The Postmortem Life of Anton Probst: Philadelphia’s First Mass Murderer

On the morning of June 7, 1866, Henry Leffmann, a first-year medical student at Jefferson Medical College, arrived at Philadelphia’s Myomensing Prison to set up a large quantity of galvanic batteries. Leffmann’s mentor, Dr. Benjamin Howard Rand, requested these “voltaic cells” to conduct “a most unusual experiment” upon the corpse of executed mass murderer, Anton Probst.1 Rand sought to test a popular theory of the era: “whether electricity might not shock the dead into life again.”2

Although largely forgotten today, Anton Probst and his slaughter of the Deering Family at their South Philadelphia farm on April 7, 1866, remains one of the most gruesome mass murders in American history. The eight victims — the youngest of whom was only two years old — were hacked to pieces in a barn, brains bashed in with a hammer, throats slit with an axe, “felled to the ground like dumb cattle.”3 Early newspaper coverage called it “[t]he most horrible murder, or series of murders that ever occurred in this vicinity since Philadelphia was founded, or, it would not be going too far to assert, that ever took place in the United States.”4

Portrait of Anton Probst by Cohill. April 1866. This photograph was glued inside the front cover of Trial of Anton Probst, for the Murder of Christopher Dearing and Family, at Philadelphia, April 25, 1866, as Well as His Two Confessions, by William B. Mann. (Charles Cohill, Albumen print, Private Collection).

Over the next twenty-five years, the press mythologized and commodified Probst — even in death — as a new species of killer. Within the popular culture of the postbellum era, his name became synonymous with the unnatural, with someone or something inhuman: a “monster in the shape of man.”5

Indeed, from out of Probst’s “diabolical butchery,” a media sensation was born, which plunged the city into near chaos.6 While the “popular heart” of the community quivered “with horror at the dreadful deed,” shameless crowds flocked to the Deering farm to search for grisly souvenirs.7 Others clamored for tickets to the victims’ funeral, eagerly awaiting the chance to peer inside open caskets and witness firsthand the Deerings’ mutilated remains. In a matter of weeks, books and cheaply-made pamphlets flooded the market; their pages packed with a combination of explicit (and often inaccurate) forensic details and equally graphic illustrations. Yet few accounts detailed the curious circumstances involving Probst’s body after his hanging.

“The Body of Him Whose Name Has Terrified the Whole Country.”8

Probst’s naked corpse was reportedly still warm, its skin moist to the touch, when Dr. Rand first applied the poles of Leffmann’s batteries to its face, arms, and legs. As recounted by the Evening Telegraph, the powerful galvanic current caused Probst’s facial muscles to move as if “in secret obedience,” and assume a variety of expressions, including sorrow, hate, and “a ghastly grin.”9 When the battery was similarly applied to his arms and legs, the lifeless limbs “tossed about wildly to and fro.”10 Despite exaggerated reports that the body twitched and convulsed “as though the victim were alive and in terrible agony,” the slayer of the Deering family did not return from the dead.11

At the conclusion of Rand’s galvanic experiments, Probst’s eyes were removed and preserved in a jar of spirits.12 The following day, an autopsy was performed at Jefferson Medical College. There, Professor of Anatomy William H. Pancoast inspected Probst’s internal organs, then weighed and dissected his brain. No friends or family claimed what remained. Likewise, the regulations of the Catholic Church forbade the mass murderer’s corpse to be interred in sacred ground.13 Since Probst himself also “manifested no wish for burial,” it was decided that his skeleton was to be stripped of its flesh, wired together, mounted, and then be “preserved forever in the anatomical museum of Jefferson College.”14 To most Philadelphians, a fate such as this, consigned to an eternity unburied, was a fitting end to a man once referred to as “a human abortion.”15 But shockingly, this was not the end of Anton Probst.

The Murderer Reappears… But at What Cost?

