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Theatre of the Macabre

Jefferson’s anatomical building advanced UVA medical education—at a price

Corpses of African Americans were snatched, illegally, for classes in Jefferson’s Anatomical Theatre, built in the 1820s and razed in the 1930s. University of Virginia Visual History Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

The inventory of bones is brief: part of a hand; part of a foot; fragments of a forearm; two pieces of two ribs. To the anatomists who probably discarded them: left second metacarpal; left fourth metatarsal; left ulna, with intact distal epiphysis; posterior fragment, right rib 11; shaft fragment, right rib 11 or 12.

The bones are old and small and few. But they connect to a complicated tale of the University’s first century, a tale that includes Thomas Jefferson’s interest in medical education, pioneering professors, enslaved laborers and an illicit but tacitly tolerated trade in African-American bodies snatched from fresh graves.

Unearthed by archaeologists in 1997 along McCormick Road in front of Alderman Library, the bones are believed to be the discarded remains of a cadaver dissected by 19th-century medical students at the University. The dig investigated the site of the Anatomical Theatre, the only Jefferson-designed building ever demolished at the University.

For that distinction, the vanished Anatomical Theatre stands out as an architectural and historical curiosity—such intentional destruction is unlikely to happen again. But it fits into a much broader and thornier picture being developed today, as it represents an essential element in Jefferson’s conception of the University and early medical education in America—but also the degrading treatment of African Americans.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as described in many histories of the period, anatomists commonly procured what they discreetly called “subjects for dissection” from grave robbers. Medical training increasingly stressed knowledge of human anatomy, but dissection was unpopular and illegal except in limited circumstances, such as with the bodies of executed criminals. As the number of medical schools increased, the legal supply could not meet the demand, and a black market profession arose—the body snatchers or “sack-’em-up boys” or resurrectionists.  UVA’s involvement in this dark practice is well documented in letters from the period collected in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

“Northern schools, typically situated in major urban areas, simply robbed potter’s fields, but in the Southern slave society context, the grave robbing concentrated on fresh bodies of the enslaved and free people of color,” says Kirt von Daacke (Col ’97), professor of history and co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. “In both cases, the focus was on the people with the least resources and a general lack of political power to stop the grave robbing.”

“The focus was on the people with the least resources and a general lack of political power to stop the grave robbing,” says history professor Kirt Von Daacke of the theft of cadavers. Matt Eich

In 1818, in formulating the fields of study for the new university, Jefferson, James Madison and the other founders of the University specifically included a school of anatomy and medicine. That a professor of medicine and anatomy should be one of the initial eight faculty positions at the University is not surprising, considering Jefferson’s long interest in medical science.

That interest is well catalogued in a 2002 article by White McKenzie Wallenborn (Med ’55, Res ’61) in the UVA Medical Alumni News. As governor of Virginia in 1779, Jefferson reordered the curriculum of the College of William and Mary to include a medical school—the first in Virginia, though it lapsed after just four years when the professor returned to private practice. As minister to France in 1785-89, Jefferson associated directly with key figures in a medical reform movement there. (Among other influences, as Wallenborn and others note, the symmetrical, multipavilion design of the Academical Village bears a strong resemblance to the French reformers’ design for a modern hospital from that time.)

In 1801, according to a letter from Jefferson to a physician in Philadelphia, he saw to the inoculation of about 200 people with a new vaccine against smallpox, including his own household, neighbors and slaves at Monticello, and even replenished and distributed the vaccine from the skin reactions of those patients. As president, Jefferson promoted the vaccine in a national program of inoculation, and even sent it with Lewis and Clark to be spread west.

Jefferson understood that dissection was indispensable to a school of anatomy. In a January 1825 letter to Joseph Carrington Cabell, the Virginia state senator and Board of Visitors member tasked with winning appropriations for the new university, he even proposed that building an anatomical theater was worth leaving the Rotunda unfinished. 

