Dr. Grave-Robber Cooley

Dennis Cooley was likely South Deerfield’s first native-born physician – one who, had he stayed put and practiced locally, may have never lived down a dark, macabre stain on his reputation. Like so many others of his time, he started over on what was then the Wild West of the Great Lakes or Northwest Territory, becoming a leading citizen of Washington Township, Macomb County, Michigan, where he died in 1860.

Cooley’s February 18, 1789 birth date presents him as the oldest of 14 children born to Eli and Chloe (Allen) Cooley, whose home stood on the east side of the so-called “county road from Deerfield to Hatfield” in what was then Bloody Brook, now North Main Street, South Deerfield. His grandparents, Azariah and Eleanor (Warriner) Cooley, were among Bloody Brook’s founding families.

Growing up in Deerfield and educated in its schools, Cooley established lasting friendships with upper-crust contemporaries like Dr. Stephen W. Williams – a well-known Old Deerfield physician and med-school classmate – and author/educator Edward Hitchcock – an early Deerfield Academy headmaster, Conway minister, and Amherst College president. The three friends maintained lively correspondence throughout their lives, no matter where their travels took them.

According to Cooley’s online Find A Grave profile, he moved to Georgia and practiced medicine for five years after graduating in August 1822 from Berkshire Medical College in Pittsfield and soon being approved for medical practice by the Massachusetts Medical Society. Despite his move to the sunny South, however, he found time to return to Franklin County at least briefly in the fall of 1824. That’s when he made a regrettable decision that would stick with him locally for the rest of his life.

In those days, just as today, medical researchers were always on the lookout for cadavers to dissect and study. For just such a specimen Cooley, sometime after November 15, 1824, fixated on the corpse of a Greenfield man who had taken his own life in bloody fashion. The problem was that he secretly exhumed the corpse from its grave in the dark of night, leaving behind an empty casket – which was soon discovered.

Six years later, on a trip home to marry childhood neighbor Elizabeth Anderson, he was arrested, jailed, tried, and convicted by the state Supreme Court. Well, sort of. Because, you see, Cooley escaped serious consequences when the court ruled that by the time of his 1830 arrest and prosecution, the two-year statute of limitations had passed.

Who knows what Cooley’s philosophical, grave-robbing justification was, or what exactly he intended to do with a pre-embalming-fluid cadaver more than 1,000 difficult miles away from his Georgia home and practice? Did he intend to carve up his pungent prize in an old friend’s barn? On a kitchen table? Were there accomplices with shared human-anatomy fascinations? Did he believe the suicide victim was a mortal sinner destined for the fires of hell, and thus free for the taking? At this point, nearly 200 years later, we’ll never know the answers.

Medical research on cadavers at the time was common at medical schools and hospitals. Friend Peter Thomas, former director of the University of Vermont archaeology department, recalls the time he was called to investigate many bones unearthed by construction crews making improvements to the basement of the college’s old Pomeroy Hall medical school. Related burial sites were also discovered under an athletic field and on private property owned by a college trustee in nearby Williston, Vermont. Those buried remains were undoubtedly mostly paupers, many of them immigrants who had lived and died on the streets of New York City, or maybe even Burlington, without the means for a proper burial. With the state or city stuck with burial costs, such people apparently became much-needed medical-research specimens.

Such cadavers were also common in the elite, Ivy League medical schools of the time, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Penn. In the name of scientific research, this gruesome practice was deemed philosophically justifiable from a utilitarian perspective aimed at understanding human anatomy and saving lives.

As for the Greenfield man who unwittingly “donated” his body to medicine, Mr. Pierce Chase (1775-1824), he is an interesting character in his own right. Relying on Greenfield newspaper reports, the spelling of his first name is inconsistent, varying between Pierce and Peirce. From this point forward, I’ll use the traditional spelling P-i-e-r-c-e, which appears in his online Find A Grave profile and on wife Abigail (Mott) Chase’s (1784-1832) High Street Cemetery gravestone in Greenfield. Though the suicide victim’s own gravesite is unknown, it is assumed that he too was buried at High Street, within walking distance of his Factory Hollow home near the mouth of Fall River.

Although Chase, a miller and property owner with a home and family, was far from a have-not, he seems to have fallen on hard times by his November 13, 1824 suicide at age 47. He ended his life by slashing his neck with a razor, leaving a 40-year-old wife and three young sons ages 16, 9, and 7.

When Abigail died eight years later, in 1832, Chester Bascom was appointed guardian of minor brothers James, 17, and Lyman, 15. Bascom (1786-1841) came from a long line of Factory Hollow clothiers and fulling millers, and had sold Chase property in Greenfield’s industrial northeast corner in 1811.

Soon after Chase’s burial, there was evidence his grave had been tampered with and further investigation revealed an empty casket. The community was stunned. The corpse had been stolen. A notice in the Greenfield Gazette and Franklin Herald speculated that the dirty deed had been done “between the 15th and 25th day of the month.” Soon to follow was a notice in the same paper that Greenfield selectmen and 51 subscribers had put up a $200 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator(s). That was a lot of money back then, representing about a year’s pay for an unskilled laborer or farm hand.

How and when Dr. Dennis Cooley was outed as the grave robber is unclear from newspaper and Thompson’s History of Greenfield accounts. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read the transcript, if extant, of the two-day state Supreme Court trial presided over by Greenfield Justice Elijah Alvord, Esq.? Perhaps a project for another day.

In the meantime, there you have the forgotten tale of Bloody Brook’s Dr. Dennis Cooley. What an unwelcome surprise awaited the doctor upon returning home from the Michigan wilds for the joyous occasion of marrying an old hometown sweetheart. Likely, by the time legal wrangling were over some seven or eight months later, and he was free to return with new wife to his Washington Township home, his neighbors never heard a peep about any faraway grave-robbing scandal. Dr. Cooley was thus able to live out the final 30 years of his life as an unblemished pioneer physician and postmaster.

Such men living on the edge were able to hide their sordid pasts, and dismiss any and all hideous rumors as small-town gossip perpetrated by hateful rivals. There was then no Internet or 24/7 cable news to uncover that type of dishonesty and shame. That was the beauty of life on the old frontier, especially those with skeletons in their closet, no pun intended.

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