Sordid criminal past is grave matter for U of M and other venerable US instutions

Thoroughly enjoying my latest read, Wicked Washtenaw County: Strange Tales of the Grisly and Unexplained by local author James Thomas Mann. Only half-way through this 120 page book, but I’ve already learned some interesting new historical tidbits.

A) An Ann Arbor resident and convicted murderer who was sentenced to death by execution (1843) may have been aided in his escape from jail by sympathetic law enforcement and residents because they despised the victim, Patrick Dunn, a well-known bully and troublemaker. After breaking out of jail, Charles Chorr was never seen or heard from again.

B) Wyandotte, Michigan may have been the final Underground Railroad departure point for many Freedom Seekers as they made the dangerous journey east across the Detroit River in search of sanctuary in Canada. (Yep, Canada is located east of Wyandotte). 

C) Most interesting read, however, was the unusual and illegal class requirements  University of Michigan medical students and faculty, and those from other venerable institutions across the nation, faced – all in the name of education and employment. Students and faculty of medical colleges resorted to robbing graves of the recently departed – in the dead of night – in order to provide the “hands-on” anatomy training needed to pursue modern medicine.

Although illegal, body snatching and trafficking of dead bodies was big business in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many a time, the sheriff came a callin’ on Michigan’s medical school with warrant in hand, searching for another dead body missing from its grave.

The author explains that public sentiment of the time viewed the bodies of deceased loved ones with respect. Respect entailed a proper burial.

“The idea of turning a body over to a medical school, such as the one at the University of Michigan, was repugnant to most Americans.”

With a small prison population and the abolishment of capital punishment in Michigan, using the bodies of dead inmates wasn’t an option. Surging enrollment in medical schools following the Civil War, forced students and anatomy professors to visit the graveyards at night to dig up much need bodies, or …. they had to pay someone to do this heinous task.

In this book, James Mann describes at length the intricate details behind a successful grave robbery (a three-man operation, no light-weights, either), the drastic measures people had to take to try and protect the bodies of their loved ones (measures usually trumped by the professionals), and the magnitude of this interstate underworld trafficking of dead bodies (U of M required over 100 bodies a year).

He recounts how Dr. George E. Frothingham, a demonstrator of anatomy, petitioned the regents for a raise in salary.

“One reason Dr. Frothingham felt he deserved a raise was the difficulty he faced in obtaining cadavers. Dr. Frothingham explained that he ‘was compelled to violate the laws of several states, and was, therefore, in constant danger of being disgraced, by detection, arrest, and imprisonment.’ He constantly had to travel ‘in the dark nights’ to unfrequented parts of strange cities, either alone or in the company with those whose presence, in many cases, ‘only added to the feeling of insecurity.'”

Another fascinating tidbit is how Howard Wheeler, a Michigan medical student, shot and killed a member of the infamous James-Younger gang on September 7, 1876, when the gang tried to rob a Northfield, Minnesota bank.

That night, while Wheeler rode with the posse after the gang, Clarence E. Persons, another medical student, exhumed two outlaw bodies and shipped them to Ann Arbor in barrels marked “fresh paint.” Friends of one of the outlaws arrived in Ann Arbor and demanded the release of their friend’s body. They complied, but the two students dissected the other unclaimed body.

Grave matters such as this once widespread collegiate crime spree make today’s  NCAA violations seem like child’s play, eh? 

Wicked Washtenaw County: Strange Tales of the Grisly and Unexplained belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who loves history – especially weird and wicked history. Fourteen interesting stories in all, well worth the $19.99.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s