Evidences of a foul murder: resurrectionists at work

 In May of 1893 a barrel was found floating down the Missouri River. In it were the headless bodies of two men. The barrel was found by Harry May, described in the Times as “a youth who lives with his parents in a small shanty on the river bank near the foot of Holmes street.”  

Harry was on the river in his skiff when he saw the barrel floating by, “nearly filled with what he supposed to be hams. He thought that it had tumbled into the river from a wharf or steamboat.” Harry towed the barrel to shore and with a friend began to empty it. His friend, said the paper, “was nearly frightened to death when he pulled out the leg of a man that had been chopped off at the knee.”

Coroner LangsdaleThe Jackson County coroner, John Langsdale, was summoned and discovered the “mangled and disfigured trunks of two … full-grown white men. The heads of both had been chopped off close to the trunk. The bloody work had been done with a blunt axe, for on the shoulders and chest were deep gashes made by blows that had missed the neck. The arms had been severed close to the shoulders. The legs of one had been hacked off at the knees; the other close up to the body, where the flesh and skin hung in shreds.”[1]

Langsdale declared the bodies were evidence of a “foul murder,” and could not have been from the “dissecting table of a medical college.” The next day, however, he reversed himself: although the identity of the two men remained unknown, the coroner had decided on closer examination that the work was done by medical students: “there were indisputable signs which showed the use of a scalpel and saw in the hands of an anatomist. It is supposed that the bodies were those of paupers which were turned over to some medical institution for experiment by its students, and that after all use for the subjects had been exhausted they had been packed in the barrel and thrown in the river as the easiest way to dispose of them.”

There was no way to tell how long the two had been dead, since the medical college might have kept them “in pickle” for some time, or from what city they had come: perhaps Wyandotte, St. Joseph, even Omaha. The coroner ordered the remains buried in the potter’s field. [2]

Anatomy classIt was the second time in two months that bodies had been found floating in the Missouri with the marks of medical students’ scalpels on them. The Star in an editorial called on the U.S. government and the states of Missouri and Kansas to “indulge in such legislation as may be necessary to prevent the authorities and students of medical colleges, or their agents, from dumping the ‘friendless bodies of unburied men’ in that stream.”[3]

The medical profession was burgeoning in 1893. As Michael Sappol points out , “For the many young men who were seeking to acquire a secure bourgeois identity as well as a livelihood, doctoring was a popular career choice, one that had the advantage of relatively low capital requirements.”[4]  Three or four hundred students, all men, attended Kansas City’s medical colleges.  Probably none had previously attended college: they are, as a rule, reported the Times: “young men who have earned and saved enough at teaching school or clerking to put them through college, and they are forced to practice economy. The most of them live at four-dollar-a-week boarding houses and look upon an evening at the theater as a great luxury.” The cost of tuition, room and board, books and incidental expenses for the first year of study was an estimated $385; the second and third years were less expensive. Some students, reported the paper, survive on even less by clubbing together in boarding houses and using each other’s books.[5]

Medical students typically had little or no prior preparation for the three year medical course; it was only in 1894, for example, that the Missouri State Board of Health required a high school or college diploma or teacher’s certificate for matriculation of medical students. Not until 1907 did the Missouri legislature pass legislation requiring applicants taking the medical examination to be graduates of a reputable medical school. [6] 

Kansas City had three medical colleges in 1893: Kansas City Medical College at Washington and Seventh Streets, founded in 1869, Kansas City University Medical College at 913 East Tenth Street, and the Homeopathic Medical College at Tenth and Troost. The Times story reported that one of the University Medical College’s professors had returned from the East coast with “upward of $2,000 worth of new physical and chemical apparatus,” including “a pair of balances so delicately adjusted that they will weigh one thirteen hundredths of a grain.”

There was also a Veterinary College which boasted a museum of specimens including a skeleton comprised of pieces from several individuals: “a Swede who hanged himself from the bridge of the Ninth street cable incline, its pelvis is that of a woman, its skull belonged to a negro, and so on. In a box are the bones and pieces of the rude coffin of Mollie Reynolds, who was shot in a dance hall in Los Animas, Cal., thirteen years ago.”[7]

The Kansas City Medical College, like many colleges of the time, was a proprietary institution, incorporated as a joint stock company with lecturers as stockholders, and competed aggressively for students with other colleges.  In 1893 the college divided between “progressive” and “ultra-conservative” factions over efforts to increase enrollment. The “progressive” majority of the faculty, the Daily Journal reported, did not control the majority of the stock and was defeated in its efforts to enlarge the facilities so it could double or triple enrollment from the present 100.[8]

Anatomy classCompetition for cadavers was also intense among the three schools since anatomy classes were a central part of the medical school curriculum, lending credibility to  graduates against the host of quacks calling themselves “doctors.” Anatomy classes, as Michael Sappol points out, “enabled men within the profession to distinguish themselves from the pack of practitioners by virtue of their anatomical acumen….”[9]

Getting hold of cadavers, by fair means or foul, was therefore a common feature of late nineteenth century medicine. Medical schools were commonly provided with cadavers of paupers and people who had been hung, but the “resurrectionists” who supplied corpses were not always particular where they got them from.

An example was reported in the Journal in October when an undertaker was sent to retrieve the body of a young Kansas City man, James Miller, who had been killed in a rail accident near Topeka. The body had disappeared. Someone, the paper said, “had received money for shipping it to a medical institute in Topeka.” The institute unabashedly told the undertaker that “the body had cost the college a good deal of money.” He was shown a “large vat in the shape of a hogshead, which contained some liquid preparation. The body of James Miller and a companion, who was also killed in the accident, were both in the bath.”

Over the resistance of the college, which asked him to ship the body back to the college if it should prove not to be that of James Miller and reminded him that it had cost them a great deal of money, Miller’s body was extracted from the tank  – apparently the other body remained.

The undertaker, reported the Journal, “was unable to ascertain who received the money or by what authority the corpse was shipped from the county in which Miller met a violent death, calling for an inquest, and sold to a medical institute of another county without an effort being made to find out if there were relatives to claim the body, or awaiting the time required by law in such cases.” [10]

Miller was the son of a former Kansas City alderman; otherwise his story might not have made its way into the newspaper. His father proposed an investigation of the whole matter. Meanwhile, the young man’s remains were buried in the family plot in Woodlawn cemetery.[11]


[1] “Awful evidence of crime.” Kansas City Times, May 11, 1893, p. 2.

[2] “It was not murder.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 12, 1893, p. 3.

[3] [Editorial] Kansas City Star, May 12, 1893, p. 4.

[4] Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press, 2002, p 2. Google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=JmadPEPJkRsC&printsec.

[5] “Many sawbones coming.” Kansas City Times, September 16, 1893, p. 8.

[6] Marilyn Burlingame, “A Brief History of Kansas City Medical Schools.” 2005.  Available at www.umkc.edu/whmckc/scrapbook/articles/kcmedicalschools.pdf.

[7] "Many sawbones coming.” Kansas City Times, September 16, 1893, p. 8.

[8] “War among the faculty.” Daily Journal, July 1, 1893, p. 1.

[9] Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press, 2002, p 2. Google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=JmadPEPJkRsC&printsec.

[10] “A ghoulish transaction.” Daily Journal. October 20, 1893, p. 5.

[11] “A ghoulish transaction.” Daily Journal. October 20, 1893, p. 5.

January 1, 2013