May 24, 2011

Burial of Leon Czolgosz, Quicklime and Sulphuric Acid

After Czolgosz's execution, government officials wanted to destroy his corpse in order to negate relic hunters. Those tasked with destroying Czolgosz's body first used quicklime to hasten deterioration, but later decided to pour sulphuric acid into his grave to completely destroy the corpse. However, there was a small controversy over the effectiveness of this method, as illustrated from the following clipping from the Richmond Dispatch of Richmond, VA, printed November 2, 1901.

Warden Mead Made A Mistake
Czolgosz's Body May Be In Plaster Cast

New York Herald. It is possible that if the body of Leon Czolgosz were exhumed today it would be found well preserved in a plaster of paris cast instead of having been dissolved and disintegrated by the action of the quicklime and vitriol with which it was covered when interred in the prison burial lot at Auburn on Tuesday afternoon.  It had been determined by Warden Mead and Superintendent Cornelius V. Collins to bury the body in a bed of quicklime, so that no trace of the assassin should remain as a possible incentive to relic hunters.

To make certain Warden Mead a few days before Czolgosz was executed placed a piece of raw beef in a jar containing an equal amount of quicklime, but when the Warden opened the jar he was surprised to find the meat practically in the same condition.

Warden Mead and Superintendent Collins then decided to add to the mass of quicklime over Czolgosz body a quantity of vitriol.

This was done. When the body was interred on Tuesday afternoon a layer of quicklime had already been placed in the grave. On this the coffin, the lid of which had been removed, was laid, and the body was then covered with two barrels of quicklime.

Over this a carboy of vitriol, or sulphuric acid was poured, two more barrels of quicklime was thrown in, and over all the earth was shovelled until the grave was filled.

It was anticipated that as a result of the action of the sulphuric acid and the quicklime the body would be dissolved within twelve hours, but it is improbable that this has been the case.

When quicklime and sulphuric acid are combined, the chemical result is plaster of paris and water.  This is the chemical formula:

Ca O plus H2 SO4 equals Ca SO4 plus H2O.  Ca O is the quicklime, H2 SO4 the sulphuric acid, Ca SO4 the plaster of paris resulting from the chemical combination, and H2O the water left over, which, in the course of time, would evaporate.

"It is entirely possible that Czolgosz's body is enclosed in a plaster of paris cast, said Professor Charles F. Chandler, of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and of the University of New York, last night.

"Plaster of Paris would result from the combination of the sulphuric acid and quicklime, but to have the effect of each of them as a solvent entirely neutralized it would be necessary that they should have been combined in exactly the right proportions.

"There is undoubtedly a large amount of plaster of paris surrounding Czolgosz's body if he was buried in the manner described by the newspapers, but there was undoubtedly either too much sulphuric acid or too much quicklime, probably the latter, to make a perfect chemical combination of the entire mass.  There would be enough of either the quicklime or sulphuric acid left over to dissolve the body in the course of time.

"In order to make a plaster of paris cast it would be necessary that there should be ninety-eight parts of the acid to fifty-six parts of the lime--that is, if the acid were absolutely pure.  The vitriol of commerce, however, contains about six and one-half parts of water to ninety-three and one-half parts of pure acid.

"A carboy, as I remember, contains about 150 pounds, which would not be sufficient to entirely neutralize the quantity of quicklime with which the body was covered.  Quicklime would not, under any circumstances dissolve the body in twenty-four hours, but there is undoubtedly enough of it left to do the desired work int he course of time."

This letter, bearing on the matter, was received by the Herald yesterday:

To the Editor of the Herald:
I have just been reading about the cremation of the assassin Czolgosz, and the way Warden Mead expects to destroy the body.  If your account is correct Warden Mead evidently did not know that his modus operandi will cause the body to be kept forever preserved in a matrix of sulphate of lime or plaster of paris, and that he might as well have placed the body in alcohol.

Of course, the action of the oil of vitriol on the lime will produce intense heat, but probably the body will be preserved by that very fact, as the vapor produced around the body will act as a protective layer, or cushion, between it and the surrounding quick-setting plaster of paris.

All this is very elementary, and a tyro* in chemistry could have pointed that out to Warden Mead.  His purpose would have surely been attained with the oil of vitriol alone, or, better, with a strong soda lye (a solution of caustic soda or potash), the latter having been used by a certain criminal in Chicago to effectively destroy the body of his wife.

Newark, N.J., October 30, 1901

* A tyro is a beginner/novice


Terry Morgan ( said...

My understanding, after trying to locate this grave in Auburn, is that the grave was paved over by one of the roads in the cemetery.

Tinman0670 said...

Not quite. Within the past 2 years remains were discovered in someone's backyard while they were digging to install some fence posts. Turns out it was immates from Auburn Prison, at least 265 bodies. It's nelieved Czolgosz and William Kemmler are amongst them.