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The Nearly-Solved Mystery Behind the Missing Corpse of One of the Richest Men Ever

Meet Alexander T. Stewart.

St Mark's cemetery as it appears today. While Stewart's stone is not present, the vault his body was stolen from should be somewhere beneath the "T" in the labyrinth stones.
St Mark’s cemetery as it appears today. While Stewart’s stone is not present, the vault his body was stolen from should be somewhere beneath the “T” in the labyrinth stones. Andrew Lenoir

On the morning of November 7th, 1878, Frank Parker, the assistant sexton of Saint-Mark’s-Church-In-The-Bowery noticed a pile of fresh dirt at the center of the graveyard.

The flat tombstone beside the mound seemed undisturbed, but suspicious nonetheless, the sexton decided to investigate. With the help of a few other clergymen, he lifted the heavy stone bearing the name “STEWART” and was lowered down by a rope into the darkness.

What Parker found in the depths of that crypt, or rather what he didn’t find, sparked one of New York’s greatest mysteries. Two essential objects were missing from Stewart’s tomb at Saint Mark’s: an engraved silver nameplate and, more importantly, the body it identified.

And the body was not just any body. The missing corpse belonged (or used to belong) to the third-richest man in the United States. In fact, to this day, Alexander T. Stewart, the “Merchant Prince,” remains the seventh-richest American of all time. 

The father of the department store, Stewart made his fortune primarily in retail and manufacturing. When it came to fashionable clothes and dry goods in Manhattan, Stewart was the biggest game in town. So when he died in 1876, the enormity of his inherited estate was a surprise to no one. Stewart left behind an empire at the height of its power, a 76-year-old widow, Cornelia, no children, and a massive personal fortune, worth about $46 billion by today’s standards.

A portrait of Alexander T. Stewart on the cover of Harper's Weekly, on the announcement of his death.
A portrait of Alexander T. Stewart on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, on the announcement of his death. New York Public Library/Public Domain

Alexander Stewart made headlines in life as an entrepreneur and shrewd businessman, but his “resurrection” caused a media sensation unparalleled by anything he had experienced in life. Grave robbing was a reality of 19th-century life, but it usually involved the theft of fresh bodies from the poor and disenfranchised for medical experiments. The successful body-snatching of one of the New York’s biggest names, in a bad economy—two years after a failed attempt to rob Lincoln’s Tomb, no less—captured the zeitgeist. (The Lincoln Case, Bess Lovejoy, author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, suggested in an interview, may actually have served as direct inspiration for the Stewart robbers.)

The very same day Frank Parker made his discovery, an eager crowd surrounded Saint Mark’s cemetery, fueled by curiosity. The robbers’ trail was easy to trace. A line of the foul-smelling stains crossed the stone porch, ending at the iron fence where a few scraps of rotting flesh hung limply from its spikes. Detectives found a few other clues: an old copy of the Herald, a shovel, a lamp, a wooden board, and a length of a woman’s stocking. The 11th Street gate’s padlock was found on the sidewalk, unforced and intact. It was apparent that the “ghouls” (as the New York Times dubbed them) had a key.

It was impressive. Not only had the robbers persisted despite the smell of Stewart’s liquefying body, they had also managed to do so while completely evading detection.

Strangely, Stewart’s body had been scheduled to be exhumed and reburied that week at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City. Garden City was Stewart’s largest and least-understood project. Reporters openly questioned “Stewart’s Folly” when construction began on the ambitious project. After his death, the press’s incredulity only increased when Stewart’s widow set aside $1 million for a massive cathedral to be built there in her husband’s memory. The thieves may have known about the plans to relocate the body, suggesting this was an inside job, and preyed on the distraction. Nonetheless, all the clergy and cemetery workers were cleared.

Stewart's residence on corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, New York City, 1861.
Stewart’s residence on corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, New York City, 1861. New York Public Library/Public Domain

From its smell, detectives deduced that the thieves wiped their hands on the Herald after handling the body. The newspaper held other clues. It was dry, despite a light rain the night before. This gave investigators a timeline. The thieves had struck just after the storm passed at 3:00 am. This matched eyewitness accounts of a Delivery Wagon parked across the street that disappeared around 3:30 am. Where that wagon had gone was anyone’s guess. Because of the rancid smell, the robbers may have taken the body out of the city to avoid detection.

The Police advised Mrs. Stewart and Stewart’s executor, “Judge” Henry Hilton, to wait for the grave robbers to contact them. Given Stewart’s decision not to be embalmed and the passage of two years, ransom seemed a more likely motive than medicine. Unless, as one source suggested at the time, someone wanted to study Stewart’s skull through the still-popular “science” of phrenology. “Stealing skulls for phrenology happened,” Lovejoy said in interview, “But usually only to people considered geniuses… like Haydn and Mozart.” While never as popular in America as in Europe, Lovejoy pointed out that, “Some people definitely thought it was worth studying the contours of a famous skull.”

Whatever the reason for the crime, Hilton told the New York Times, they would offer a $25,000 dollar reward for help capturing the criminals.

