Nineteenth-century medical schools plundered the graves of African Americans.
“I remember a colored lady was going to work early in the morning, about half past five o’clock. She was standing at Twelfth and Market Streets when an automobile came up. A man in the automobile spoke to her, ‘Mary, which way are you going? I’ll take you where you want to go in a hurry. The trolleys are all blocked.’ But the lady wouldn’t get in the automobile.” The story, collected in Tristram Potter Coffin and Henning Cohen’s 1966 Folklore in America, begins with a fair degree of menace but is otherwise unremarkable: a single woman harassed by a stranger in a car, the kind of danger women everywhere in America face. Only at the end does it become strange. “The man kept on insisting,” the unnamed respondent continues, “and the woman became frightened. Just then a colored man across the way saw her and started towards her. At that the man in the automobile left. He was a night doctor and was going to take the lady to the hospital.”
Shadowy, elusive, terrifying—for well over a century after the Civil War the night doctors moved through the cities and through American folklore, looking for their victims.
Health care in the United States has rarely been motivated by philanthropy. The South Carolina Medical College, for example, founded in 1824 by the Medical Society of South Carolina, subsisted directly on fees paid by students. Increasingly, by the 1820s and thirties, anatomy classes were a requirement of doctors who wanted to practice in the States, and places like the South Carolina Medical College were founded as a money-making enterprise to serve that need.
Of particular note was that the SCMC was chartered to only treat slaves. Certainly there were hospitals for whites, but Southern doctors made the majority of their income from operating on slaves; in such transactions, the plantation master was the client, not the patient him or herself. Doctors in the South regularly relied on the bodies of slaves as a means to practice their craft, often advertising their need for “interesting” conditions. Such interest often came with callous disregard for these men and women. Todd L. Savitt chronicles an antebellum example of blatant malpractice in which a slave was sent to a Southern medical college with a leg ulcer that had been caused by a burn. “The wound would not yield to the staff’s ministrations,” Savitt writes, “so the surgeon decided to amputate his leg—an extreme remedy in such a case. The servant believed that ‘his leg was cut off just to let the students see the operation, and to bring the doctor, as well as the medical college … into notice.’ ”
Furthermore, offering to treat people free of charge was one method of getting cadavers. Individuals who died at the hospital—and thus away from their families—were easier to seize for dissection, since there was no one present to take the body for a proper funeral. And without cadavers, there could be no medical school.
In the early nineteenth century, the number of medical schools in the United States and Europe exploded. By one count, America began the nineteenth century with just four, but by century’s end there were more than 160. It was, as Charles Caldwell termed it, “a perfect medical-school mania”: as the field tried to slough allegations of quackery and mysticism through more rigorous training and understanding, medical degrees became a quick means for young men to raise their social standing and make a middle-class living.
But with the rise in popularity of the so-called Paris School of medicine, which focused on anatomy and dissection, medical colleges needed corpses. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the only corpses that could be dissected in anatomy schools were those of executed criminals, which meant that medical schools regularly plundered untended cemeteries for fresh bodies. A new professional emerged: the resurrectionist, also known as a grab, a bone-grubber, or an all-night man. One Michigan physician from the 1850s put it best by noting that “violation of the sepulchre [was] essential to the study of anatomy.”
The paradox was evident everywhere: the 1828 statute in which the state of Georgia chartered the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta also outlawed grave robbing, limiting the available supply of cadavers. In order to compete for students, medical colleges more or less had to advertise their ability to flout the law. One circular advertising the South Carolina Medical College advertised that “arrangements for private dissection are peculiarly attended to, and subjects are obtained in abundance, and with great facility.” But from where did this abundant supply arrive?
To “peculiarly attend” to dissection, the college relied on the Peculiar Institution. In 1831, Thomas Wentworth Higginson reported seeing in a Charleston newspaper an ad for the South Carolina Medical College that ran, “Some advantages of a peculiar character are connected with this institution, which is may be proper to point out. No place in the United States offers as great opportunities for the acquisition of anatomical knowledge. Subjects being obtained from among the coloured population in sufficient numbers for every purpose, and proper dissections carried on without offending any individuals in the community!” Just as in life, African Americans were expected to offer cheap labor to drive an economy that benefited whites; in death, the medical establishment soon saw, they could further monetize their corpses to attract foreign medical students.
Blacks were not the only population whose bodies were regularly plundered for medical schools: the corpses of immigrants, the indigent, the insane, and other marginal groups were also abused in this manner. But the African American community was in many ways the most visible image of this desecration, precisely because of the racist impulse that saw such defilement as no great crime. As Harold Jackson noted, “It is ironic that, because dissection was illegal in South Carolina, the college had to assure its potential enrollees that it could procure sufficient numbers of cadavers, and, despite the fact that it was illegal, the college felt emboldened enough to advertise its supply.”
