Dr. McDowell and the Bodies

Almost four years ago, I took a field trip to Hannibal, Missouri. It was for my senior literature class, since we were studying Mark Twain. That’s Samuel Langhorne Clemens, by the way. Some of us prefer to call people by their REAL names, because we’re ADULTS.


Author of such works as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Clemens’ hometown quickly hit the map thanks to the success of Twain– er, Clemens. Crap, I gave his evil false-name more power. Hannibal was only established some 16 years before his birth, and being so far up the river from St. Louis, it hardly drew as much tourism as it would when Twain would– no, when CLEMENS would go on to become an American treasure. Today, the town draws in literary fans not just from the corners of America, but internationally as well.


There’s a cave in Hannibal, now referred to “creatively” as Mark Twain Cave. Why? Beats me. Anyway, in CLEMENS’ stories, the cave made a few adapted appearances under the filthy pseudonym “McDougal’s Cave.”


We all know pseudonyms are for people who have dirty, shameful secrets to hide, right? Right? Just making sure, is all.


In the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, there’s a scene where the young lovers of the book go to McDougal’s cave to tell ghost stories, in a strip of the cave that resembled two large benches facing one another. If you walk the cave today, you might get the same ghost story that I did.


The story goes that when Mark twain was a young boy, he and his friends had heard a rumor about something… sinister, in the cave. Like all young boys and girls do, they played hookie that day and skirted off to the cave (which was probably just named “The Ol’ Cave” at the time, I don’t know). The oldest boy led them down the maze-like corridors of the cave until he found “the spot.” A large copper tube was found suspended above the ground. The oldest boy carefully unscrewed the container, and a strong smell washed over the room. He wouldn’t let anyone get a closer look.


They all turned their lanterns off, and began to tell their spooky stories, which I assume were something like “the day all the bread ran out.” What was scarier than life itself in the 1800s? To quote a guy who once dressed up as Samuel Clemens: “You just stared at the river all day and tried not to kill yourself.”


As the story neared its climax, the boys would yank the sheet off one of their still glowing lanterns, and with a splash, the oldest boy had lifted something out of the container– the blonde head of a dead girl, floating in alcohol. The children were all horrified, and fled the cave in every-which direction. Some children were so scared that in their panicked, they fled far into the depths of the cave, and never found their way back out.


To this day, the 16 year old tour guide told me, the ghost of that poor girl still wanders the cave.


But enough about all that. The day is April 1, 1805, and Joseph Nash McDowell was born in Lexington Kentucky to revolutionary war veteran Major John McDowell and Lucy Nash LeGrand. His father was promoted from Captain to Major after crossing the Delaware with George Washington, you know, like the painting?


He’s not in the painting. Not only is that not like, a real-time portrait (imagine a guy just one boat ahead with his easel like “WAIT, WAIT, STOP THE SURPRISE ATTACK, THIS LIGHTING IS AWESOME!”) also, there’s about 50 boats in that picture– for all I know he was in the very back.


He would later fight in many campaigns against the Native Americans, and would even serve in the first state legislature of Kentucky. Joseph’s grandfather was also an accomplished veteran, serving in the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780.


Joseph did not follow in their footsteps, though. Joseph was more interested in his uncle: Dr. Ephraim McDowell, who was famous at the time for removing “an enourmous tumor” from a woman’s ovary, without the aid of anesthesia or antibiotics.


When the woman agreed to do the procedure, he set to work trying to drain the tumor down to a manageable size. When it was finally removed, it was still over 22 pounds. The woman recovered in McDowell’s home after the procedure, while an angry mob waited outside to murder McDowell if the woman didn’t survive. After 3 weeks, she came out, rode home on her own horse, and lived another thirty-two years.


The success of this operation made him famous, even going so far as to be named “the father of abdominal surgery.” In 1812, he operated on James K. Polk, who would go on to be the president of the United States.


“The gentleman had suffered for years from symptoms of vesical calculus [bladder stones], and in 1812, when in his 17th year, he was induced to consult Dr. McDowell. He carried the stone home with him, not in his bladder, but in his pocket, to show to his friends and neighbors.”


