Friday, August 9, 2019

Doctor’s Ploy Unearths Plot

Photo Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives

Grave robbing was considered a serious, yet common, crime in the 19th century. Doctors in search of fresh cadavers to dissect for medical research often would resort to grave robbery. One of Arkansas’s most well-known grave robbing cases occurred in 1904 and erupted into one of the biggest scandals to engulf Searcy, Arkansas.

On the evening of May 22, 1904, police arrived on Dr. Robert Graham Lightle’s property outside of Searcy to find the smoldering remains of the doctor’s barn. Moments before, women at nearby Galloway College reported to police the barn was on fire, and they could hear screams coming from it. Police sifted through the rubble and found a body and Lightle’s gold pocket watch. Lightle’s dentist identified the corpse as Lightle, and the corpse had a broken collarbone consistent with an injury the doctor had suffered recently. Police theorized Lightle had gone out to his barn to fill a coal lamp, dropped the lamp and set the barn and himself afire. Nothing could have been done to save his life, police concluded.

Before he died, though, Lightle had taken out a series of life insurance policies totaling $21,000, with his wife, Ethel, as the beneficiary. When the insurance companies started reviewing Lightle’s file, they became suspicious. First, Lightle had only recently taken out the policies. Second, there was a strange situation with Lightle’s older brother disappearing under mysterious circumstances years before, never to be found. Had Lightle faked his death? And, if so, who was the body in the barn?
Insurance investigators came to Searcy to investigate. During their investigation, they visited the family of a carpenter named Ed Pitts, who had passed away a month before the fire. The ground at Pitts’ grave seemed to be disturbed, which was suspicious, said Pitts’ wife. Investigators ordered Pitts to be exhumed. When the coffin was brought out of the ground, investigators noticed the coffin’s latches were not fastened. When they opened the casket, it was completely empty.

Immediately, the insurance companies filed suit against Mrs. Lightle on the basis of fraud and demanded repayment of the insurance payout. Mrs. Lightle headed off the insurance companies by voluntarily returning the money. White County Sheriff J.P. Wood and Pulaski County Sheriff A.J. Chichester then got a tip that Lightle was hiding out in Georgia and headed that way. Meanwhile, the supposedly, dearly departed Dr. Robert Graham Lightle slipped back into town under the cover of darkness.

A reporter for the Arkansas Gazette soon heard Lightle was alive and back in Searcy. Taking a chance, the reporter called on the Lightle home. Surprisingly, Lightle answered the phone. The reporter asked him why he left the scene of his burning barn and why he dug up a corpse, leaving it to burn. Lightle claimed he dug up the corpse and planned to dissect it but accidentally knocked over a candle that set the barn ablaze. Knowing it was illegal to dig up bodies, the doctor fled to Georgia to avoid prosecution.

The next day, Lightle surrendered to the White County Sheriff who charged him with arson and grave robbery. Rumors began to spread that Lightle was in conspiracy with a group of people, including his attorney, John V. Roberts, and a business associate, Walter Gregory.

The situation was the worst for Roberts because the former mayor of Searcy had just started to campaign to become a state representative. Ultimately, the scandal ended his campaign. A few days after leaving the legislative race, police arrested Roberts for conspiracy to dig up a corpse and for “receiving money under false pretenses.”

Lightle’s trial began on Sept. 2 in Searcy. The chief witness in the trial was Walter Gregory, who chose to testify against Lightle in return for not being prosecuted. He testified Lightle organized the plot to fake his own death, substituted Ed Pitts’ body for his own, and then profited from the insurance payout. In ghastly detail, Gregory told the jury the story of going to the cemetery with Dr. Lightle, digging up the corpse, redressing it and setting the fire.

Under cross examination, Gregory admitted the insurance companies had paid for his room and board during the trial. The jury chose not to convict Lightle of insurance fraud because there was little evidence, but the 12-member panel convicted Lightle of disturbing a grave, a misdemeanor offense. He was sentenced to 6 months in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Three weeks later, the trial for John Roberts began. Gregory, again, was the star witness for the prosecution, testifying that Roberts had conspired with Lightle in the scheme. The jury found Roberts guilty and sentenced him to 6 months in prison and a $50 fine. Although his sentence was light, he was forever ruined professionally in Arkansas. By 1910, Roberts had left the state and settled in Oklahoma.

On Feb. 7, 1905, Lightle died of pneumonia at his mother’s home in Searcy. Until the scandal, he had been a well-respected physician, but the scandal had ruined him both professionally and socially. On his death bed, he asked to be buried away from Searcy because the town had become too hostile for him. His wife buried him in Perryville. As news spread about Dr. Lightle’s death, rumors began to spread that Dr. Lightle was not really dead. Because of the rumors, officials exhumed Dr. Lightle’s coffin on May 9, 1905. They opened the coffin and found the remains of Lightle. For 10 minutes, Perryville residents lined up to observe whether Dr. Lightle had faked his death again. Although decomposed, observers agreed it was him, and the scandal was finally put to rest.

For more information about Searcy or to find more Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at, email or call 501-682-6900.