On August 4, 1866, two months after Probst’s execution, the New York Museum of Anatomy (NYMA), a Manhattan-based public anatomical museum, opened its doors to an eagerly awaiting crowd of “hundreds of gentlemen… catalogue in hand.”16 After paying an admission fee of fifty cents each, patrons were ushered into an immense hall with over 100,000 anatomical and pathological specimens, models, paintings, and illustrations. On this day, however, the crowds showed little interest in the museum’s standard array of curiosities. They were there to marvel at its newest addition, the prized attraction they had read about that morning in the New York Times, and on broadsides posted around the city. They were there to see Specimen No. 1,103 — “The actual HEAD AND ARM OF ANTON PROBST the murderer of the Deering Family of Philadelphia.”17

But how could this be? How could the NYMA have Probst’s head and arm, when his articulated skeleton was in Philadelphia, hanging in the museum of Jefferson Medical College?18

Autopsy demonstration by Sir William Osler in “The Green Room,” Philadelphia General Hospital (once known as Old Blockley), ca. 1891. No photographs exist of Anton Probst’s autopsy. However, commemorative photographs, such as this image, provide visceral visual proof of what it was like to witness and/or perform such an act in the 19th-century. (Unidentified photographer, Albumen print, Private Collection)

The New York Museum of Anatomy: “A Grand Panorama of the Human Microcosm”19

The specimens and models of the NYMA were “so strikingly true to nature,” reported the Chicago Tribune, that one “almost imagines himself going the rounds of a vast dissecting room, even fancying that he breathes the sickening odor peculiar to dissecting human flesh.”20 By the 1880s, public anatomical museums like the NYMA provided “entertainment to millions of patrons daily, and had become an important feature of American culture.”21 With a confluence of didactic and sensational anatomical objects — some real, some simulacra, many featuring naked, dissectible female forms, and disease-ravaged genitalia — this “marriage of popular entertainments with quasi-educational artifacts” proved to be an immensely successful business model.22

Notwithstanding the affective qualities of their exhibits (which often featured no scientific focus or educational agenda), public anatomical museums were never affiliated with any of the country’s recognized medical schools. 23 In addition to their vaguely-defined missions, the majority were open to gentlemen only, charged a competitively-priced admission fee, and catered almost exclusively to the middle class.

The NYMA, by comparison, functioned as “a warning to Man that his evil deeds — his abuses of the laws of Nature — must entail their own punishment.”24 Simultaneously, the museum strove to enable mankind to “learn the mysterious workings of their nature.”25 In its real-world application, this amalgamated raison d’être afforded the NYMA opportunities to engage in a sensationalized form of edutainment, allowing for the normalization and exploitation of socially objectionable subject matter, such as sex, torture, pathology, abortion, masturbation, venereal disease, and murder—all in the name of public health, or so they said.

Engraving of exterior of The New York Museum of Anatomy, from Catalogue of the New-York Museum of Anatomy No. 618 Broadway, New-York, ca. 1870. (Private Collection).

Providing lay audiences with cheap access to illustrative materials of an increasingly taboo nature—specifically real and wax nude bodies—eventually exacerbated these museums’ already marginalized reputation within the medical and lay communities. Compounded by the fact that most of their proprietors were either “disbarred physicians or completely untrained confidence men,” by the 1890s public anatomical museums gained reputations as tawdry, depraved versions of the wunderkammers of old.26 Before the start of the new century, many were shut down by the police; their collections seized and subsequently destroyed after being branded hazardous to the minds of the masses.27

It was into this sensationalized, yet liminal world, that the head and arm of Anton Probst, reappeared in the late summer of 1866. Probst’s public display, capitalizing on the atrocities of his life and the popularity of his death, drew in hordes of leering thrill-seekers thirsting for the macabre. To this end, Probst’s body had gone from executed mass murderer, to the raw matter of galvanic experimentation, to a quasi-purposed portent of the criminal justice system. As of the summer of 1891, a quarter century after NYMA’s first advertisement, the memory of Probst’s heinous act was still very much alive. Meanwhile, his remains were reportedly still amongst the museum’s collections. Yet that still doesn’t explain how they ended up in New York City.

The Way of All Such Flesh

The circumstances surrounding the NYMA’s acquisition of Anton Probst are the results of an ill-documented but contentious connection between one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country and a public medical museum located on the outskirts of New York City’s infamous Bowery district. They have heretofore been unacknowledged in scholarly and popular works on Probst and/or public anatomical museums. For brevity’s sake, the particulars associated with the narrative have been greatly summarized.