In February 1825, the month before the first classes began, Dr. Robley Dunglison of England joined the original faculty—the first full-time professor of medicine in the United States. Dunglison and his wife took up residence in Pavilion X, suitable for instruction and lectures, as were all the pavilions, but not for dissection. In autobiographical notes decades later, Dunglison described impressing on Jefferson the need for a separate anatomical hall. So Jefferson came to design the Anatomical Theatre out of practical necessity.  The next month he presented his plan to the Board of Visitors and, as noted in board minutes, the design was accepted pending receipt of a promised state appropriation—in one respect the first expansion and departure from the classical order and symmetry of the Academical Village.

“It was an appendage—stuck on at the last minute,” says Richard Guy Wilson, professor of architectural history at the University. “It shows that Jefferson was open to change and suggestion.”

Jefferson drew a 44-foot square, brick building of two stories, with a basement built into the grade of a steep slope to the west of the Academical Village’s West Range. In that drawing, now in Special Collections, skylights lined the roof, to illuminate an octagonal surgical theatre on the top floor, with stepped seating for observing anatomical demonstrations and lectures. The middle floor was to be a museum of medical specimens. In the basement was the charnel, where cadavers would be stored and prepared for dissection. The building’s high half-moon or lunette windows discouraged viewing from outside.

Stepped seating, shown in Jefferson’s original drawing, allowed for observing anatomical demonstrations and lectures. Thomas Jefferson architectural drawings for the University of Virginia, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

By May 1825, soon after the university’s first classes, construction was under way but proceeded slowly. The following year, in the last months of his life, Jefferson was concerned that construction be a priority. In a Feb. 4, 1826, letter advising Cabell that the Rotunda and Anatomical Theatre were still unfinished, Jefferson noted the ramifications of delay: “Till the latter is in a condition for use there can never be a dissection of a single subject.”

Jefferson knew the difficulty of procuring cadavers for demonstration and dissection. In making preparations for the department of medicine in 1824, he sought the advice of renowned physicians, including Philip Physick at the nation’s first medical school, at the University of Pennsylvania. In his reply, Physick noted, “In our dissecting rooms every facility of dissecting and making preparations is afforded, the supply of subjects on moderate terms, being ample”—unlike the scarcity in rural areas, such as Albemarle County.

And Jefferson was certainly aware of one solution to that scarcity—the practice of grave robbing. In a 1788 letter to American diplomat William Carmichael, he described what has become known as the “Doctors Riot” that year in New York, in which angry mobs invaded hospitals and doctors’ residences in search of stolen bodies. His account begins, “It has long been a practice with the Surgeons of that city to steal from the grave bodies recently buried.”

In 1778, Jefferson had proposed a law that called for the bodies of executed traitors and certain murderers “to be delivered to the anatomists to be dissected.” However, making cadavers available for medical study was not legalized in Virginia until a century later, in 1884.

Yet dissections did proceed. Enrollment in medical studies increased, and in 1832 the Board of Visitors appropriated $100 a year for the purchase of “subjects for the Anatomical class.” The Anatomical Theatre was busy with dissections and demonstrations, and, according to historian Virginius Dabney’s Mr. Jefferson’s University, the charnel stench offended residents on the nearby West Range. In 1833, as noted in an extensive exhibition mounted last year by the Historical Collections staff at UVA’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, the Board of Visitors authorized the use of a small brick building across the ravine behind the Anatomical Theatre for boiling the cadavers immediately after dissection. That building was expanded in 1837 to become the regular dissecting hall—commonly called “Stiff Hall” and used until 1929. Jefferson’s Anatomical Theatre continued to serve as a lecture hall, museum and dispensary, and its leaky skylights were replaced by a slate roof with a windowed cupola for illumination.

The charnel was still in use, but a “vault” attached to the new dissecting hall likely became the main storage point for cadavers. Maintaining those places, washing and embalming the cadavers for dissection, and cleaning up and disposing of the remains afterward was the job of slaves hired from their owners by the University. As noted in the digital historical project Jefferson’s University—the Early Life, the full names of most of those enslaved people are not recorded.

Archaeologist Ben Ford (Grad ’97, ’98) has done original research for a biographical essay about the enslaved man known as “Anatomical Lewis,” whose owner was paid $100 a year for him to be the custodian or anatomical assistant at the Anatomical Theatre from 1839 to 1857. Lewis was preceded by other slaves and succeeded after the Civil War by free blacks, such as the men identified only as “Fossett” or “Frank” in group photographs of white medical students in the Cadaver Society posing jauntily with the bodies. The macabre photos are in the collection of the Claude Moore library and searchable online. Ford’s research convinces him that these anatomical assistants were despised or feared by the African-American community for their involvement in procuring cadavers.

