Chris Baker: The Ghoul of Richmond

courtesy of Special Collections and Archives Tompkins-McCaw Library, VCU

It wasn’t until 1884 that Virginia’s General Assembly established a state anatomical board and addressed the issue of body snatching as related to medical schools’ procurement of dead bodies. The anatomy act allowed medical colleges to legally take possession of certain unclaimed bodies, such as those of paupers and prisoners. Even though medical schools had access to executed criminals’ bodies before the anatomy act, the demand for corpses far surpassed the supply. The aspiring physician relied largely on “resurrection men” to provide labs with a fresh and steady supply of cadavers to quench his thirst for anatomical knowledge. Resurrection men (also known as ghouls, body snatchers, grave robbers, and anatomical men) frequently toiled under the cover of night when they could disinter and deliver a fresh corpse with little chance of detection. The gruesome nature of the trade was offensive to the general public, but body-snatching was considered a necessary evil to those in the medical profession. Newspaper accounts of body snatching suggest that the majority of the bodies stolen were from African-American cemeteries.

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