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Dead and Disappearing in Medical School

The author is a Baltimore-based attorney and student of the history of medicine.

Is anyone home?


They say that no matter what you choose to do in life, be the best. Well, this was certainly true for “Frank the Spade,” the full-time janitor for the newly established medical college in Baltimore in the early nineteenth century. But Frank’s true calling was not pushing a broom if in fact he ever did that job. He was the best at providing another service entirely. To do justice to his story, we must first visit the Baltimore of the time.

The State of Things in Baltimore

When the new century began, the city had a population of 40,000. It was a growing and overcrowded port town with no public sewers. Baltimoreans were no strangers to yellow fever, dysentery, typhus, smallpox and cholera outbreaks and consumption was an ever present scourge. One third of all infants didn’t survive to childhood.

Good medical care for those who could afford it was delivered in private homes and hospitals by a few physicians with formal education in European medical schools. For everyone else, there were the public hospitals and almshouses that were filthy and ill-equipped facilities. Most poor folk viewed these wretched places as a last resort and instead sought the services of back alley quacks with no training (and frequently no sobriety), apothecaries, barber surgeons and the occasional minister with supposed healing talents. The most common medical instrument for these “practitioners” was a dirty kitchen knife. Something had to change.

The Dawning of a Medical School

At the time, only four medical colleges existed in the young United States. Located at what are now the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Harvard, and Dartmouth, the professors at these facilities were usually graduates of medical schools in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London, the most prestigious training centers of the era. Recognizing the need to educate physicians in Baltimore, three practitioners, John Beale Davidge, James Cocke and James Shaw, began holding classes in their private residences. Davidge and Cocke held medical degrees from Scottish and British schools, while Shaw, a professor of chemistry, had attended medical lectures at Edinburgh and UPenn. In 1807, at his own expense, Dr. Davidge established a small anatomical theater behind his home to teach students human anatomy through lectures and dissection of cadavers. Dr. Davidge, having been trained in Europe, had no qualms about such studies.

However the poor white and free black citizenry of Baltimore did have serious objections. On learning of the dissections, which to them meant desecration of the body and the release of the soul before the Resurrection, they gathered into a mob and burned the anatomical theatre to the ground on November 21, 1807. This riot, known as the Doctors Riot, was the first in a city that would later have so many civil uprisings, usually over election results, it was referred to as “Mobtown.”

Within a month of the riot and fire at Dr. Davidge's home, the Maryland legislature approved funding to create the College of Medicine and Davidge was its first Dean. But outrage over dissection continued and mobs frequently assembled to try and stop the infamous anatomy sessions. As a result, the building for the medical school (later named Davidge Hall) was fortified with heavy wooden doors and secret passageways through which students and faculty could flee if necessary.

Davidge Hall, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore

Davidge Hall, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore

Demand and Supply

Medical training demanded dissection of fresh human corpses and the new medical college in Baltimore needed a steady supply. This is where Frank the Spade enters the story. Frank lived in a small cramped room underneath the seats of the school’s anatomical dissection theatre. Although his last name is lost to history, he will always be remembered as the janitor who was highly successful at snatching newly-buried bodies from their graves. He was so successful that in a 1828 recruitment advertisement, the school described Baltimore as, “the Paris of America, where subjects were in great abundance.” Everyone in the business knew exactly what that meant. Helpful in making this promise of a steady supply of “subjects” a reality was Maryland’s light punishment for stealing bodies of the recently deceased. Other states imposed whippings, imprisonment and hanging for the offense. Maryland imposed a fine.

Frank’s services were so satisfactory that the medical school found itself with an embarrassment of riches in the number of corpses it had on hand and began shipping the excess inventory to other schools on the East Coast in barrels filled with whiskey. In a September 1830 letter to Bowdoin College in Maine, a professor of surgery at Baltimore reportedly described the “janitor” as, "Frank, our body-snatcher (a better man never lifted a spade)...". Frank produced cadavers (we will never know how many) and the goods were shipped to East Coast schools pickled in the whiskey. Ever the opportunist, after removing a portion of the original contents of the barrel to make room for the specimen, Frank sold the extra booze to local barkeeps. What happened to the liquor at the destination is only a matter of conjecture. Hopefully, the reports are wrong.

This cottage industry of the new medical college necessitated providing quotes on the procurements. In another letter to a doctor at Bowdoin College, the same professor of surgery at Maryland is said to have quoted a price that took into account how much whiskey would be needed, cost of the barrel and, of course, the price for the passenger. This came to fifty dollars a body. Not bad money for the time especially considering the little overhead for the product thanks to Frank and his helpers.

