During the Civil War, John Gayle served in the Union Army with the US Colored Troops (USCT). He later became sexton of a cemetery. Secretly, Gayle disinterred corpses and sold them to medical schools as specimens for dissection.
For at least seven years, from 1870 to 1877, John Gayle (or Gale) was sexton of the United Colored American Cemetery, an African American burial ground in Avondale.
Gayle’s role in body-snatching was not revealed until 1884, when a longtime body-snatcher (and, eventually, murderer) named Allen Ingalls was arrested. When interviewed by a reporter, Ingalls said, “It was here [in Avondale] I made the acquaintance of John Gale, the sexton of the colored cemetery. He broke me into the business of body-snatching.”
Ingalls said that on “many” nights, Gayle dug up bodies that he had previously buried. Local medical colleges paid Gayle $30 to $35 apiece. Ingalls also said,
“Once I was with John Gale out to the Avondale Cemetery, and he dug up a ‘Mason.’ He had all the fancy clothing on – pin and everything. … We always strip a stiff when we take it out of the grave, and no matter how fine the clothes are we throw them back in the grave. John took this man’s pin, however, and put the balance of the clothes back in the grave.”
During Gayle’s employment as sexton, of course, the cemetery trustees knew nothing of this. Gayle lost his job for other reasons.
At an Avondale village council meeting in August 1877, it was alleged that Gayle, while drunk, “went to Neely’s grocery and demanded more whiskey, and being refused, he pulled his pistol and commenced firing in a crowd of boys and women.” Gayle was arrested on a charge of assaulting Samuel Neely with intent to kill. Gayle was in jail by late August and was unable to make bail.
In early September, Gayle wrote an indignant letter to the editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, denying the charges. He closed by stating, “I am a workingman in every sense of the word, and I hope to remain so.”
The following year, Gayle was convicted of shooting at Neely. He was sentenced to five months in the workhouse. He was released but was soon re-arrested on a charge of assault and battery and was sent to prison for a year.
Gayle was back in Cincinnati by 1882, when he attacked his brother-in-law Heywood Day with a pocket-knife and was sentenced to four years in prison. While Gayle was away, his wife Mary Townsend Gayle filed for divorce. John Gayle returned to Cincinnati and was arrested at various times for drunkenness, disorderly conduct, petit larceny, and burglary. John Gayle died in Cincinnati in 1906.
Cincinnati’s body-snatchers usually did not get tombstones. Some of them, after death, were themselves used as specimens for dissection, becoming literal skeletons in the closet. (This was the fate of William Cunningham and of Kate Keaton.) Others, like Allen Ingalls, were buried in unmarked graves.
But John Gayle was different. His service in the Union Army, and his honorable discharge, entitled him to receive a tombstone, at no charge, from the US government. Gayle’s tombstone gives his name plus the designation of his unit: Company B of the 100th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. He is buried in United American Cemetery in Madisonville.