Job of The Day: Grave Robber
For more than 50 years, first as a slave and then as an employee, Grandison Harris robbed graves to supply the medical students of Georgia with their cadavers. Like his colleagues in 18th- and 19th-century Britain, Harris was called a “resurrection man,” although his official title at the college was porter and janitor. Described as a large and powerful Gullah slave, he was purchased on a Charleston, South Carolina, auction block in 1852, and owned jointly by all seven members of the school’s medical faculty. Although grave-robbing and human dissection were illegal in Georgia for much of the 19th century (unless the cadaver was from an executed criminal), Harris’ slave status protected him from arrest. His employers, some of the most esteemed men in the city, weren’t about to be arrested either.
Bess Lovejoy’s story for Smithsonian Mag about Grandison Harris and the Medical College of Georgia is incredible. Apparently between the years 1835 and 1913, freelance graverobbers provided medical students with cadavers from unquestioned provenance. Grandison Harris, though, was full-time.
Harris was taught to read and write (illegal for slaves at the time), so that he could monitor the local funeral announcements, and trained his memory to mentally capture the flower arrangements on a grave so that he could recreate them perfectly after his midnight expeditions. He preferred to work in Cedar Grove cemetery, reserved for Augusta’s impoverished and black residents, where there was no fence, and where poor blacks were buried in plain pine coffins sometimes called “toothpicks.” His routine at Cedar Grove was simple: entering late at night, he would dig down to the upper end of a fresh grave, smash the surface of the coffin with an ax, reach in, and haul the body out. Then he would toss the body into a sack and a waiting wagon and cover up his work before setting off for the school, the corpse destined for vats of whiskey and, later, the student’s knives.