Before his death, Stewart was seen as something of a miser, even Scrooge-like. Stories circulated that he’d once fired a carpenter for losing a single nail.  There was another rumor he bankrupted the builder of his Fifth Avenue Mansion by suing him for wartime construction delays. In his will, Stewart left no charitable donations to the city or any university.

An 1882 <em>Puck</em> cartoon showing the ghost of Stewart searching for his body, as Henry Hilton posts sale signs on Stewart's properties.
An 1882 Puck cartoon showing the ghost of Stewart searching for his body, as Henry Hilton posts sale signs on Stewart’s properties. Library of Congress/LC-DIG-ppmsca-28470

After news of the reward spread, more than 700 letters flooded in to Hilton, to Mrs. Stewart, and to the Police. Hundreds more appeared in the Herald personals section. All claimed to have information about the case.  

Inspector Duke of the NYPD received one letter— written and addressed in cutout newsprint characters— claiming, “In eight hours I will be in Canada with AT Stewart’s body.” One letter published in the Herald said the body would be returned provided Mrs. Stewart donated $500,000 to any charity. Several spiritualists claimed to channel Stewart himself.  In the onslaught, it was hard for investigators to tell what was authentic.

At least two men actually confessed to the crime under interrogation. Two small-time criminals named William Burke and Henry Vreeland offered to take detectives to the body’s hiding place in Chatham, New Jersey.  But after realizing they faced jail time and not a reward, the pair refused to cooperate. No evidence ever linked them to the case, but fortune hunters descended on Chatham anyway, digging holes and dredging the river in search of Stewart’s remains.

After the Herald’s favorite theory involving a famous resurrectionist and a Stuyvesant Street boardinghouse fell apart, so did public confidence. Articles providing advice on how to prevent grave robbing appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The Herald Tribune took the position that Mrs. Stewart should publicly give up the search in order to end the public hysteria. By Christmas, the story dropped from the headlines, but according to publisher Jacob A. Riis, the damage was done. To him, the Stewart case was, “the dawn of Yellow Journalism.”

In January of 1879, Paul Henry Jones, Post Master of New York and former Civil War General, received a letter from Montreal. A man named Romaine claimed to have Stewart’s body, and asked Jones to serve as his attorney and negotiator. Jones wrote back asking for proof. In answer, he received a package containing Stewart’s missing nameplate. When Jones approached investigators, Hilton refused to pay and accused him of conspiracy. Negotiations faltered, and, unsatisfied, the alleged kidnappers went silent.

A depiction comparing Stewart to an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh.
A depiction comparing Stewart to an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh. New York Public Library/Public Domain

Five years after Stewart’s death, Stewart and Company declared bankruptcy in 1881. That same year, police excavated portions of Brooklyn’s Cypress Hill Cemetery after a false tip that Stewart’s body had been stashed there. That was the last public news about the investigation.

Despite promises to Mrs. Stewart and the press, if Henry Hilton ever found the body, he never announced it. Rumors swirled that private investigators in his employ were still following leads as late as 1885.

In 1887, former NYPD Police Chief Walling published his memoirs and offered an ending to the story.

According to Walling, Mrs. Stewart personally reopened the negotiations with the robbers in 1884, two years before her death. She offered $20,000, and the thieves sent her a marked map of the Hudson Valley. On an appointed night, Mrs. Stewart’s nephew rode down the marked road after midnight, and eventually found a carriage blocking his path. A group of masked men emerged with a scrap of velvet coffin cloth and a bag of bones. After counting the money, they rode off into the night. Walling’s account states that Stewart’s bones were quietly laid to rest in the Cathedral of the Incarnation in 1885.

Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, built as a memorial to Stewart.
Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, built as a memorial to Stewart. Cornell University Library/Public Domain

Others are skeptical. Several historians, including Wayne Fanebust, author of The Missing Corpse: Grave Robbing a Gilded Age Tycoon, believe the body was never recovered. The most compelling evidence includes the testimony of Henry Hilton’s personal assistant, Herbert Antsey, who stated in 1890, “No. The body was never recovered.” In fact, Fanebust suggests that Stewart might not have minded. “Stewart himself wouldn’t have paid the ransom,” he said. By not recovering his mentor’s body, Hilton may have been staying true to the man’s principles.

When Cornelia Stewart died in 1886, the New York Times expressed its own skepticism about the recovery, writing that she was buried, “beside the grave wherein Mrs. Stewart had always supposed that the remains of her husband reposed.” When Hilton died in 1899, the New York World remarked, “the body was never returned. Or perhaps it was returned— who knows?”

Walling’s story is reflected in the Cathedral’s records, but, in an interview, Michael Sniffen, Dean of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, admits the story, “sounds a little made up.” Regardless of Alexander Stewart’s final resting place, the Stewarts’ are not buried beneath their prominent floor marker under the Cathedral’s nave. To avoid another robbery, the exact location of their remains is a secret. If you believe the rumors, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart lie somewhere beneath the altar.

“Still, it makes you wonder,” Sniffen said. “What is in Stewart’s tomb?”