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Medfield Murder, Body Snatchers and Halloween

This very spooky story takes place here in Medfield back in the year 1802 and involves both the Mason and Allen families.

Editor's note: By many requests, this story, which has run in the town newspapers in the past, is being published again for the first time on Medfield Patch.

It is perhaps the strangest and most horrifying story in all of Medfield history.

The fact that these events unfolded on Halloween just adds to the intrigue. This very spooky story takes place here in Medfield back in the year 1802 and involves both the Mason and Allen families.

Asa Mason, at the time, lived on the Mason Farm in the very northeastern part of Pine Street, at the Dover line. Today, this would be the property at the very end of Overfield Drive. At age 75, Asa was not in good health and his mind was showing memory loss and fatigue.

Normally, the oldest son would be called upon to take control of the family farm but Asa’s oldest son, Ebenezer, had a history of being mentally unstable. Therefore, Asa by-passed his oldest son and turned over the care and control of the family farm to his son-in-law, William Pitt Allen, who had married Asa’s daughter, Kezia.

This decision enraged Ebenezer, who felt the control of the farm should have been his. On May 18, 1802 the two men were fertilizing the fields, which extended down along Pine Street, when Ebenezer came up behind William Pitt Allen and viciously bludgeoned Allen at least six times, slamming the shovel into his head.

Ebenezer then fled.

Horrified family members came across Allen’s dead body several hours later.  Mason was chased, caught and taken to Dedham Superior Court for trial. Surviving court transcripts show he was convicted in August and on Oct. 7 he was hanged. After the execution, Mason’s body was returned to Medfield, where it was buried in Vine Lake Cemetery, not far from his late brother-in-law’s final resting place.

But the story does not end there. On Halloween night – I am not making this up – a duo of grave robbers crept into Vine Lake Cemetery. There, they dug up Mason’s body that had been in the ground but 23 days.

Town officials were stunned and selectmen quickly appointed a committee to prosecute the body snatcher. They were soon able to report that a Jonathan Sprague of Dedham and a Zadock Howe of Franklin took the body. Both were apprehended and Mason’s decayed body was recovered. 

Sprague and Howe were then brought up on charges and sentenced to appear in the Dedham Court. The night before their court case, the principal witness Royal Sales, who had knowledge of the body snatching, mysteriously vanished. With no witness available to testify against Sprague and Howe, they were released.

Horrified town fathers felt they couldn’t return Mason’s body to Vine Lake Cemetery, for fear it would be stolen again. Instead, Medfield Selectmen John Baxter, Charles Hamant, Moses Hartshorn, Johnson Mason and William Clark had the decaying corpse dismembered and buried parts of Mason in different spots around town. Mason’s torso, which was believed to contain the soul, was buried at the intersection of South Street and Noon Hill Road. That was meant to symbolize Mason’s soul being poised at the crossroads of heaven and hell. Mason’s head was dispatched to the field off South Street next to Stop River. Arms and legs and other body parts were buried elsewhere around town in undisclosed locations.

History leaves us unclear as to why the men stole the body, although at that time period in history such practices were actually not uncommon. In the late 1700’s-early 1800’s, interest in anatomical dissection grew in the United States. The demand for dead bodies for human dissection grew as medical schools were established in the United States.

Good money would be paid for the delivery of bodies that could be dissected for medical purposes. In some towns, the selectmen offer rewards of $100 or more for arrest of the grave-robbers. Iron fences were constructed around many burying grounds as a deterrent to body snatchers. In 1818, it was reported that “burglar proof grave vaults made of steel were sold with the promise that loved ones' remains would not be one of the 40,000 bodies ‘mutilated’ every year on dissecting tables in medical colleges in the United States."

History also leaves us to debate the selectmen’s decision to dismember Mason and leave his body parts buried all over town. But this first murder in Medfield’s history and the shocking events that took place here 209 years ago leaves us with a great piece of Medfield history to tell each Halloween.

Chad October 28, 2012 at 04:37 AM
Great (true) story. I had heard of the 'corporados' of back then paying for class room 'subjects' & laboratory subjects. Leave it to Richard to 'bring it home' again. Thanks yet again for all yer work...

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