Secrets of the Trade

Frank had a special method of securing cadavers. He would follow the funeral procession and witness the burial, being careful to note how the casket was placed in the ground and any items left above the grave. Then, under the cover of darkness, he would reenter the cemetery, dig a hole just large enough for his needs, smash the casket open at the head end and use a butcher’s meat hook and rope to pull the corpse out of the casket. (if you really need a visual, the hook was placed either through the jaw or in the mouth). He then carefully replaced the mementos in the same order on top of the seemingly undisturbed grave. He quickly returned to Davidge Hall with the subject of the next day’s lesson in a bag slung over his shoulder and carried it through the secret passageways.

The Burying Ground

The Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, where Edgar Allan Poe is supposed to be resting (more on that later) is today two city blocks from the medical college. This was prime hunting ground for Frank but he did use other area cemeteries in his constant search for inventory. Construction crews in the quickly growing city would later discover that many graves were empty when it came time to move them. Certainly Frank was responsible for much of this, as were those who followed in his footsteps. The body snatching industry was largely eliminated by the legislature’s establishment of the Anatomical Board in Baltimore in 1882 that regulated the legal sources of cadavers for the medical school.

Now let’s return to Poe. He died in 1849 and was buried at Westminster Hall at the back of the Burying Ground. A simple headstone identifying the occupant as “No. 80” was placed over what was believed to be his resting place. But rest was difficult to come by for Poe and his grave was moved in 1875 to another site and marked with a headstone identifying the poet. However, the workers exhuming Poe's remains had difficulty finding the right body; they first disinterred a 19-year-old Maryland militiaman, Philip Mosher, Jr., at what was believed to be Poe’s grave. Eventually they thought they found the right casket, opened it and identified the poet by the shape of his skull. (This was not exactly the Golden Age of forensic science.)

Although there is a skeleton in the grave visited by hundreds of tourists each year, a question remains (no pun intended) if they are indeed Edgar’s bones. Did the gravediggers who moved the body find the correct occupant? Or was Poe, as has long been suggested, snatched from the simple “No. 80” grave in 1849, dissected at the medical college and a replacement skeleton placed at the site in 1875 for public relations purposes? The answers to these questions are also lost to history and will always be the grist for the mill of conspiracy theorists.

In any event, it is unlikely that Frank the Spade would have been involved with snatching Poe’s remains for dissection at the nearby medical college. In 1831 he told a colleague that he feared for his life from anti-dissection mobs and would probably have been out of the business, and very possibly this life, by 1849. Who can say what became of his body?

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1875 Unveiling of Poe's Headstone

1875 Unveiling of Poe's Headstone


Okonowicz, Edward. Haunted Maryland: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Old Line State. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2007.

Silberman, Lauren. Wicked Baltimore: Charm City Sin and Scandal. Charleston: The History Press, 2011.

The Medical Alumni Association of the University of Maryland, Davidge Hall. “Early Medical Instruction.” Accessed September 29, 2015. http://www.medicalalumni.org/early-medical-instruction/.

University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Our History.” Accessed September 28, 2015. http://medschool.umaryland.edu/history.asp.

Washington Examiner. “Poe’s body snatched from grave, sold to medical school.” Accessed September 30, 2015. http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/poes-body-snatched-from-grave-sold-to-med-school/article/29576/author/nicole-duran.

Wikipedia. “Baltimore riots.” Accessed September 28, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltimore_riots.

Wikipedia. “Body snatching.” Accessed September 29, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_snatching.

Wikipedia. “Death of Edgar Allen Poe.” Accessed September 30, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Edgar_Allan_Poe.

FRANK THE BODY SNATCHER - Part 1 of 2 (Westminster Burying Grounds)

In the second video “Frank” speaks of “burking,” a term used for murdering a victim for the express purpose of selling the body for dissection. The expression is derived from the infamous Scottish case of William Burke and William Hare in the mid-nineteenth century.

FRANK THE BODY SNATCHER - Part 2 of 2 (Westminster Burying Grounds)

© 2015 M G Del Baglivo


M G Del Baglivo (author) on January 04, 2016:

Thank you for your kind remarks on the article (and for becoming a follower)!

Interestingly, after publishing the piece I learned that when the City of Baltimore constructed a major road near the U of M Medical School it found hundreds of human bones buried beneath. We know now what became of the cadavers when the dissection was completed.

Cheers to you from Maryland and Happy 2016.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 04, 2016:

This was a very interesting read MG. Frank the Spade was obviously an expert body snatcher and must have been quite wealthy over time. It would be good to know the truth about Poe's body but I doubt that mystery will ever be proved either way. I enjoyed this and look forward to reading more of your hubs.

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