Chasing Down a Body Snatcher: VCU Professor Documents Story of 'Inside Man' Who Stole Cadavers from Black Cemeteries for the Local Medical College in 19th Century

Article excerpt

A mid the stacks of books, exams to grade, lecture notes and meeting agendas in the office of Dr. Shawn Utsey, chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of African American Studies, is a box of bones that are more than 100 years old. The bones, he believes, are part of a dark history few know.

After completing his award-winning documentary "Meet Me In The Bottom," chronicling the effort to identify and memorialize a slave burial ground in Richmond, Va., Utsey began investigating claims that the slave burial site had been looted for corpses for medical training purposes.

Though Utsey found no evidence of theft from the slave burial site, his research led him to Chris Baker, the man Utsey believes was involved in the theft of possibly hundreds of corpses from Black cemeteries in Richmond. An African-American man born in 1860, Baker was an employee of the Medical College of Virginia (MCV), which merged with another school to form VCU.

Baker is the subject of Utsey's next documentary, tentatively titled "Chris."

The documentary calls attention to the dark history of early medical colleges in America. To properly train their students, the schools needed cadavers to slice up. Most states in the 19th century were without so-called anatomy laws, which allowed medical institutions to use executed prisoners and unclaimed bodies for dissection. To make up the difference, some colleges turned to robbing graves.

"It's very widespread," says Dr. Michael Sappol, senior historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine and author of the book, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. According to Sappol, nearly every medical college of the time relied on body snatching.

"If you go through the history of any medical school in the year 1882, there will be some newspaper scandal--rumors or a court case or riot or something--relating to the acquisition of cadavers," Sappol says. In the middle of the night, men known as "resurrectionists" dug up the recently buried and carried them to medical colleges or middlemen for their payment.

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Baker began working for MCV in the 1880s. His tasks included acquiring bodies either personally or by hiring others, keeping abreast of deaths in the Black community and preserving the bodies for dissection. Baker's listed occupation in the 1890 census is "Anatomical Man."

In Richmond, the cadaver business was booming.

"Even before the Civil War, MCV and the University of Virginia competed for bodies from Virginia's big cities," says Dr. …