Fetus discovery leaves unanswered questions

William Neff wasn't totally surprised when he received the phone call Wednesday that contractors found two fetuses in jars beneath an old metal table in his father's old house.

Click here to read our original story on the basement discovery.

The two unborn fetuses found last week will be laid to rest Monday. A graveside service will be held at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hannibal at 10 a.m. Local businesses and churches are donating their time and services for the burial.

"I hadn't been down in the basement for quite a while,â?? the 61-year-old said. â??My dad used to develop x-rays down there and I never saw anything unusual. Of course, when you're a kid, you don't pay attention. When they told me about it, I thought, 'Oh, you're kidding me.'â??

His contractors weren't kidding.

The Neff Family

The home at 203 S. Sixth St. has been in Neff's family since 1950. His father, Dale, a chiropractor, bought the home from a group of doctors. William Neff was one year old when his father made the purchase.

What his parents discovered in the basement of the home was something they never fully revealed to their son.

â??They never really went into too much detail, but they said they had some stuff that was in jars that they had to have disposed of,â?? Neff said. â??I am sure they were trying to protect me. When you're a kid, you don't want to think of there being little bodies downstairs.â??

News of the contractors finding spread quickly through the city of Hannibal with rampant speculation that the home was an underground abortion clinic prior to the Neff family's arrival.

â??My dad told me that one of the doctors helped a lot of ladies there,â?? Neff said. â??I don't know if he meant abortions.â??

Examinations Thursday of the fetuses removed from the Neff home led Marion County Coroner Darrell McCoy to the conclusion that they likely didn't die from a termination procedure. The bodies were too intact considering the crude method of abortions in the early-to-mid 20th Century.

â??The shape the fetuses were in and based on how old they were, and the way they did abortions back in those days, it would be almost impossible to have a fetus preserved and in the shape that these were in,â?? he said. â??It was not uncommon at all for doctors, physicians and school teachers to have fetuses preserved in jars.â??

McCoy said he couldn't rule out the theory completely, but said that it would be nearly impossible to ever know the cause of death.

The other doctors

But if the fetuses weren't connected to the Neff family, then where did they come from? The answer is unclear. Lisa Marks, coordinator of the Hannibal History Museum spent Thursday researching the home and its previous owners for some clues as to what might have happened there prior to the 1950s before Dale Neff bought the building.

Books and paperwork found in the basement revealed the name of Dr. Francis Clay Hopkins, but records show that in 1892, the home was owned by Dr. Edgar C. Hays.

Hays performed pro bono medical services at the Home of the Friendless, once the largest orphanage in Hannibal, bankrolled by some of the city's elite residents.

Marks believes that if speculation over what went on in the Church Street home has any connection to an underground abortion operation, Hays might have been influenced by seeing unwanted children living in poverty.

â??If anyone was going to be an advocate to prevent unwanted pregnancies, you would think it would be one of these doctors,â?? Marks said. â??Back then, doctors were like mad scientists. They were constantly trying to learn and improve their practice, but in a small town like Hannibal, they wouldn't have access to fetuses for research. A lot of what they would be doing was on their own. If they were going to research fetuses, they wouldn't need hundreds of them."

â??I do think there's just enough suspicion to raise about the possibility of abortion.â??

Hays died in 1901 and left the building to his son Dr. William Hays. The younger Hays and Hopkins became partners. Hopkins was a doctor of osteopathy, which meant his treatment and research methods differed from traditional medicine.

â??Dr. Hopkins would have been a little left-of-center and the fact that the Hayes were interacting with these children, you would think they would be sympathetic to womens' rights,â?? Marks said. â??But it's really hard to say.â??

Curiosity and rental property

The house on Church Street has remained vacant for almost two years. Neff rented it to his step-sister for some time, but said the age of the home makes it an inefficient and unpractical residence.

That's why the contractors were there to begin with. Neff said he is making upgrades to the house to place it on the market for sale. As word of Wednesday's strange basement discovery began to circulate through his city, Neff wondered if it might have some affect on his ability to sell it to someone now that it's history's in the public realm.

â??I really don't know,â?? Neff said. â??People are weird. It might draw some people and it might run some people off.â??

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