Author’s and Editor’s Note:
To go along with our latest book club read, STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, we would like to share a few stories of life and death in D.C. prior to the age of people choosing to donate their bodies to science.
Body snatching may conjure a macabre scene in your mind: A foggy, moonless night in a graveyard. The hushed whispers of men digging by lantern light. But can you picture the anatomy professor at a prestigious medical school paying for a cadaver fresh from the grave to dissect in front of his students? Or the mourning widower who goes to visit his young bride’s grave only to find her missing? Our hope is that by attaching names and stories to the parties involved and their victims, (And, yes, they were victims) that we can humanize the practice to help us understand life, and death, in the nation’s capital. Body snatching and grave robbing are not simple spooky stories to tell for Halloween; they were illegal and unethical practices that often victimized those most vulnerable in society.
On the night of December 12th, 1873, police officers noticed a suspicious carriage sitting at Washington Circle. After midnight, an officer approached the woman sitting inside and she explained she was waiting for her husband who was conducting business. Later, they saw one man approach the buggy and place a spade inside. Then another man appeared and placed a muddy shovel inside before the three set off towards New Hampshire Avenue and Boundary Street. The officers pursued them, suspecting they must have stolen goods on board but instead found grave robbing tools. Officers investigated nearby Holmead Cemetery and found the body of Thomas Fletcher inside a large canvas bag near the fence.
Holmead Cemetery was located north of Washington Circle. It closed in 1884 and all remains were relocated to other cemeteries. Library of Congress
The three individuals inside the wagon were Seamstress Margaret Harrison, Driver Charles Green, and Dr. George Christian. Christian was a former clerk in the Surgeon General’s office and graduated from a medical college in the district. He was also a Resurrectionist active in D.C. around 1873-1875.
Resurrection Men, or Body Snatchers, made money by illegally sneaking into cemeteries at night, stealing bodies from fresh graves, and selling them to anatomy professors at medical colleges. In the 1870s, only a few states had Anatomy Acts or Bone Bills, laws that allowed medical schools access to unclaimed bodies— often those of people who died in workhouses, hospitals or other institutions whose loved ones couldn’t afford to bury them elsewhere. Since the District of Columbia had no such law, medical schools needed to get creative in order to procure the cadavers that attracted students to their schools.
The night of Dr. Christian’s arrest, a diary was found inside the carriage along with the grave robbing tools, illustrating the extent of his resurrectionist business. Excerpts from this diary were published in the newspapers and later used at his trial. Inside the writer details “business” at several Washington D.C. cemeteries including Mount Zion Cemetery, Rock Creek Cemetery, Glenwood Cemetery and the, now closed, Holmead Cemetery and Ebenezer Cemetery.
Christian had arrangements with doctors at Washington Asylum and the Almshouses where patients often died penniless and sometimes without family for records of their dying. These were potential victims for him to later dig up at the city’s potter’s fields, where the impoverished were buried in unmarked graves . Notes in his diary describe various doctors going out resurrecting with him or sending janitors and hospital stewards out with him as assistants. One local doctor offered Christian and his partner $15 each per body.
From the Richmond Planet
In addition to supplying nearby medical schools with cadavers, Christian corresponded with doctors at schools in Virginia, Michigan, and Ohio. Their letters spoke of the best ways to pack bodies in whiskey barrels and prices per cadaver. One Michigan doctor wrote that he’d pay Christian $25 per body but then sell the bodies to the students for $40. ($25 in 1873 is worth $635.64 today.)
Two entries from George Christian’s diary bring us to Congressional:
- Robert “Beau” Hickman
Beau Hickman’s look was captured by The Evening Star
“Sept.2.—Dr.____ and I went out prospecting this evening, and succeeded (characters in cipher referring evidently to the body of Beau Hickman.) It was a lovely moonlight night, and everything went off smoothly.
Sept. 3d.—There was a great hue and cry in all the daily papers to-day about the grave of Beau Hickman being robbed last night. Have not seen any one who seemed to know who did it.”
Robert L. Hickman, known as Beau, was a known character around the District. According to the Evening Star, he was often seen in front of the National and Metropolitan Hotels, “leaning on his cane or sitting on a dry goods box, puffing a cigar and lazing listlessly at the passers-by.”
Photo of Beau Hickman & Photo of his Headstone side by side
Hickman’s Grave at Congressional Cemetery
Beau died early in the morning on September 2nd at Providence Hospital at either 62 or 63 years old. The Sisters called on the undertaker who placed Beau’s remains in a “plain neat coffin” and he was interred in the burial ground attached to the almshouse by 11 o’clock the same day.
