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Body-stealer: the creepiest bill in Va, General Assembly

Every General Assembly session sees its share of odd bills. Remember the droopy drawers bill?

But a resolution filed in this year’s session is not only weird, it’s creepy — at least, its backstory is. And fascinating.

Senate Joint Resolution 84 has an innocuous title — “Recognizing the training of nineteenth-century physicians in Richmond.”

But when you start reading the resolution, sponsored by Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, it turns out that that training — the anatomical training — hinged on the efforts of an African-American outcast who stole corpses for medical students and was reviled for it in his own community.

Read the resolution yourself here

The body-snatcher, or resurrectionist, was one Chris Baker. He and his family lived in the basement of the Egyptian Building on the Medical College of Virginia campus — just down the street from the Capitol.

According to the resolution, it’s not known whether Baker was a free man or was enslaved when he began his career. He shows up in MCV records as a janitor at the Egyptian Building after the Civil War, according to a Library of Virginia archival blog that contains even more about Baker’s strange history.

It’s well worth the read:

As is a Style Weekly story from 2010 on research into Baker’s life and activities.

According to Style’s story, most states in the 19th century had no “anatomy laws” that would have let medical schools take unclaimed bodies for research and dissection.

“Without these laws, the only way medical schools in Virginia could get the bodies they needed was through an illegal market in cadavers,” Style said. “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.”

It wasn’t just booming in Richmond — the city was a center of the underground industry.

Again from the Style story: “‘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.”

The Library of Virginia blog says that Baker and medical students were cruising alms houses, African-American cemeteries and “other locales of the poor and anonymous” to find fresh bodies, for which he was paid up to $10 “depending on condition.” He and white medical students were arrested at least twice while digging up bodies in an African-American cemetery. Baker was pardoned by no less than the governor of Virginia.

Baker’s career as a resurrectionist would have ended after 1884, when the state passed legislation to establish a state anatomical board and made bodies of prisoners and the indigent available for medical students to study.

According to the resolution, Baker was an outcast in the African-American community.

“Chris Baker, small, bald, and peculiar in appearance, was a pariah in the Richmond African American community because he eerily scoured announcements of deaths in the community and lurked in African American cemeteries to dig up bodies, forcing families to stand guard for several days until the body decomposed sufficiently to discourage its theft; furthermore, a grisly legend alleges that Chris Baker, known as the “boogeyman” in the African American community, practiced black magic and would dissolve flesh and tissue off bones in a vat of quicklime, which produced a nauseating and permeating odor of putrefaction, in order to provide new bodies for medical students,” the resolution says.

Baker himself died in 1919, at the age of 70, and was buried in Richmond’s Evergreen Cemetery (and presumably his body remains there, and wasn’t disinterred in the name of science).

But his legacy in the African-American community lingered. Marsh’s resolution says that “the impact of this episode in Virginia’s history continues to resonate among African Americans and is indelibly etched into their psyches, contributing to the fear and distrust of physicians and the medical profession.”

It also says VCU is planning a memorial “to commemorate the contributions of Richmond’s African Americans whose bodies were stolen for anatomical dissection and the furtherance of science and medical research.”

The resolution calls for that resolution to also include “efforts to study, understand, and publish the complex legacy of Chris Baker and his relationship and contributions to the university and the training of physicians.”

There’s also a video online that synopsizes a documentary on Baker:  (but don’t watch if you’re bothered by pictures of dead bodies).