trees. I don’t know if they have any history of not.

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