I get the appeal of it, you know, when your dad been working on the car all day and he comes out of the garage with an acorn and he’s like “That’s what was causing all that rattlin’!” But frankly it’s a lot more fucking weird when you come back from Dr. McDowell and you’re like “look, honey! This is what was makin’ all that dick-hurtin’!”


Ephraim was obviously not loved by all– I did mention the murderous mob– there were those who thought his experiments and procedures were “butchery.” He was called a hack, a sadist, and one who “gloried in cutting open the belly of a woman.”


So that’s his rockstar, his idol growing up. His dad’s a Major who fought with George Washington, and his Uncle is the father of abdominal surgery. Can you picture those two crazy kids on the same gig, though? Leading militias and… cutting out gallstones.


Joseph was a tall, lanky, and wild-haired looking man. Picture Count Olaf, from one of those “Unfortunate Events” adaptations. Take it with a grain of salt, though, I’ll tell you that like, every other white guy from the 1800s looks like Count Olaf.

Joseph Nash McDowell

Don’t let this man near your unattended orphans.

He was educated at Transylvania University, Lexington, KY. I don’t know how long, exactly, but as we’ll find out later, it’s probably shorter than you’d expect. Very talented, top-notch student, despite some… quirks.  


McDowell was a Calvinist, and a passionate secessionist. He believed strongly in the rights of the southern states and in the institution of slavery. While well known for being generous in his treatment of the poor and the sick, he was also known for his hatred of immigrants, colored people, and Catholics.


“He would lecture on those subjects at street corners to anyone who would listen.”


The timeline is very fuzzy after he graduates, but this is a rough estimate loosely stitched together by what we have.


There was a two year stint in Chillicothe, Ohio (medical practice, 2 years). Then, on to Cincinnati, Ohio (medical practice). After that, it’s University of Miami in 1829, where he served as Adjunct Professor. He was suspended after his first course of lectures, I wish I knew why. There’s a a six year stint (1829 to 1835) where he gave lectures in an amphitheatre he built on his own property.


I couldn’t figure out where he built this amphitheater, but since it’s right after he was fired from the University of Miami, I really want it to be, like, right across the street.

Then, it’s back to Cincinnati to teach at Cincinnati Medical College (1835-1839). He did a lecturing tour throughout the south in late 1839, and after the tour was done, he returned to Cincinnati and packed his bags for St Louis (March, 1839).


When McDowell arrived in St. Louis, he and four other physicians joined the Medical Department of the Kemper College as teachers. The lectures they delivered were actually the first medical lectures delivered west of the Mississippi river.


McDowell was such a prominent part of it all that the medical department came to be known as “McDowell’s college.”


Due to financial constraints, the Kemper college was forced to close in 1845, and the medical department was basically sold to the University of Missouri.


So that’s when McDowell and the rest of his physicians constructed a new building in St Louis. Between 1848-1850, McDowell oversaw the construction of an octagonal fortress, which over the next 10 years would fully gain its independence as the Missouri Medical College.


It was designed with two large Greek Revival wings and was flanked by an octagonal tower. The college included a dissecting room, a chemical room, a lecture hall, a laboratory and a dispensary where the poor were treated for free. He also opened a museum that contained more than 3,000 specimens of birds and animals from North America. There were also minerals, fossils and antiquities too, all of which could be viewed for a 25 cent admission, which is roughly like $8 today. The clergy and medical men were admitted for free.


Image result for joseph nash mcdowell

A lithograph by Richard Mason.


When it comes to medical schools back in the day, things were a bit different. Washington University, the leasing authority of midwestern med-schools, had this to say:


“Nearly all faculty members were part-time educators. Professors received fees for the courses they taught and maintained busy private practices. They were not expected to produce original research. Students were admitted to medical schools without rigorous preparation and often without college degrees. Instruction was based almost entirely on lectures; laboratory or bedside learning was rare.”


Typically you’d have like a six or seven month stint at medical school and then you’re just free to practice— Which is what you usually want from your doctors!