Wealthy whites often resorted to elaborate means to ensure their graves would not be violated; the mortsafe, an iron cage secured over one’s grave to discourage theft, was one common device. Poor and enslaved blacks, on the other hand, resorted to more DIY methods. The Freedmen’s Journal of 1827 records one such technique: “As soon as the corpse is deposited in the grave let a truss of long wheaten straw be opened and distributed in layers, as equally as may be with every layer of earth, until the whole is filled up. By this method the corpse will be effectually secured … The longest night will not afford time sufficient to empty the grave, though al the common implements of digging be used for that purpose.” But many had neither the time nor resources for even this level of protection; many slaves were buried in “toothpicks”: plain pine boxes that were loosely covered with only the barest layer of dirt, allowing for easy plundering when the sun went down. In 1856, the Reverend Robert Wilson of Charleston overheard one aged Negro woman exclaim to her friend as they passed a building housing the city’s medical school, “Please Gawd, when I dead, I hope I wi’ dead in de summah time”—a reference to the fact that medical schools only operated in the winter months, when bodies kept longer.
The horrific mistreatment of African American bodies, both alive and dead, both during and after the Civil War, led to the rise of the night doctors. Also known as “Ku Klux doctors,” “night witches,” “night riders,” and “student doctors,” night doctors, according to popular legend, were doctors, medical students, or their agents who prowled northern cities at night looking for African Americans, whom they would kidnap and murder, using their bodies in anatomical dissections. Often, it was thought, they would first incapacitate a victim and then, through an incision in the feet, drain them of blood, before dismembering their corpses. In New Orleans, they were known sometimes as “Bottle Men,” for the spirits of camphor or ether used to knock out a victim, or “Needle Men,” referring to the hypodermic syringe supposedly used to kill the future cadaver.
As with the Klan, whites used this mythology to spread fear and to control the movement of freed African Americans. These stories were spread, at least initially, as rumors by white people among the African American community. As one sharecropper later recollected, “In later years … [father would] say that you mustn’t go out to visit people in the other cottages because the night doctor get you and ‘sect’ your body, cut you up to see how you are made. And they believed that, too. Well, all that was originated from the whites.”
There are no recorded cases in the United States of an actual murder of an African American for medical dissection. Scotland’s William Burke and William Hare, of course, had become notorious early in the nineteenth century for killing sixteen poor and indigent residents of Edinburgh to sell to the local medical college, but the only similar case in the United States was that of Emily Brown. Brown had come from a well-to-do family, but in her later years became addicted to both alcohol and laudanum, and, in 1886, she was murdered by Anderson Perry and several accomplices. An African American himself, Perry had worked as an assistant janitor at the University of Maryland for the past fifteen years and believed he could get fifteen dollars for Brown’s corpse. Unfortunately for the conspirators, the university’s medical students recognized Brown’s cause of death and alerted authorities. But as horrific as this case was, it was a clear anomaly, and, what’s more, the victim was white, and thus had little bearing on the development of the night-doctor mythology.
But the idea quickly gained traction, no doubt in no small part because of the very real history of mistreatment of black individuals by the medical establishment, allowing the night-doctor mythology to persist in many African American communities for decades. According to Time magazine, this belief was still in evidence well past World War II; an article from October 4, 1954, stated, “Even today in some southern states, mothers threaten naughty children with ‘the night doctor will get you’—a reference to the antebellum breed of burkers.”
One of the peculiar specifics about night doctors is that they were almost exclusively thought to lurk in cities, particularly northern cities. As the Journal of American Folklore reported in 1896, “On dark nights negroes in cities consider it dangerous to walk alone on the streets because the ‘night-doctor’ is abroad. He does not hesitate to choke colored people to death in order to obtain their bodies for dissection.” The reason for this is that, as with Klansmen posing as ghosts, the threat of the night doctors was meant as a means of keeping African Americans from leaving the South and moving to northern cities, where the quality of life was assumed to be far superior.
As one former sharecropper told Gladys-Marie Fry, “The people that owned the farm in those days, why actually they would dress like that [as night doctors] to keep the fellows that worked on the farm and lived there, you know, and they would practically live their all of their life. And to keep them from leaving, why they would dress like that to frighten them, to keep them from going away, leaving the farm going to the city.” Above all, though, the purpose of spreading the night-doctor rumors had to do with restricting mobility to maintain economic control of former slave labor. Along with other, more explicit acts of intimidation, disenfranchisement, and violence, the night doctors were employed as psychological warfare explicitly to discourage the Great Migration and to maintain a stable agrarian work force in the South.
Colin Dickey’s book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places is out now.
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