“On the surface one may surmise that because the duties of anatomical assistants were considered menial in the antebellum period that the position was given to enslaved individuals, and that this was subsequently carried over to free African Americans in the postbellum period,” Ford has written in a draft manuscript of an essay on “Anatomical Lewis.” “However, digging deeper it is also possible that African Americans were seen by their white counterparts as eminently appropriate go-betweens, individuals who were perceived to be better placed to negotiate, legally or illegally, the acquisition of cadavers from the African-American community.”

Anatomy studies had become more rigorous, and before long, the Department of Medicine needed 25 to 30 cadavers for each 10-month session. Those responsible, most notably John Staige Davis, demonstrator of practical anatomy and anatomy professor from 1847 to 1884, developed an elaborate, stealthy supply chain—a network of physicians (usually University alumni) in Richmond, Norfolk, Alexandria and elsewhere to act as intermediaries and paymasters with known body snatchers. The practice and the process are thoroughly documented in James O. Breeden’s paper in the July 1975 Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, “Body Snatchers and Anatomy Professors: Medical Education in Nineteenth-Century Virginia.”

Sometimes the correspondence in the Davis network was circumspect, referring only to progress regarding “your favorite article of trade.” But ultimately it was transparent, as they detailed prices, arranged packaging and delivery, and even named preferred body types of “subjects.” One of Davis’ agents, Dr. Lewis W. Minor of Norfolk, asked him to take the information he needed from his letters, then added, “I pray you to destroy them, for truly they have not even a respectable appearance.”

Fortunately, he did not, and they were put in the care of Special Collections by his great-grandson, Dr. John Staige Davis IV (Res ’61).

After years of frustrating competition for Richmond-area cadavers with the Hampden-Sydney College medical department in Richmond (the predecessor of the Medical College of Virginia), Davis negotiated a sharing arrangement. The two institutions used the same resurrectionists to procure fresh bodies at set prices, with UVA’s share shipped by rail from Richmond to Charlottesville. The Davis letters show that the illegal trade enjoyed the connivance of the Virginia Central Railroad, which, knowing the character of the special freight, applied a special surcharge. Even so, the demand could not always be met, as Davis wrote to a doctor in Martinsville in 1883: “We were never so much in need of subjects as now. Is anybody to be hung in Henry (County), whose corpse I might procure?”

At times, the medical students themselves raided graveyards for dissecting subjects. Ford, the archaeologist, says records show the University’s horse and wagon were borrowed for such “anatomical excursions.” In his essay on “Anatomical Lewis,” Ford cites an 1834 letter from a medical student to Jefferson’s granddaughter, Septimia Randolph, about the violent outcome of one such excursion: “Your acquaintance, A. F. E. Robertson (the young man you saw at Davis and thought so handsome) was shot in the back by an old fellow whilst endeavoring to take a dead negro for our anatomical dissections.” Robertson lived but left to complete his medical degree elsewhere.

As principal investigator at Rivanna Archaeological Services, Ford led the dig that revealed 67 grave sites at what is now commemorated as the African-American Burial Ground adjacent to the University Cemetery. Ford says he hasn’t seen any evidence that the burial ground was a source of “subjects” for the dissecting room. “I would imagine, given its proximity to the University, that it was under constant public exposure, so that would have been difficult. Having said that, we believe there were enslaved individuals buried there, which suggests that it would have been a target.”

Domenic Puzio (Col ’15) learned about “Anatomical Lewis” as a third-year student at the University, during research for an essay on the Anatomical Theatre for Jefferson’s University—the Early Life, the digital effort focused on the period from the founding in 1819 to 1870. Afterward, when he led tours as a University Guide, he included the Lewis story. “Once you have that background, it pervades your experience,” he says. “A lot of sacrifice went into creating that space that we revere.”