Dorsey Clagett & John Langley, friends of Beau, arrived around 2 o’clock the following day after they quickly collected enough money to give Beau a Christian burial. When the gravedigger showed them to Beau’s grave, they discovered his body had been mutilated and a surgeon’s knife was found nearby. It was speculated that medical students were responsible but in the National Republican they noted a “skillful manner” of dissection and believed a professional surgeon was involved. What remained of Beau Hickman’s body was placed in a new box and brought to the receiving vault at Congressional before it was later interred. (Range: 88, Site: 125a)
2) A.C.H. Webster (A.C. Webster)
Oct 29th, 1873: “Attended a funeral at the Congressional Cemetery this afternoon and brought the subject in to Georgetown College to-night.”
Mr. Thomas Thompson testified that he saw Christian at the funeral of the late A.C.H. Webster at Congressional. The unmarked gravesite was described as being “by Centennial Lodge and Washington Chapter of Masons.” The next morning Mr. Thompson returned to the cemetery and saw the grave dug up, the coffin lid split open and even the pillow had been taken.
Christian was charged with desecrating the graves of Thomas Fletcher, the body in the bag at Holmead Cemetery and A.C.H. Webster at Congressional Cemetery. Offenders were often sentenced to one year in jail and a fine. During his trial, Christian’s attorney argued that “As long as the world remained, the taking of bodies would continue and if they shut up the dissecting rooms, soon the physicians would be powerless to treat the living.”
Webster is buried in this area of Congressional Cemetery
Life After His Trial
By September 1874, Dr. Christian was pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant after he was petitioned by Christian’s friends. However, he returned to resurrecting shortly after and was arrested again by November.
Charged again with desecrating graves while out on bail in September 1875, he failed to appear in court and was arrested on a train to Baltimore. The next day officers brought him back to Washington, D.C. but the cells were full so he was allowed to sit around the office. At some point in the night, he disappeared. In the years after his escape, officers in Ohio and New York attempted to connect Christian to many unsolved body snatching cases.
Little is known of Christian after his escape in 1875. However, it appears he made a concerted effort to avoid the fate he rendered to his victims, only being mentioned again while on his deathbed. According to a Washington Times article from 1896: “While Christian was on his death bed at Philadelphia he piteously besought the woman he had lived with for a number of years not to let his remains fall into the hands of the medical fraternity. His dying request was that his body lie in a vault until decomposition had rendered it unfit for the dissecting table.”
It took until the body of US Senator John Scott Harrison (son of president W. H. Harrison and father of president Benjamin Harrison) was stolen and taken to the Medical College of Ohio in 1878 for dissection for more States to enact specific laws against body snatching. The district eventually followed suit in 1896. However, the need for cadaver studies in medical schools never waned. A new, more ethical method of supplying bodies arose with generous people choosing to donate their bodies to medical study. Many feel as like Christian’s attorney did, “if they shut up the dissecting rooms, soon the physicians would be powerless to treat the living.”
Body snatching in Washington D.C. didn’t end when George Christian fled the city in 1875.
Next time we’ll explore the case of Alvina Cheek and Doctors Arthur Adams and Beall.
By: Gabriella Welsh
“Christian, the Resurrectionist. He is Sentenced to One Year’s Imprisonment in Jail.” Evening Star, February 9, 1874.
“Death is Never Over Life: Death and Grave Robbery in a Historic Cemetery” by Rebecca Boggs Roberts–A Thesis submitted to The Faculty of The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences of The George Washington University, 2012.
“Dr. Christian Arrested.” National Republican, September 16, 1875.
“Escape of the Alleged Body Snatcher, Christian–A Stolen Indictment.” Evening Star, September 16, 1875.
“Grave Robbing As a Business–Christian, the Resurrectionist.” Evening Star, June 22, 1878.
“Had Records As Ghouls–Noted Resurrectionists Who Once Plied Their Trade Here.” Washington Times, February 24, 1896.
“Local News–Condemned Locals.” Evening Star, September 15, 1875.
“Outraging the Dead. Beau Hickman Resurrected.” National Republican, September 4, 1873.
Roberts, Rebbeca Boggs. “Death is Never Over Life: Death and Grave Robbery in a Historic Cemetery.” Thesis. Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, George Washington University, 2012.
“The Grave Robbers: Trial Yesterday–The Case to be Argued Today.” National Republican, December 18, 1873.
“The Last of Beau Hickman. An Original Character Gone.” Evening Star, September 2, 1873.
“The Resurrection Business. Whole Body Snatching.” Evening Star, December 15, 1873.
“The Resurrectionists in Court.” Evening Star, December 17, 1873.
Tward, Aaron D and Hugh A. Patterson. “From Grave Robbing to Gifting: Cadaver Supply in the United States.” JAMA. 2002;287(9):1183.