Black Market

Lost in the annals of history, a professor unearths the Medical College of Virginia's original body snatcher.

Shawn Utsey flips through photographs of old medical schools, where white-coated men, gathered around cadavers and medical equipment, stare back at him through the ages. He points at one. “This is the Medical College of Virginia, Class of 1900,” he says. “And there's Chris in the background.”

Utsey refers to Chris with an unassuming, almost familial manner. He isn't Chris, the man responsible for the theft of hundreds of Richmond's corpses. Or Chris, the man responsible for the box of 100-year-old bones on the other side of Utsey's office. Just Chris. As the award-winning documentarian and chairman of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of African-American Studies, Utsey is about to make sure that Chris Baker gets his proper place in history.

On the heels of his documentary, “Meet Me in the Bottom” — about the efforts to identify and memorialize a slave burial ground north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market in Shockoe Bottom — Utsey began looking into rumors he'd heard about MCV stealing corpses from the slave burial site. While he found no evidence to support that, he discovered something just as disturbing: Baker, working for MCV, had stolen hundreds of bodies from black cemeteries after the Civil War for training physicians. The topic seemed perfect for his next documentary.

“The majority of cadavers were African-American — not because they were being targeted, but they were more vulnerable to grave-robbing,” Utsey says. “Municipal cemeteries — they were open, they were unguarded, whereas white folk of the time were buried in churches, [or] on their own property, and it was very difficult to steal them.”

In the 19th century most states were without so-called anatomy laws, which allow medical institutions to use unclaimed bodies for medical study and dissection purposes. Without these laws, the only way medical schools in Virginia could get the bodies they needed was through an illegal market in cadavers.

Men called resurrectionists went out under cover of night and dug up the recently buried. On horseback they carried the bodies to medical institutions or middlemen. In Richmond, the cadaver business was booming.


Chris Baker. Photo courtsey of the Medical College of Virginia.

“Even before the Civil War, MCV and U.Va. competed for bodies from Virginia's big cities,” says Dr. Todd Savitt, a professor at East Carolina University who specializes in African-American medical history. In the mid-1800s, Charlottesville was rural with a tiny population, which meant a dearth of cadavers for student training. Because Richmond had a large number of unguarded graves, and was central to the domestic slave trade on the East Coast, the city became a ground zero of sorts for the cadaver market.

Thousands of bodies were stolen from Richmond's black cemeteries and sold to medical schools, including institutions outside the state, such as the University of Pennsylvania. MCV was no different, and to handle its dirty work the medical college relied on Baker.

Utsey's first brush with Baker was in 2004, shortly after arriving at VCU. During an orientation for new professors, Utsey was shown an old photograph of MCV medical students from the turn of the century. Among the baby-faced white doctoral students was an old black man standing in the corner.

“And I'm thinking, ‘This is an old picture. … This black guy must have some interesting stories to tell,'” Utsey recalls. “Even then I'm thinking, ‘He must know where all the bodies are buried — literally.”

It was Baker, who began working for MCV in 1860, as far as Utsey can tell. It's unclear if Baker was purchased by the school or hired as a free man. Baker lived with his family in the basement of MCV's Egyptian Building, a structure built in 1845. Baker lived there until his death in 1919.

Baker's duties included obtaining corpses either personally or by hiring others, keeping abreast of deaths in the black community. After snatching the bodies, he soaked them in vats of chemicals for preservation until they reached the classroom. If a body was too decomposed for dissection, the flesh from the cadaver's bones was removed and used for other medical research. The 1890 census lists Baker's occupation as “Anatomical Man.”

In white society he was respected, more educated in anatomy than most doctors at the college, Utsey says, and even helped determine which students graduated from MCV. During his time, Utsey says, Baker was the most well-known black in Richmond. And at a time when blacks were lucky to get an obituary in the Richmond News Leader, Baker's death warranted the front page.

While whites may have respected Baker, he was feared and despised by the black community. “People would threaten their kids to get them to behave by saying, ‘I'll send you to Chris Baker' or … ‘You better be home before dark or Chris will get you, and you'll wind up in the dissecting room,'” Utsey says. “Even more recently I've interviewed people who know those stories. Not about Chris, but about if you are outside after dark by the medical college, you might risk being snatched.”

The boogeyman stories weren't far off. Baker and his accomplices scoped out cemeteries, posing as hunters hiding in nearby woods. They'd show up at funerals to check out potential bodies. A successful grave robbery took at least three or four people, Savitt says, and was tricky to pull off without being detected. After digging up the body, robbers had to transport the corpse over a cemetery fence and across town without injuring it. An uninjured body might net $10, but a damaged one brought considerably less.

“There's a whole lot of things to think about when you're robbing a grave,” Savitt says. “It's my opinion that grave robbing is heavily romanticized. … It was hard work, and risky work.” To ward off would-be robbers, families sometimes stood watch during the first few nights after a burial, until the body decomposed enough to discourage its theft.

Baker found out the consequences of getting caught in 1892 when he and three other men were caught disturbing at least eight graves at Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond's East End. Baker was indicted on one felony and two misdemeanor counts of body snatching, but was pardoned by the governor.

Even before Utsey began digging around Baker's history, the medical college's dark secret began surfacing. In 1994, while breaking ground on new buildings, a well was uncovered with human remains at the bottom. The Smithsonian concluded the bones belonged to 26 blacks. The bones had surgical incisions on them, meaning that after the students were done with the bodies they tossed them down the well.

Utsey's finished shooting and is editing his documentary. Tentatively titled “Chris,” Utsey says his film will be done in six months.

“Chris was a very complex man. It's easy to look at him now and judge him, because he was really the inside man to the black community [who] provided the medical college access to the bodies,” Utsey says. “It's easy to see him as a pariah, someone who was being manipulated, therefore taking advantage of his own people. But I think it's more complex than that.”


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