Puzio, now a software engineer in Northern Virginia, regards the University’s efforts to uncover and tell the history of its engagement with slavery as an honest attempt to “right the unrightable wrong.” He says, “No amount of work we would do could make up for it, but any stride we make in that direction is something positive.”

By the 1930s, the Anatomical Theatre—or “the old Medical Hall,” as it was then known—was falling into disuse, according to the Claude Moore library exhibition. It was rebuilt after having burned down in 1886, but its utility was supplanted gradually by the Dispensary, which opened in 1892, and the UVA Hospital, which opened with its own surgical theatre in 1901 and grew steadily. The School of Medicine stopped using Jefferson’s old building entirely after 1924, when it was condemned as unsafe for students. After some renovation, the building housed the School of Rural Social Economics—a short-lived sociological focus on rural life and work. By 1938, it was a storeroom.

Lunette windows were used to foil peepers. Each 10-month session required 25 to 30 cadavers; UVA alumni statewide helped find them. University of Virginia Visual History Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

The official record is sparse on the subject of the demolition. Wilson, the architectural historian, cites a mention in the November 1935 Alumni News that, because of the construction of the new library, the “old medical building” may have to be taken down. The only reference in the Board of Visitors minutes is short and direct, from 1938, the same year Alderman Library was dedicated: “Resolved, that it is the sense of this Board that the old medical Building on West Range be removed at the convenience of the President.”

“The Jefferson legacy, while somewhat respected, wasn’t seen quite the same as we see it today,” Wilson says. “I just don’t think the building was valued. The library was going to be built, and it was probably viewed as in the way.”

He adds, “There may have been some spookiness about the things that were done there.”

The following year, the Anatomical Theatre was, in fact, removed, and the years have left little trace. Its salvaged bricks were used to repair the serpentine walls and other period structures in and around the Academical Village. A stone marker along McCormick Road, placed in the ground after the 1997 dig, indicates where once stood “the first building devoted solely to medical instruction at the University of Virginia.” In what architect T. Lee Becker acknowledges is a deliberate call out to Jefferson’s design, the Special Collections Library, built across the green in 2004, prominently features rows of lunette windows. “It wasn’t to replicate the Anatomical Theatre,” Becker says. “It was trying to tie the historical knot.”

Records about the bone fragments from the 1997 dig are also sparse.

Charles Cheek, the archaeologist who conducted the dig, says they very likely came from a cadaver used for dissection by medical students. Thomas Crist, the forensic anthropologist who examined the bones for Cheek’s 1997 report to the Curator and Architect for the Academical Village, agrees. He determined that the bone fragments were probably from a single individual, age 18 to 24, but his physical examination almost 20 years ago couldn’t determine the race or sex of that individual. He says that today’s DNA analysis could reveal those facts, depending on the condition of the bone fragments. The whereabouts of the bone fragments are uncertain, but documents at Cheek’s old firm and at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources point back to the University as the likely repository.

“Once they are found and their history is known, some type of memorialization or service would be appropriate,” says Dr. Marcus Martin, University vice president for diversity and equity, and co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. He suggests the possibility of a ceremony on the site of the Anatomical Theatre, or commemorating the discarded remains as part of the planned memorial to slave labor on Grounds.

“First and foremost, we were taught to be respectful, for the knowledge they were imparting to us,” says Dr. Marcus Martin of using cadavers in his medical education. File photo

Martin, himself a physician, recalls his own rite of passage as a medical student, being introduced to the cadaver that would serve him in his anatomical study. “First and foremost, we were taught to be respectful, for the knowledge they were imparting to us.”

Von Daacke, his co-chair, agrees. “If we can identify the bones, there should be some sort of symbolic commemoration,” he says. “That’s a moment to figure out how we appropriately acknowledge and do something to honor the deceased. It’s time to move forward with the reconciliation and repair.”

Von Daacke is working with others on a book that aims to be an authoritative history of slavery at UVA, to be published in 2019. His current chapter is about Jefferson’s Anatomical Theatre. “The hope is that by publicizing this aspect of slavery at UVA, we will begin a process of healing,” he says. “Acknowledgment is the first step.”

Ernie Gates is a freelance writer and editor based in Williamsburg, Virginia.