Editor's note: An early version of this story had one reference incorrectly identifying Dr. McDowell's first name. His name was Joseph. He had a son named John.
“Rest in peace” was no idle wish in 1840s St. Louis.
Body snatching had come to town.
Like a horror tale akin to “Frankenstein,” graves were rifled not just for jewelry or other shiny goods, but for something far more gruesome: fresh corpses.
In time for the annual holiday that celebrates the macabre, a new book investigates the life of a creepy yet important citizen who deserves to be better known in the city’s history files.
“Joseph Nash McDowell was nuts,” Victoria Cosner says. Enough bones were found in his basement to fill three wagons.
The bones themselves, though, weren’t really evidence of an unstable nature. McDowell was, after all, a surgeon, opening the first medical school in St. Louis (probably the first west of the Mississippi River). Acquiring bodies for dissection class was a necessary part of instruction.
In fact, “grave robbing was a class requirement,” according to “Missouri’s Mad Doctor McDowell” by Cosner and Lorelei Shannon (History Press, 142 pages, $21.99; paper). Their white-maned subject also exhibited, though, a surplus of “eccentricities,” as his generous peers put it at the time.
Besides believing that the ghost of his mother once saved him, McDowell kept a bear in his medical college and perhaps hundreds of ancient guns. He even mounted a cannon he said came from a pirate ship. When a mob objected to his body snatching, the doctor may have released the bear on the crowd. He seemed paranoid about a rival school and sometimes wore a breastplate for protection. After the Civil War, McDowell, a Confederate, created a room called Hell that included a rattlesnake, an alligator and an effigy of Abraham Lincoln.
Probably his most ghoulish act, though, was to entomb his own 14-year-old daughter in a copper cylinder filled with alcohol. He bought a cave in Hannibal and hung the corpse in it, trying to preserve Amanda’s body.
The cave is now known as the Mark Twain Cave, and guides talk about unrest in Hannibal when “townsfolk realized the girl hadn’t been given a Christian burial,” the book says. Some guides claim to have seen Amanda’s ghost, Cosner says. “Amanda’s story was well-known at the time it happened and has stayed part of the mythology of Hannibal and St. Louis for over 170 years,” the authors write.
The corpse, a draw for local children who tried to open the coffin, was recorded in Mark Twain’s nonfiction. McDowell himself may have inspired a cemetery scene in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in which a Dr. Robinson has hired Injun Joe and Muff Potter to dig up a body.
Cosner is certain that Twain knew of McDowell by name and based Dr. Robinson on the St. Louis surgeon: “Sure as I can be without a note from Mark Twain.”
Other writers have examined McDowell before, but Cosner wanted to work backward from the legends and ghost stories connected with him to find the “true crime” story. She and co-author Shannon cite dozens of books and journal articles in their bibliography. The slim paperback highlights McDowell’s loathsome aspects, although it acknowledges that he was considered a superior surgeon and a mesmerizing teacher.
Shannon, who lives in Washington state, met Cosner when they were high school students in Arizona. Their first book together was another true crime work called “Mad Madame Lalaurie: New Orleans’ Most Famous Murderess Revealed.” They’ll discuss their recent work this week at Subterranean Books.
Cosner, administrator at the First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site, is especially proud of her research into the connection between Twain’s and McDowell’s families. She documents how McDowell had cousins named Nash in Hannibal, and that one of his own sons, John, boarded with Twain’s uncle, Jim Lampton. John McDowell is even buried with the Lamptons rather than with the McDowells.
Joseph McDowell, his first wife and several children now permanently reside in Bellefontaine Cemetery. McDowell, however, apparently first buried his wife, Amanda Virginia, and some of his young children in a cemetery mound in Illinois. (The bodies were moved to Bellefontaine when the mound was destroyed in 1867.) Supposedly, McDowell would gaze at the Indian mound from his college at Eighth and Gratiot streets.
