On a chilly November night in 1844, Bryant Hursey was riding home from a courting expedition. His route led him past the Hartwood Cemetery in Washington Township, east of Newcomerstown. Since it was well past midnight, he no doubt felt a bit of trepidation passing a graveyard surrounded by a dense forest at that late hour.
But what could really happen?
Suddenly, the silence of the night was broken by the sound of horses neighing somewhere in the darkness. His own horse answered them. That was followed by the sound of a heavy object being dragged along the ground in the vicinity of the cemetery. Hursey didn't take time to investigate. He spurred on his horse and got out of there as fast as he could.
That same night, Jim Couts, who lived in the vicinity, awoke from a deep sleep, disturbed by a vivid dream that something was wrong at Hartwood Cemetery. He told his wife, but she responded, "It is just a dream, go back to sleep." Couts fell asleep, but he had the same dream again.
By the following morning, the story of Hursey's experience at the cemetery had spread throughout Washington Township. A large crowd, including Couts, gathered at the graveyard to see what had happened. They discovered that the grave of Hugh Anderson, a young schoolteacher, had been disturbed and his black walnut coffin had been broken apart. George Horn, the carpenter who built it, was there to identify it.
A wave of horror spread through the crowd as they realized that Anderson's corpse was gone.
Hugh Anderson was 27, the son of Squire Mathew and Mary Anderson. Mathew, who brought his family to Ohio from Pennsylvania in the late 1820s, was a Washington Township justice of the peace. They lived on a 100-acre farm just north of the cemetery.
Though in his 20s, Hugh was a man of property. He and his brother William had purchased a small farm near their family home in 1840.
In the spring of 1844, Hugh took ill. Numerous doctors were called in to examine him, but none of them could figure out what was wrong with him. His condition worsened.
Realizing that his end was near, Hugh dictated his last will and testament to Asahel Danison on Oct. 14, 1844. He requested that his mother get his mare, his sister Mary Jane receive his colt and his brother William inherit his rifle and Hugh's half of the farm they jointly owned. Mathew Anderson was to receive the promissory notes that Hugh held, and his father was to have the privilege of cutting timber on Hugh's farm "for saw logs for his own use and wishes his father to have his watch." Mathew was also given the task of paying his son's funeral expenses.
Hugh Anderson died on Halloween, Oct. 31, 1844, and was buried the day that James K. Polk was elected president of the United States.
We have two accounts of what happened next — one recounted by Earl Murphy and written by Doris Baker of Newcomerstown and the other written by J.J. Murphy of Uhrichsville in 1946. They both agree on the essential details.
For a week, residents of Washington Township scoured the countryside in search of Anderson's body. Finally, in desperation, they consulted a "witch" by the name of Axe. She told them they would find the corpse in the Tuscarawas River.
They did not. According to Earl Murphy, "Blacksmiths were busied making grappling hooks, and the dragging began. Every part of the river between Gnadenhutten and Newcomerstown was dragged, but the waters refused to give up the dead."
So a second "witch," a Mrs. Mooney of Tuscarawas, was approached. She told them the grave robbers had intended to hide the body in the river, but they were scared away by someone passing on horseback. So they dropped the body in the woods near the cemetery.
Soon after, everyone in the vicinity gathered at Hartwood Cemetery.
"A great circuit was arranged," according to Earl Murphy. "Men with horns and guns were placed at intervals along the line to give the signal in the event the body was found. Meantime the women were to remain in the woods to prepare a meal for the searchers when the quest should be over."
The first hour passed without incident. Finally, Hugh Anderson's body was found under a rock ledge in a densely wooded area about a quarter of a mile from the cemetery and near the road that ran from Hartwood Cemetery to the river.
Anderson's body was returned to his grave.
People in the area always assumed that his body had been stolen by grave robbers hired by some physician in the area who wanted to dissect Anderson to determine what disease had caused his death.
Jon Baker is a reporter for The Times-Reporter and can be reached at email@example.com.