From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6/1/1930, p. 21, c. 6
Robbing Graves In Old Richmond
Urgent Need for Bodies in Local Medical Dissecting Rooms Solved by Ingeniousness of Two Faithful Servitors
By Dr. Allen J. Black.
UNTIL well after the middle of the nineteenth century teaching anatomy from dissection of the human body in the medical schools was dependent upon the surreptitious procurement of bodies. Occasionally a condemned murderer could be induced to dispose of his body to satisfy his need for spending money while awaiting execution.
The potter’s fields were the usual sources of supply. Those who bargained to furnish the colleges with dissecting material kept close watch of interments, limiting their depredations to graves of persons who were without interested connections who might subsequently visit the burial place, or later arrange to transfer the remains to a private burial place.
Potter’s fields were usually without full-time keepers, and, if any had supervision, the pay was so insignificant the opportunity afforded for an increase of income through collusion with body snatchers proved an irresistible temptation. In such cases the common practice was to bury in shallow graves with a minimum of earth covering the coffin.
In the large cities unscrupulous undertaker holding the contract for the burial of indigent dead were known to have buried coffins empty of remains but weighted to avoid suspicion. The bodies went to the colleges. Upon occasions when the growth of a city about a potter’s field enhanced the value of the land for more practical purposes and disinterments were made for removal to a new location, many empty coffins were found.
It is highly doubtful, even unreasonable to believe, that any graves other than those in the potter’s fields were ever desecrated. However, writers of fiction had teachers of anatomy finding members of their families on the dissecting tables, or a brilliant young medical student, assigned to the dissection of a subject on a designated table, turn back the covering to find his recently deceased fiancée – invariably the most beautiful and beloved young woman in the community – all of this was brutally appalling if true, but it was true.
Believed By Many.
There stories were so plausible that their origin was easily forgotten through repetition, and finally they would be told as facts and were implicitly believed by many.
For many years the city had used a barren hillside just outside the northern wall of the Hebrew Cemetery as a potter’s field. This hillside led down to Bacon’s Quarters Branch (now known as Shockoe Creek) beyond which was open country. The Shockoe Hill and Hebrew Cemeteries with the white and colored almshouses and the potter’s field were about all to be found in the early eighties. After dark the streets were deserted, due, in a measure, to the hair-raising stories in circulation relative to the frivolous antics of ghosts from the several burying grounds. These stories and the protection from observation afforded by the high brick wall of the Hebrew Cemetery made it a simple matter to rob graves in potter’s field.
The city decided to utilize surplus ground away to surplus ground away from the private sections at Oakwood for potter’s field purposes. This ground was enclosed and the keeper at Oakwood had supervision of all burials; he supervised his graves also.
The Medical College of Virginia had in it employ two most faithful servitors, “Chris Baker” and “Old Billy,” who, until the potter’s field was located near Oakwood, had experienced no difficulty in maintaining an ample supply of dissecting material for the college which was skillfully prepared by Old Billy for the dissecting classes.
But Chris and Billy were credited with obtaining a part of their supply from the lonely streets near the old college building. College Street, while officially so named, would have been Thirteenth Street had the numerical designation continued to that point on Marshall Street, but it was Thirteenth Street to the superstitious.
This, taken in connection with the quaint and mysterious architecture of the old college and the further fact that it was generally known that human bodies were kept there for dissection, made that locality about the spookiest in Richmond. Common rumor had it that Chris and Billy made a practice of creeping behind stragglers on the streets near the college and throwing a rubber bag over their heads to drown their outcries and smother them to death.
It should be needless to say this was as absurd as it was untrue, but the belief served the useful purpose of keeping persons away whose presence might have proven embarrassing to Chris and Billy when returning from a foray with their material in a bag, wheelbarrow or wagon.
The students asserted the methods of transportation were in keeping with the quality of liquor Chris and Billy were able to buy; high grade liquor that demanded the luxury of a horse and wagon. After the potter’s field was located at Oakwood new features entered into the work of getting bodies. The greater distance, much of it through a more thickly populated section, required the use of a horse and wagon; also the work had to be done after midnight.
Keeper’s Suspicions Aroused.
In the meantime the keeper at Oakwood discovered the potter’s field graves were being robbed; his suspicions were aroused when he observed that Chris, a stranger to him at the time, was a perpetual mourner at most of the burials.
At that time among the members of the city police force was “Buck” Angle, a known terror to evildoers, who was generally credited with an uncanny insight into the mental activities of all who passed near him, through his ability to read their concealed knowledge of guilty connection with criminal deeds. He was a brave officer, skilled detective and successfully unraveled many baffling criminal mysteries during the time of his service with the force.
The keeper at Oakwood enlisted Angle’s aid to help apprehend the body-snatchers. We listened with deep interest to the stories which Chris and Billy recited about their adventures at Oakwood and very naturally, most of the members of the student body aspired to participate in the work for the tang of deviltry which it would add to their accomplishments.
Three members of the class of ’83, all dead now, through a generous donation of whisky, highly acceptable legal tender for many purposes in those days, succeeded in winning the consent of Chris and Billy to go with them to Oakwood. Two of the students were room mates of mine, but being an ’84 man, participation in such an episode with seniors was beyond my privilege.
They started out in high glee and at 4 o’clock in the morning one of my room-mates awakened me to say all the other members of the party would surely be arrested. He told me they drove out in a wagon and just after crossing a small bridge near Oakwood a pistol shot was heard, nothing was thought of this incident and they continued to their destination.
At Oakwood a lighted lantern had been placed on the grave which Chris had marked. Even this circumstance aroused no feeling of caution. The lantern was moved and disinterment proceeded with. After sufficient time had elapsed to permit of the removal of enough earth to fix the guilt of the party beyond all doubt footsteps of men running towards them were heard and the party took to their heels in the direction of a small body of trees.
Took to Heels.
The room-mate who escaped had grown up in a typical Virginia home in the Green Springs section of Louisa County, and at a time when fox hunting was a natural part of a boy’s training in that locality. This experience served him the useful purpose of leading him to believe that no very large body of woodland was likely to be found near a large town, he felt it wiser to go through that patch of woods and cautioned the others to do likewise.
They did not. He escaped and after wandering through strange country at night and falling in one or two creeks reached the room in a deplorable plight, torn, bruised and bleeding.
After dressing we went to the home of the instructor of anatomy to report the affair, then back to our beds – but not to sleep. With the approach of day the party in the woods were placed in arrest and taken to the police station.
At police court that morning, all were fined and sentenced to imprisonment in the city jail; no appeal was asked, the case was hopeless and they began serving sentence at once. The jail was located at the foot of the hill just below the college; the student body got busy taking food, tobacco, papers, text-books and lecture notes to the student prisoners who, unguarded, always admitted us through the private entrance to the jail. Nor were Chris and Billy forgotten.
After a short time Governor Cameron, in a spirit of righteous benevolence, was moved to temper justice with mercy and all of the prisoners were pardoned. That this would be done was definitely known to the dean of the college from the beginning.
At the next session of the Legislature the anatomical bill was passed. This measure gives to the college the unclaimed dead at the eleemosynary institutions of the Commonwealth. There is no further need for grave robbers to supply the colleges.