Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Dr. Henry H. Holmes at the University of Michigan, Part One

In my previous two posts, I introduced the arguments that the multi-murderer Henry H. Holmes was an ordinary young man and that he encountered ridicule and pranks when he moved from his rural hometown to the medical school at the University of Vermont at Burlington. In the fall of 1883, when he was twenty-two, Holmes continued his medical education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

First, some general background, and then on to the time when Holmes was a student.

The Old Medical School building at Ann Arbor, Michigan, extant 1850 to 1914. Note the Holmes look-alikes.

Grave-Robbing and the University of Michigan Medical School.

   On through the 19th century, religious and social convictions limited the supply of bodies donated to medical schools and laws forbade unclaimed corpses from going to the dissection table. At the same time, an explosion occurred in the formal education of physicians. The progression of science transformed medicine into a discipline which helped patients, not merely bled them. An apprenticeship was no longer good enough; doctors were expected to have a degree. As part of their training students learned anatomy and practiced surgical techniques using human cadavers. With legal corpses in short supply, medical education relied on grave-robbers, or as they were often called, resurrectionists. This was true at the most prestigious schools. It was especially true at the University of Michigan which, in the 1860s grew to be the largest medical school in the nation^1.

    As a senior in 1849, Edmund Andrews served as the class president at the University of Michigan. The next year, with great anticipation, he entered the medical school as part of its inaugural class. The head of the Anatomy Department, Dr. Moses Gunn, assigned him the position of demonstrator. Andrews wrote:

    "In those days the duties of a Demonstrator were, first and most important, to obtain cadavers for the dissecting room, and then, if he had any time left, to give instruction on the same. ... In addition to the potters' fields, the best places to obtain cadavers were remote churchyards where recent burials could be found^2."

    In one instance, anatomy professor, Robert C. Kedzie recounted a botched raid taking place in a graveyard too near the school. "A mob gathered in the evening with the avowed purpose of burning the medical building." The medical school was saved by "a guard of one hundred armed medics^3."

    In the first year of the medical school, the need for corpses ran at thirteen^4. By 1861, that number totaled forty-five^5. After the Civil War (an event which helped supply corpses and then, with peace, abruptly cut off the supply), the University of Michigan Medical School, by that time the largest medical school in the country, required over one hundred twenty five cadavers per year^6.

    Even when few corpses were needed, the institution resorted to grave-robbing. Now, as the call for fresh cadavers became overwhelming, the crimes became wholesale and the scandals frequent. In 1867, after a fight with the school regents, Dr. Gunn left for a job at the Rush School of Medicine in Chicago. He took with him 41 corpses, whisked off in the dead of night. The regents at first complained, but then acquiesced under his threats of a scandal: he knew where the bodies weren't buried^7.

  That same year, Michigan passed a law to make sure "that unclaimed bodies from state hospitals and prisons be provided to medical schools^8." This statute was toothless and ineffectual. It was modified in 1875 to include penalties against the body-snatchers^9. Still the grave-robbing continued.

A Very Crowded Anatomy Presentation, University of Michigan Medical School, 1865.

Side Story: The Jesse James Shootout and the U. of M. Medical Student Who Bagged a Corpse for Dissection.

  In 1876, two enterprising U of M medical students, Henry Wheeler and Clarence Persons, were present when the Jesse James gang undertook their famous raid at Northfield, Minnesota. Eight members of the gang showed: Frank and Jesse James, the three Younger brothers, and Miller, Stiles and Pitts.

"The first sign of trouble appeared when a merchant attempted to enter the bank: one of the outlaws seized him and warned him back. . . . There was a shot within the bank, then another in the street, as a Swedish immigrant who knew no English was gunned down for not taking to his heels. . . . In the bank was a dead cashier who had refused to open the vault." [the quotes and the entire story can be found at reference 10]

In the subsequent shootout, the medical student Wheeler and a hardware merchant named Manning killed two of the gang, Stiles and Miller. The remainder of the gang fled.

Wheeler's classmate, Persons, arrived on the scene. Wheeler told him, "Clarence, you had better see if you can get the bodies of the two fellows who have been shot, and perhaps we can land them in Ann Arbor for dissecting material. You see what you can do while I am gone [away on the pursuing posse]."

That night, Persons dug up the freshly buried bodies, and then put them into kegs labeled "Fresh Paint" and shipped them to Ann Arbor.

A year later, after the students had finished their dissection, Wheeler asked Persons what they should do with the cleaned skeleton. Persons replied, "He's yours. You shot him."

Wheeler took the articulated skeleton and mounted it in his doctor's office. Fifty years later, the office burnt down and the remains were cremated.

Next Up: The University of Michigan Medical School at the Time of Holmes.

References and Notes.

1. Human Dissection: Its Drama and Struggle. p. 244. A.M. Lassek, M.D., Ph.D. Co. 1958, by Charles C Thomas, Publisher.
Accessed March 16th, 2016
2. Edmund Andrews and the Body Snatchers. Grave Images, Michigan Today, Fall 1999.
3. Kedzie anecdote. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. "In the academic year 1861-62, a bill for bodies cropped up in the Regents' budget–the only time that was allowed to happen; the cost of "procuring 45 anatomical subjects–$1,367.46," or $30 a body." Ibid.
6. The Resurrectionists. James Tobin. Medicine at Michigan Magazine, Fall Issue, 2008.
Accessed March 16th, 2016
7. Edmund Andrews and the Body Snatchers. Grave Images, Michigan Today, Fall 1999.
8. Finding Aid for Anatomical Donations Program, University of Michigan. Brian A. Williams, 1994
9. Ibid.
10. Bankrobbers, Burkers, and Bodysnatchers. William Holtz. Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 6, pages 90-8, 1967.
accessed: March 16, 2016
A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook editions through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.

Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my  thriller, A Predator's Game, Rook's Page Publishing.

Back page blurb of A Predator's Game (advance copy, subject to change).

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, is available from Rook's Page Publishing.

His recent mystery, Never Kill A Friend, is available from Ransom Note Press. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, won second place in the 2015 Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at


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