Saturday, October 30, 2010

St Louis folklore and ghosts from the research of Devil At The Confluence for Halloween.

This week of Halloween there has been a story each day from the leftover research of the book. These are rewritten from reports made by witnesses. There are some very popular and often repeated unexplained incidents from St Louis' history, but these are the less well-known stories.


The old McDowell Medical College at Eighth and Gratiot was a large brick structure with two wings and an octagonal tower, three stories tall with sixteen foot ceilings. Joseph McDowell was an eccentric doctor* who built the college in 1847. Many in the city said that he was mad and there were many stories that seem to prove that he was. 

It was true that he had cannons pointing out of the windows of the college. And it's likely true that the anatomical lab and the dissection room had human bodies preserved in alcohol-filled copper tanks. The autopsy and amputation procedures of a working hospital surely explain why body parts were found in waste pits and why several wagon loads of human bones were hauled out of the building. And lastly, it seems that it was true that when his 14 year old daughter died, he had her cadaver stored in a cask in a cave in Hannibal, Missouri.** 

Those facts are certainly creepy and probably true, but up to where he pickled his daughter, it all seems perfectly logical for a doctor and a medical facility. So yes, he was unhinged and there were skeletons in his closet. But it's kind of hard to separate facts from superstitious fervor in the historical record of the McDowell Medical College because much of what was written about Dr. McDowell and the facility came out after the town had turned against him and his school. Sure, the neighbors seemed fine with cannons pointed at their houses and piles of bones and viscera filling the potholes around the block, but when accusations arose of body snatchings of the recently deceased from St. Louis cemeteries, well, then that crosses a line.

The questionable story that spurred the town into mob action in the later 1800s concerned a young waif who died of unknown causes and whose corpse was taken from the grave by McDowell and some students. It's said that a mob stormed the citadel but didn't find the doctor or the girl's body. They said that the old doctor was warned of the coming rabble by the ghost of his mother who told him where to hide himself and the frail corpse. 
See there? All of the accounts of this St Louis legend seem like gossipy rhetoric with a touch of Mary Shelley, but then so do the facts. Nonetheless, fear and outrage swept the neighborhood. 

Oddly, (if that still has any meaning here) there seems to have been little mention in the media and no official action by the city authorities, so the accuracy of the resurrectionist charges appear flimsy and could be discounted - except for a short paragraph in the school's 1868 catalog that was intended as a boast of the quality of the school's educational materials:

(Nice. Our great-great relatives' corporeal remains were "cheap and abundant.")

Furthermore, a convincing piece of evidence was found in the newspaper in 1895. It was decades later when a well-respected senior medical doctor confessed to the methods used by the McDowell medical school. He revealed that in the early 1850s stealthy disinterment and burking were indeed the Victorian ways of gathering school supplies in St Louis. 

"There were some such laws but the supply of bodies for dissection was always short. And it was filled by private enterprise" he stated bluntly. "There was a great deal of grave-robbing in St Louis."

When old Doctor McDowell died in 1868, the building lay vacant for many years and wouldn't you know it, the townspeople living nearby Castle Private Enterprise began to say the old place was haunted. Well then the newspaper ran a series of outlandish articles that told of sensational hauntings in the Goth tower. Civic responsibility was one thing, but yellow journalism was a circulation booster. The first article of five described a midnight drama of sound effects in the tower beginning with a scream, then the trampling of many feet, the sound of "a soft body" being dragged and the slamming of a heavy chest lid. An explanatory narrative was supplied that told the tale of beautiful young Dora Wescott who died a pauper and her body was obtained by the college for dissection. As students were carving through the pallid corpse, the poor maiden awoke from her trance. She did not speak, only gasped and rose to a sitting position on the table. The article series included walk-ons by the local professional spiritualists and necromancers and each night the mob got bigger at the intersection near where Purina stands today.

The McDowell Medical school and tower was demolished within two years after the tabloid stories and when a reader wrote to ask if the stories were true, the paper's reply was, "We can only say in all truthfulness that the Dora Wescott yarn is as worthy of credibility as any story of the kind that has been published this year - Editor."

* I'm not making this up - Dr. McDowell got his medical degree from Transylvania University in Kentucky.

** Mark Twain wrote about the Hannibal cave with the girl's corpse.


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