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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Treatment of those in the tombs

by Tom Dillard | October 25, 2020 at 8:39 a.m.

Death was a constant presence in the lives of our ancestors. Treatment of the dead has changed over time, and attitudes have grown accustomed to the distant connection we have with the bodies of the deceased.

Embalming, a milestone of mortuary history, became available in the 19th century for those whose families could afford it. Another feature available to the affluent was the use of concrete vaults to forestall grave robbing and body snatching. Urban residents, especially Blacks, worried about the bodies of their deceased loved ones ending up on a dissection table at the local medical school.

Then there were those who had distinct notions about dealing with their dead. The best example is the family of Maud Dunlap Duncan of Winslow in Washington County. Duncan is known in Arkansas history as the longtime editor of the Winslow American newspaper, the mayor of Winslow in an all-female "petticoat government," and the second female pharmacist registered in the state.

Maud had two daughters by her first husband Hallam Pearce, a Frisco Railroad worker. Virginia, the younger, died at 18 months, leaving distraught parents and an inconsolable 6-year-old sister, Helen. Then the child's grandmother stepped into the picture.

Abby Burnett, author of "Gone to the Grave" (2014), an outstanding book on death and burial in the Ozarks, summarized the situation: "... Helen was so traumatized by her sister's burial that the girl made her grandmother promise she would never permit an in-ground burial for her. In 1903 Helen died of brain fever and the girls' grandmother ... kept her promise."

She had Helen's body embalmed and placed in a casket with a glass top, and exhumed the coffin containing the baby, now merely a diapered skeleton. Both were placed in a spare room of the grandparents' home until a mausoleum could be built."

Things did not go as planned.

The mausoleum developed a leak after two years, soaking the coffins. The bodies were returned to the home while a new structure could be built. Before it was finished, the family moved, leaving both bodies behind. The home became a school for girls, taking the name of deceased Helen.

One student recalled later that "school was held in other rooms of the house while the bodies were still in the room reserved for that purpose ... which the students called 'the ghost room.'"

When the family refused to move the bodies to the new mausoleum, the city of Winslow took legal action, and finally the bodies were moved to the new tomb.

Perhaps an even more unusual treatment of the dead came in 1991 when an Independence County family held a wake like no other. Following the embalming of the body of a 49-year-old woman, the casket was taken home for a family gathering. Things got out of hand.

Deputy Sheriff Bill Lindsey described the scene best: "Well, when I walked in the body was right there [in the living room] with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other."

Laughable though this eccentric farewell party might have been, nothing was funny about the all too common practice of stealing bodies and selling them to medical colleges for dissection. Often called "body snatchers" or "resurrectionists," grave robbers had been supplying cadavers to medical schools for centuries, but the practice was thrown into the spotlight in 1878 when the body of the father of Republican presidential nominee Benjamin Harrison was stolen, to be found hidden away at the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati.

The first documented medical dissection in Arkansas took place during the Civil War, long before a medical school was established in the state. In 1864, Confederate surgeon Robert James Christie was stationed at Camp Bragg near Camden when he and fellow physicians dissected an enslaved Black man who had been killed in a fight.

Years later, Dr. Christie recalled: "We used the subject for careful dissection and operation. We did our dissecting in a log hut; the cracks were not chinked nor daubed, and to us, on the inside, it was an amusing sight to see a row of eyes peering through the cracks, trying to get a glimpse of the structure of the human for divine."

The first legal dissection in Arkansas came in 1874, and the cadaver was once again a Black man. In 1873, the state adopted legislation authorizing dissection for medical reasons, providing that cadavers were to be "lawfully obtained" from almshouses as well as houses of correction.

James H. Lenow and Richard S. Vickery, U.S. Army doctors stationed in Little Rock, obtained the corpse of a dead Black inmate from the state prison, and proceeded to dissect the body over several evenings. In 1927, the Arkansas Medical Society erected a marker commemorating the November 1874 dissection.

We do not know the extent of body snatching in Little Rock, but Burnett writes, "Though the cadavers used in anatomy class could be purchased from the college, grave robbing by poorer students cannot be ruled out."

She also notes that when the state penitentiary in Little Rock relocated its cemetery in 1893, "a half dozen of the more than 300 unmarked graves were found to be empty, causing speculation that these bodies might have been removed by medical students."

By the end of December 1879, the Black population was growing suspicious about the rumored practice of stealing the bodies of Black people by medical students. On Dec. 27, 1879, someone fired a shot into the medical school, but without injuries. The Gazette speculated that: "... the attacking party is some colored man who has become frightened at absurd stories circulated in regard to the college."

It might have seemed absurd to the newspaper reporter, but four months later in April 1880, a number of human body parts--including a woman's head "with even the eyebrows in a state of preservation"--were found in south Little Rock. While the news report does not provide the race of the dissected body, the reference to colored women "talking and gesticulating in a very excited manner" implies the race of the deceased.

Not all grave robbers were after bodies. In 1922, the graves of the prominent Derriseaux family, French immigrants who had helped settle Jefferson County, were robbed at historic St. Mary's Catholic Church cemetery. The Pine Bluff Daily Graphic reported it was commonly believed that members of the Derriseaux family "had been buried with its diamonds, rings, and other valuable jewelry."

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I will be giving a program on "Infrastructure in Civil War Arkansas" at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at the meeting of the Bella Vista Civil War Roundtable. Attendance is limited to 40, and face masks will be required. Email cnpribb@yahoo.com for details.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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