In August 1866, mere weeks after his execution and autopsy, the NYMA ran advertisements in several city newspapers promoting Probst’s acquisition. “JUST ARRIVED, from Jefferson College, Philadelphia, the head and right arm of Probst, the murderer of the Deering family,” stated an advertisement in the New York Herald.28 “This is no plaster cast taken after death,” read the pages of a NYMA guidebook, “but the bona fide head and right arm, prepared by the Professors of the Philadelphia College of Surgeons, to whom the body was delivered after execution, and purchased from the College by Dr. Jordan [the NYMA’s proprietor], certificates of which are appended to the glass case under which they stand.”29

By asserting, or at the very least claiming, a direct association, a literal sale, between an itinerant quack and professors from one of the most respected medical schools in the nation, the NYMA legitimized the provenance of its newest attraction, and by proxy, the credentials and institutional objectives of its proprietor, Dr. Henry J. Jordan.

While we will never know for certain why Jefferson decided to sell Probst’s remains, the sale, most certainly, had something to do with the scientific utility of his body. Said one anatomist bluntly, “Nobody there had any use for his bones.”30 Indeed, outside of a mere curiosity, it’s hard to imagine a legitimate clinical or anatomical use for Probst’s remains. Still, it’s rather surprising that, despite the intense publicity afforded his trial and execution, Philadelphia’s citizens, and even its physicians, were largely unaware of Probst’s sale to the NYMA. The city’s anatomists, for example, assumed Probst’s prized parts had been stolen. After all, the skulls of famous murderers were considered coveted commodities.31

Another possible reason for the sale could relate to a potentially botched attempt at preserving the mass murderer’s remains. The sole account documenting Probst’s skeletonizing states that his freshly-defleshed bones “were soft, almost calcareous,” that “they wouldn’t have kept,” and that his “carcass went the way of all such flesh.”32

Today, if you visit and look through the records of the Archives and Special Collections of Thomas Jefferson University, you will find no mention of Anton Probst in a book or letter. Nor will you find a physical remnant of the murderer’s head, arm, or any other part of his post-cranial remains. For even if Probst’s soft tissues or softened skeleton had in fact survived into the twentieth-century, many American medical schools, including Jefferson, purged themselves of such collections in the 1960s and 1970s.

Likewise, the New York Museum of Anatomy, once described as a “palace of marvel, mystery and wonder… from the cradle to the grave,” closed their doors to the public around the turn of the twentieth-century.33 Today, all of their collections, including the head and arm of Anton Probst, Philadelphia’s first mass murderer, are presumed to have been destroyed.34

The experimentation, dissection, sale, and display of Probst’s body occurred at a pivotal moment in American medical history, when questions about the appropriate procurement and use of mortal remains in medical education would soon become codified in various Anatomy Acts. The postmortem life of Anton Probst demonstrates the underground and underrecognized tryst between the divergent industries that commodified human bodies for public entertainment and those that engaged in the education and socialization of medical practitioners. This complicated relationship is often overlooked within the histography of American medicine, but it is one worth noting, especially as we continue to discuss the ethical interpretation and display of human remains within cultural institutions.

