The ghoulish tale of the corpse that came back

Solutions to financial problems are often extreme, but rarely as odd as the one 19th century plan that involved posting a corpse to New York

One of the main problems faced by a would-be killer is how to dispose of the body. Some 120 ago, a Copenhagen man came up with a solution that was noteworthy both in terms of its simplicity and, some would say, stupidity. After dispatching his victim, Adolph Philipsen posted the mortal remains to a fictional address 5,000 km away across the Atlantic.

Disappearing like soap powder
Plagued by a failing business and gambling debts, Philipsen’s ill luck was compounded when a large shipment of goods destined for his soap factory failed to materialise. Situated on the inner city road of Store Kongensgade, Philipsen’s factory was his only remaining asset, and when it burned to the ground in September 1890, police suspected arson. Nothing, however, could be proven and the fire allowed Philipsen to cash in on a 600 kroner insurance policy he had taken out some months previously.

Shortly afterwards, police were made aware of the disappearance of one Johan Meyer. A mild-mannered clerk, Meyer worked at the nearby Carl Lund factory and, in addition to his accounting and filing duties, was assigned the task of retrieving the factory’s debts. It was during one of these routine collections that the clerk vanished – seemingly into thin air. Although no evidence was found to suggest murder, police suspected foul play. No-one was beyond suspicion, and the police methodically traced Meyer’s final steps across the city. Investigators found that the trail seemed to go culd around the time he was scheduled to visit Philipsen, who owed a substantial amount of money to the Lund factory.

Dropped in it by wifey
When police called at his house, the factory owner was nowhere to be found. However, his wife was home and she produced a letter that had arrived earlier that day. Her husband, it appeared, had left the country for a new life in South Africa some days earlier and was hoping that his wife would join him.

Philipsen was now a prime suspect in what police increasingly suspected was a murder case. The closest port with connections to South Africa was Hamburg, so a special police force was immediately dispatched to Germany. Unfortunately, they were several hours too late to intercept the departure of the Cape Town steamer. However, soon after their arrival, the police were  granted a stroke of luck. As they were considering their next move, news came that the SS Germain had run aground on a sandbank in Elbe.

The police moved fast. Acting with their Hamburg colleagues, the Danish officers commandeered a small tugboat and made a dash for the stricken vessel, which they boarded without delay. Upon confrontation with the officers, a guilt-racked Philipsen realised the game was up and made a full confession. Indeed, he admitted, it was he who had set fire to his own factory. Furthermore, he made a full confession to the brutal murder of the unfortunate Meyer. The motive, it transpired, was Meyer’s money belt.

Not by a long chalk
But what had become of the body? The answer to this question took the case out of the realms of the ordinary and kept the authorities searching for an explanation. Apparently, after strangling the ill-fated clerk, it turned out that Philipsen had stuffed the body into a large barrel, which had formerly been used to transport chalk. After sealing the lid, the killer had dispatched it to a non-existent address in New York, asking his innocent assistant to drive it to the docks and sign it on to the next Atlantic steamer.

Just how Philipsen expected to get away with the crime is not clear. It would not have taken much sleuthing to identify him as the original sender of the barrel. One theory suggests he was clinging to the hope that the grisly cargo, like so many of his previous factory orders, would simply disappear in transit.

Barrel of … baths
Alas for Philipsen, this was not to be the case. The barrel resurfaced in Copenhagen three months later, where it was opened in the presence of Philipsen and a number of police officers. The sight they uncovered – a partially preserved body covered in a film of white chalk dust – caused the squeamish Philipsen to pass out. Also in the barrel were Meyer’s hat and cane – the latter precisely sawn in two in order to fit it into the barrel.

Philipsen was sentenced to death for his crime, but after taking into account his genuine remorse, the judgement was commuted to life imprisonment. After serving 15 years in Horsens Jail, the murderous factory owner was given a one-way ticket out of the country. But unlike his unlucky victim, Philipsen never returned.

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