After their graduation from Princeton in 1853, James Buchanan Henry and Christian Henry Scharff recorded their memories of college life in a memoir called College As It Is, or, The Collegian’s Manual in 1853. In the midst of a chapter describing occasional bouts of violence between students and Princeton residents, the authors adopted the tone of a ghost story:
Did it ever strike you, friend, as strange that no one has for years past been able to penetrate the basement of the West end of North College?
Within North College's (Nassau Hall's) “gloomy dismal vaults, iron bound within and boarded up without”—they claimed—was “a kind of charnel house” containing “a mouldering skeleton,” a “grinning, ghastly memorial of death.” The anatomy of the skeleton, they wrote, suggested that “the former owner of these remains must have been a negro.”
According to Henry and Scharff, the skeleton was that of a body stolen “many classes since” by Princeton students intending to pursue a career in medicine. Encouraged by an unnamed anatomy professor who expressed a need for “a subject,” five students left campus under the cover of night to steal a recently buried body from the African American cemetery in town. After digging up the grave, the students removed the body from its casket and stuffed it into a large sack in order to transport it back to campus. Although they covered the grave with dirt to conceal their theft, in their hurry to leave the cemetery they failed to realize that they had accidentally severed a hand from the corpse with a trowel, leaving the hand behind as evidence.
The next day, the sexton of the graveyard discovered the severed hand and alerted Princeton’s sizeable African American community of the grave robbing. “As can be imagined,” Henry and Sharff wrote, “in a short time all Negrodom was in a tumult.” According to the authors, Princeton’s black residents gathered on campus, demanding the return of the body with “very threatening language.” The five students, now in possession of a rapidly decaying body and fearful of discovery, “proceeded to cut the flesh off piece-meal,” burning it in a fireplace and reducing the body to mere bones, which they cleaned and “adjusted by means of wire, as is usually customary in fixing up a skeleton.” Unable to dispose of the skeleton because of the mob outside, they hid it the basement of Old North, which was subsequently sealed up with (if we are to believe the authors) the skeleton still inside.
19th Century Medical Training
It is unknown whether or not this event actually occurred or was invented by Henry and Scharff as a macabre embellishment of student life in the first half of the 19th century. But even if Henry and Scharff’s story was fictional, it drew heavily from contemporary events that underscored the racial and class anxieties that accompanied the growth of medical training at colleges like Princeton.
If true, the event Henry and Scharff described likely took place some time after 1830, the year the college appointed Dr. Samuel Ladd Howell (class of 1808) as its first Professor of Anatomy and Physiology. By 1835, responding to a growing demand for medical instruction, the college’s trustees took steps to formalize Howell’s position by giving him a regular salary and requiring him to submit a syllabus. This demand also pushed Howell, like his colleagues at peer institutions, to procure specimens to aid in his instruction. Acquiring cadavers was no easy task in the early 19th century, when the requirements of medical training ran up against legal restrictions on procuring anatomical subjects as well as outcry against institutions many members of the public believed trafficked in dead bodies.
Tales of body snatching and community protests were common when Henry and Scharff wrote their story, in an era of changing ideas about medical science and the ownership of deceased bodies. According to historian Michael Sappol, body snatching of the kind described in College As It Is was an important ritual for community formation in the burgeoning field of medicine, allowing students to prove their mettle under pressure—to “playfully assert their newly acquired right of eminent domain over the dead, and especially the working-class (or Irish or black) dead.” Body snatching and pranks involving corpses became common tropes in both real and fictional accounts of student life, and (as in Henry and Scharff’s account) race often played a key role.
By stealing bodies, medical students “reinforced professional identity and solidarity” by transgressing “the funerary customs and honor of working men and women, blacks, Indians, convicted criminals, and immigrants.” In Henry and Scharff’s account, the students specifically chose to commit their act of theft at Princeton’s African American cemetery—privileging what they considered the “common good” of medical instruction over the dignity of black bodies. Stories of body snatching frequently contrasted the supposed character of anatomy students and African Americans: with the former portrayed as unflinching, stoic scholars and the latter as superstitious people with no place in the rational world of medical studies. White medical students pursued “immortal” scientific knowledge; meanwhile, Henry and Scharff’s claim that the stolen skeleton had a “negro” anatomy linked blackness and mortality.
But white students’ and physicians’ assertions of medical authority did not go unchallenged. Beginning in the late 18th century and continuing well into the 19th century, mobs occasionally responded by attacking medical colleges, students, and faculty in so-called “resurrection riots” that could result in injuries, destruction of property, or even death. Like the lurid detail of the severed hand in Henry and Scharff’s tale, these incidents were usually touched off by a community members discovering evidence of grave robbing, gruesome sightings of dissected limbs, or rumors of a dissection in progress—private acts that provoked public rituals of retributive violence that occasionally succeeded in shuttering medical facilities for years.
Resurrection riots and mobilization of the type described by Henry and Scharff were ways for a community to challenge medical professionals’ claims to the community’s dead—and in particular the dead of the most marginalized segments of the population. In Henry and Scharff’s account, Princeton’s black community mobilized against a suspected theft from their cemetery by members of the college. But like other similar accounts, Henry and Scharff’s story demonizes the public for their “threatening” behavior, casting the grave robbers as essentially benign.
Ultimately, Henry and Scharff’s story illustrates how how elite white men claimed authority over black bodies even beyond the institution of slavery.
About the Author
Dan Ewert is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Princeton. He studies twentieth-century American history, with a focus on urban history, policing, and mass incarceration. In addition to contributing to the Princeton & Slavery Project, Dan is currently involved in a project to map urban unrest in Trenton, NJ in April of 1968. He received his B.A. in History from Yale in 2012, summa cum laude. His current academic interests stem from working as a public defense investigator in Brooklyn and teaching immigration history at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan.
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James Buchanan Henry and Christian Henry Scharff, College As It Is, or, the Collegian’s Manual in 1853, ed. J. Jefferson Looney (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Libraries,  1996), 130-131.
By 1850, 534 of 3023 residents of the borough and township of Princeton were African American. Ibid., fn. 26, 134.
Because Henry and Scharff don’t give exact dates, it is difficult to corroborate their account of the body’s theft and the subsequent mob. J. Jefferson Looney, editor of College As It Is, estimates that if the theft actually occurred it would have taken place during the tenure of Dr. Samuel Ladd Howell, Professor of Anatomy and Physiology from 1830-35. I have been unable to locate accounts of the incident in local newspapers or faculty records from this time. Looney speculates that the story might have been concocted as a submission to the Nassau Literary Magazine. Ibid., 133-134, fn 25.
Nancy Knox, “The Genial Dr. Howell: Princeton Medicine in the 1820s-1830s,” in Princeton History Five (1986), ed. Nathaniel Burt, 45-46.
Linden F. Edwards, “Resurrection Riots during the Heroic Age of Anatomy in America,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine ( Jan 1, 1951), 178.
Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 83.
Edwards, “Resurrection Riots,” 180-182.