TRANSYLVANIA U. GRAD
The doctor, born in Kentucky, came to St. Louis about 1839 to teach at Kemper College. He had graduated, interestingly enough, from Transylvania University in Kentucky. In 1840, he founded the medical department at Kemper and several years later erected an imposing new building for his own Missouri Medical College. (St. Louis Medical College was founded in 1841 and became affiliated with St. Louis University. Together these two medical schools would eventually become part of Washington University.)
After the Civil War broke out, McDowell left town to fight on the side of the rebels, and his medical college was taken over by the Union to become the Gratiot Street Prison (the building is long gone; it stood near the current Ralston Purina headquarters).
The prison of course, has its own history of ghosts and gruesome stories, beginning with a list of items taken from the college, including 44 skulls and “180 lots of wet specimens in jars.” Unfortunately, many files and papers from the medical school were apparently discarded.
When soldiers cleared it out, they loaded wagons full of old bones, Cosner says. With the development of medical schools, “ever more cadavers were required for medical experimentation and exploration,” write Cosner and Shannon. Early Missouri law allowed for hanged criminals to be used for dissection, but by 1835 the state outlawed removing bodies from graves for sale or dissection, terming the act a misdemeanor.
That didn’t end the practice. The most frequently stolen bodies were of paupers, transients or enslaved people — people without powerful relatives to object to their treatment or the means to protect the grave (Britain still has examples of cages placed over graves). “Missouri’s Mad Doctor McDowell” says that despite the doctor’s “pilfering of graveyards,” he would lecture students to show respect for the bodies, saying “this isn’t a butcher shop.”
McDowell’s college wasn’t the only medical school to obtain corpses. In 1884, an anonymous correspondent in the Post-Dispatch wrote a “Reminiscence of the Flourishing Days of Grave-Robbery in St. Louis” and detailed how medical students before 1870 would “chip in and make up $10, which was given to the (medical college) janitor, who never failed to provide them a corpse for that amount.” The anecdote is under the subhead “Pope’s College,” another name for St. Louis Medical College, whose early dean was Dr. Charles Alexander Pope.
Kenneth Winn, former Missouri state archivist, is also working on a book about McDowell, whom Winn believes should be better known:
“When McDowell gets his due, he will be on the map.” Winn sees the doctor as less “mad” and more a product of his time.
“He’s more of a loudmouth who didn’t care what he said,” especially about his hatred of Catholics, blacks and immigrants, but that wasn’t unusual then, Winn says.
“He was very sympathetic toward woman” and would treat poor people for free, he says. In addition, McDowell’s competitive dislike of other medical colleges was also common at that time, when doctors had even been known to get into fisticuffs. “It was a tough period.”
Christopher Gordon, director, library and collections, at the Missouri History Museum, believes McDowell might be better known if his medical records hadn’t been lost when the college became a prison.
“I think people don’t realize how well-respected he was in the medical community. ... Many of his students went on to become very respected physicians here. He laid the base for the medical community in St. Louis.”But Gordon also believes the doctor “probably suffered from some kind of paranoia. ... There was definitely something wrong there.”
He says St. Louis’ most famous case of grave robbery involved Pope’s college and a “resurrectionist” named Ernest Doepke. “He was caught red-handed.”
Like Winn, Gordon points to anatomical boards and the American Medical Association for helping bring better ethics and more volunteer donations to medical schools.
And yet, ghouls still appeal to popular culture. Joseph Nash McDowell made an appearance in the 2012 movie “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” in which the St. Louis doctor supplied blood to the thirsty ones.
McDowell, 63, died in 1868 from a pedestrian cause: pneumonia. As a Halloween tale, though, his life fits the season well enough.
Victoria Cosner and Lorelei Shannon
When • 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where • Subterranean Books, 6275 Delmar Boulevard
How much • Free
More info • 314-862-6100
Note • The authors will also speak at 7 p.m. Friday at The Book House and at 2 p.m. Nov. 1 at Bellefontaine Cemetery. For complete information and more events, go to cosner-and-shannon.com.