Notes

  1. Philadelphia Inquirer, September 8, 1930. Leffmann would go on to become one of the most celebrated chemists and toxicologists of his generation. He served as an expert on poisonings at countless murder trials, including, most famously, at the trial of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes. In addition to teaching chemistry and toxicology for several years at his alma mater, Leffmann was also Professor of Chemistry at The Wagner Free Institute and The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, the latter being a position he held for over thirty years. Return to text.
  2. Philadelphia Inquirer, September 8, 1930. Return to text.
  3. Evening Telegraph, June 8, 1866. Probst’s victims included: Christopher Deering, age 38; his wife Julia Deering, age 45; their son John, age 8; their son Thomas, age 6; their daughter Anna, age 4; their daughter Emily, age 2; niece Elizabeth Dolan, age 25; and their farmhand, Cornelius Carey, age 17. Return to text.
  4. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 12, 1866. Return to text.
  5. Cincinnati Enquirer, May 4, 1866. Return to text.
  6. Columbia Democrat and Star of the North (Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania), April 18, 1866. Return to text.
  7. Evening Telegraph, June 8, 1866. On July 23, 1886, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that even the authorities of the Philadelphia County Prison had engaged in relic hunting. Their so-called prison “museum” collection contained four-inch samples of the various ropes used to hang convicted murderers — including Anton Probst’s. Return to text.
  8. Evening Telegraph, June 11, 1866. Return to text.
  9. Evening Telegraph, June 11, 1866. Return to text.
  10. Evening Telegraph, June 11, 1866. Return to text.
  11. The Spirit of Democracy (Woodsfield, Ohio), June 19, 1866. Return to text.
  12. Probst’s eyes were removed by ophthalmic surgeon, Dr. Ezra Dyer. Later that year, Dyer published his findings in an article titled “Fracture of the Lens of one Eye and of the Anterior Capsules of both Eyes from Death by Violent Hanging,” in the New York Journal of Medicine, Vol. 3, No. 18. A discrepancy exists between Dyer’s article and the account published by Philadelphia District Attorney, William B. Mann, which stated that only Probst’s right eye was surgically removed. Return to text.
  13. Evening Telegraph, June 8, 1866 Return to text.
  14. Evening Telegraph, June 8, 1866; Harrisburg Telegraph, June 13, 1866. Despite the press coverage and attendance at Probst’s autopsy, no photographs were taken of his body after death. In fact, no photographs of any kind exist today showing the inside of Jefferson Medical College from 1824-1877. Return to text.
  15. The Morning Post (London, England) July 3, 1866. Return to text.
  16. Chicago Tribune, January 18, 1867. Return to text.
  17. New York Times, August 4, 1866. Return to text.
  18. The ads run by the NYMA are purposefully nebulous. The “head of Anton Probst” could mean anything from his fleshless skull to a wet specimen preparation of the skin and muscles of his face. While the latter is unlikely, it cannot be ruled out. After all, this was the preferred method of preserving the head of presidential assassin, Charles Guiteau, see The Indianapolis Journal, June 21, 1887. Return to text.
  19. A Visit to the New York Museum of Anatomy, 618 Broadway, between Houston and Bleecker Streets, New York City (New York: New York Museum of Anatomy, 1867), 5. Return to text.
  20. Chicago Tribune, January 18, 1867. Return to text.
  21. Andrea Stulman Dennett, Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum of America (New York: New York University Press), 63. Return to text.
  22. Dennett, Weird and Wonderful, 65. Return to text.
  23. Popular anatomical museums were referred to interchangeably as medical museums, popular anatomical museums, or dime museums – although not all dime museums were medical museums and vice versa. For more information on dime museums/medical museums see Dennett, Weird and Wonderful, 61-65. Return to text.
  24. A Visit to the New York Museum of Anatomy, 618 Broadway, between Houston and Bleecker Streets, New York City, 3. Return to text.
  25. A Visit to the New York Museum of Anatomy, 618 Broadway, between Houston and Bleecker Streets, New York City, 3. Return to text.
  26. Dennett, Weird and Wonderful, 63. Return to text.
  27. In one instance, a doctor by the name of Allan McLean Hamilton was convinced that the collections of public anatomical museums were to blame for the ill health of the American people, stating that “weak-minded people had, without a doubt, been made lunatics by the horribly exaggerated sights they saw at them.” The (New York) Sun, Jan. 22, 1888. Return to text.
  28. New York Herald, August 30, 1866. Advertisements promoting Probst’s remains were taken out in the Herald until July 8, 1867, a full year and a month to the date of Probst’s execution. Return to text.
  29. A Visit to the New York Museum of Anatomy, 618 Broadway, between Houston and Bleecker Streets, New York City, 6. Return to text.
  30. The Times (Philadelphia Pennsylvania), August 7, 1875. Return to text.
  31. The Times (Philadelphia Pennsylvania), August 7, 1875. Return to text.
  32. The Times (Philadelphia Pennsylvania), August 7, 1875. Recent research calls this statement into question however, with new findings hinting that other bits and pieces of Probst found their way into the NYMA’s collections, and were not simply left to rot. Return to text.
  33. A Visit to the New York Museum of Anatomy, 618 Broadway, between Houston and Bleecker Streets, New York City, 6. Return to text.
  34. As of the publication of this article, it has been confirmed by the author that the head and arm of Anton Probst is not to be found in any of the following institutional collections: The American Museum of Natural History, The Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, The National Museum of Health and Medicine, The New York Historical Society, Thomas Jefferson University (formerly Jefferson Medical College), and The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archeology. My sincere thanks to F. Michael Angelo, Gisselle Garcia, Brian Spatola, Paul Wolff Mitchell, and countless others for their invaluable assistance in helping me with my search. Return to text.

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