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‘Ghouls at work’ in Hannibal following unspeakable tragedy

Somewhere on the north end of Hannibal’s Riverside Cemetery were buried Eugenia Irwin and her young daughter Charlotte (Lottie.) The death was attributed to a suicide of the mother, who also took the life of the child. A few days after their burial in April 1875, grave robbers were thought to have dug up and stolen Mrs. Irwin’s body. The body was later found and reburied, and then dug up again to satisfy an investigation. Their names are not listed on the cemetery’s list of burials. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY


Just how much can Willie Irwin be expected to bear? During the first dozen years of his life, he had already lost his father (Byron Irwin) to an early death, and now he’s sitting on the bank of Bear Creek at Fifth Street, surrounded by strangers, as his mother and sister are pulled lifeless from the murky water.

It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the 15th day of April 1875. Young Willie has been awake all night, worried over the whereabouts of his mother and sister, who had left home at 7 p.m. the previous evening. Following his mother’s instructions, the boy remained at home, awaiting her return, which was never to be. When daylight came, he reached out for help.

T.S. Hagar, a cooper by profession, and James Munson, a local brick layer, found tracks leading to the creek, and followed them. They noticed a stake in the creek, with a rope attached. At first they believed it to be a trout line. They took ahold of the rope, according to a newspaper report, at which time, the body of Mrs. Irwin floated to the surface, face down.

Young Willie Irwin rushed to the scene and with horror and witnessed the transpiring events. His comfort on the creek bank that morning came from the Elder. Ed B. Challenner, minister of the Christian Church, who offered a shoulder to lean on, and comforting words.

Compounding the deep heartache for the boy was the knowledge that his mother – despondent over a chain of events regarding finances and the heart - intentionally took two lives to the grave, and left him in the world, alone. His only bequest of monetary value was a set of silver spoons, left for him in his trunk by his mother.

There’s much

more to the story

That’s just the beginning of a story that shook Hannibal residents to the core 142 years ago, and haunted their memories for a lifetime.

Eugenia Irwin was considered to be a good Christian woman with a keen business sense. Left alone following her husband’s death in the early 1870s, she moved her children back to her hometown of Hannibal, and used insurance money to buy a two-story frame house on the southwest corner of Church and Eighth streets. There, she operated a boarding house, serving working class men of the blue collar neighborhood. One such man was Charles H. Reed, who was employed by the W.D. Walker Company.

Another was Henry Towson, a moulder with the car works. According to a report published by the Hannibal Clipper newspaper, a romantic relationship grew between the two, and they became engaged. When he left Hannibal because of his work, the two made plans to reunite and marry in Arkansas.

Thirty seven-year-old Eugenia leased her house in Hannibal and invested her remaining financial resources in a futile attempt at starting a life with her new love. Ultimately, the state of his health prevented such a union.

Ten days later, brokenhearted, she returned to Hannibal, despondent over her lost love and the dwindling of her assets. Her tenants welcomed her back into the house she had leased, but her depression continued.

Finally, after writing a farewell letter to her sister in Sedalia, she left her house for the final time, bidding that her son, Willie, remain there until she returned. But she didn’t.

The town mourned the tragic loss of Eugenia and her young daughter, Charlotte (Lottie) Irwin, and they were buried together at Hannibal’s Riverside Cemetery.

But the story doesn’t end here.

Grave robbers

The concept of grave robbery is seldom heard of in this day and age, but a century and a half ago, the practice was a shocking, yet reality.

The headline attached to a story in the Hannibal Clipper newspaper on April 19, 1875, four days after the bodies were found, sums up the story to follow: “Ghouls at work”

Amos Penney was the sexton at Riverside Cemetery, and possessed a keen eye for details. During a walk through the cemetery, a slight irregularity in the sod placed upon Mrs. Irwin’s grave caught his attention. He dug down below the sod, and found that the burial box had been broken, and the grave had been robbed of body and coffin.

Investigating further, he found that two pickets had been broken in the fence at the north end of the cemetery, located on a bluff above Pettibone & Co.’s saw mill. The missing pickets left a large enough opening for a casket to be passed through.

The newspaper reported: “The sexton is very confident the grave robbers made this opening, and left the cemetery through it.”

The fingers of doubt pointed toward Hannibal’s medical society; citizens believing that the body had been exhumed for study. An investigation ensued, and the Hannibal Medical Society conducted a special called meeting, later issuing a united stand of non-involvement. No charges were ever filed.

On April 20, 1875, the Hannibal Clipper announced: “There is a report this evening that the body of Mrs. Irwin has been put back in the grave.”

Two days later, friends of Mrs. Irwin formally requested that the grave of Mrs. Irwin be re-opened, and examined by the city physician, Dr. J.L. Gleason, to set their minds at peace. Signed by “the friends of the unfortunate woman.” The request was fulfilled on April 23. Signing the letter were:

W. Butner, C.H. Foote, John Volk, T.S. Boyer, L.W. Bunch, Stephen Watson, Hugh McKey, W.C. Bower, L.T. Blethan, Thos. Brice, Oscar Pindell, H.R. Landcraft, E.M. Holmes, Andrew Kilian, Jos. A. Smith, S.A. Oliver, Mrs. J.A. Smith, Mrs. E.F. Disbrow, Miss E. Disbrow, Mrs. S. Watson, Mrs. C. Angel, Mrs. L. Ralings, Miss M. Trult, Mrs. R.T. Campbell and S.B. Boyer.

Mrs. Irwin nor her daughter are listed in the Riverside Cemetery internment records available online at

Eugenia Irwin purchased a boarding house on the southwest corner of Church and Eighth streets in Hannibal, Mo., and this was where she was living with her two children, Lottie and 12-year-old Willie, at the time of her death in 1875. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

Mrs. Eugenia Irwin and her daughter, Lottie, drowned in Bear Creek at the foot of Fifth Street on April 15, 1875. The death of the mother was ruled a suicide. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

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