Robbery of 1870s grave violates federal law – and basic human decency

When his wife of 40 years died in 1875, Charles Ohr expressed his love for her with a costly coffin, fitted with a glass viewing window, and an elaborate tombstone. Then he surrounded her grave with a protective wrought-iron fence.

They had lived through the Civil War in Cumberland, in western Maryland, where he was a physician appointed to treat the thousands of wounded soldiers who filled the makeshift hospitals in the town’s churches and schools. Mary Blackwell Ohr and other women of the town of 8,000 also cared for the soldiers, bringing them into their homes to recuperate or delivering meals to the hospitals.

Ten years after the war, Ohr laid his dead wife to rest in her family’s cemetery in Hancock, about 40 miles to the east, surely believing she would never be disturbed. It is a peaceful place, set upon a wooded hilltop overlooking what are now the ruins of an 18th-century home.

In April, someone broke the compact between the couple and dug up her grave, shoveling out the heavy, brown clay and heaving it over the three-foot-tall iron fence into several piles. The five-foot-deep hole is ragged, the sides beginning to collapse into the darkness below.

The scene is shocking. Mary Ohr has been deprived of her eternal rest, a violation of common decency as well as federal law. The cemetery is within the Chesapeake &Ohio Canal National Historical Park, and park rangers are investigating the crime.

Among the various properties on the fringes of the park and included within its boundaries are the ruins of the Thomas Brent estate, where Mary Ohr was buried. The old farm is accessible only by foot through high grass and brambles. A couple of mushroom hunters found the grave robbery and contacted officials.

National Park Service investigators said the grave had been excavated only a short time before. The turned earth was still fresh.

“A heinous crime” is how ranger Sam Tamburro, the park’s historian, characterized the devastation.

Investigators also found about a dozen holes near the Brent estate ruins consistent with the activity of people with metal detectors who dig down with a screwdriver-like tool to recover an artifact and don’t bother to refill the cavities.

“People who do this sort of thing think of themselves as historians uncovering history,” said acting chief ranger Ryan Peabody. “But instead, history is lost.”

Park officials do not know all that was taken from the grave and therefore don’t fully know what to look for on eBay and other arenas where Civil War artifacts are sold. Archaeologists with the National Park Service have carefully searched the site and documented the damage. They recovered bone, wood and glass fragments and some buttons.

The grave has yet to be filled in.

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