In order to understand human anatomy, you usually need a corpse to rifle around in. Given that this was the time without anesthesia, you’ll have a hard time doing anatomy lectures with a living subject. With McDowell in charge of the college, you were required to perform one dissection before you graduated.


Unlike today, though, you couldn’t exactly get a dead body. Today, people ask to be donated to science after they die– back then, the law didn’t exactly go buddy-buddy with science.


In Missouri, it was legal to use hanged criminals as cadavers before they were buried. This process, though, was extremely loaded with red-tape for people like Dr. McDowell. Now, I mentioned the hanged criminals thing, and I found out that goes way back.


In the early 16th and 17th century, dissection was basically a post-mortem punishment for criminals. In 1789, a New York law was written allowing judges to add dissection to a criminal’s sentence.


If you can’t get a body quick-and-easy, what do you? You dig ‘em up! Across the United States and Europe, a set of norms started popping up for how you dug up your corpses. If you were wealthy, you’d hire your local “resurrection men,” to dig someone up.


There was another hired service run by two guys named William Burke and William Hare. Back in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, these two Irish guys had built up a deal with this doctor that he’d pay them and they’d bring him corpses for dissection. Well, funny thing, turns out the bodies were getting fresher and fresher every time until eventually this doctor learns that Burke and Hare figured out it was way easier if you just killed the guys yourself and wheeled them back to the doctor.


But of course things weren’t like that for Missouri’s medical schools. At the St Louis Medical School and other colleges it was more typical for a doctor to send his students off to do the dirty work, and to return in the morning with whoever they could dig up.


If you’re at the Missouri Medical College, though, Dr. McDowell wouldn’t just tell you to go out and grab a body. He’d take you out to the cemetery, pick out the grave, and hoist that fucker out with you.


Image result for joseph nash mcdowell hell

He’s the honest man’s body snatcher!


McDowell encouraged his students to discretely refer to these outings as “resurrectionists activities,” by the way.


So if you’re digging up bodies, you usually go for a pauper’s graveyard, because it’s so, so much easier. Fences are shorter, they can’t afford guards, and nobody will miss them when someone gets around to noticing the big old hole. It is, however, never a guarantee that people won’t notice. If you rob from a wealthier graveyard, or you get caught pulling a young child or pretty lady, that’s when the public starts going apeshit. And that’s how we get to the riots…


It’s important before I go into this, that McDowell was somehow, and this is going to shock you later on, never caught in the act.


In St. Louis, McDowell had a huge reputation as a grave robber. Not only did people blame him for upturned graves, but they also started accusing the college of kidnapping people.


“The octagonal tower had been fitted with an unusual deck around which six cannons had been placed to defend the school against possible attack.”


He also kept the school stocked with muskets that students were told to use in case of an out of control mob.


On one occasion, as a crowd of 300 germans began to gather in an area out of reach by the cannons, McDowell opted to use his backup defense system. He then let loose his pet bear, cinnamon, and allowed it to rush into the crowd. “The mob scattered quickly” McDowell said, and the bear returned unharmed to his lair in the college’s basement. The animal actually lived there until its death of natural causes some years later.


The most interesting riot, though, starts with a young german girl. Every good riot starts with a young german girl.


With McDowell treating her at her bedside, this girl died in her home of what McDowell called “a strange, unstudied disease.”


Image result for girl dying in bed lithograph

Boogie fever.


McDowell offered his condolences to the girl’s parents, gathered up his tools and students, and left the grieving family’s home.


Then, McDowell came back to the home, grabbed the girl’s body, and rushed back to his hospital.


Word spread very quickly about the girl’s disappearance, and before she was even dissected a mob of nearly 400 neighborhood Germans had formed, intent on storming the college and finding McDowell.


While McDowell was busy with his daily routines, he received a note from a passersby, warning him that the school would be attacked that night. As darkness drew over St Louis, and the mob marched towards Gratiot street, McDowell sprung into action. He told what little students were on staff to man the cannons and grab the muskets, and he took off into the now darkened halls of the college. McDowell had just picked up the young girl’s corpse as he heard the mob flooding into the college. Slinging the dead girl over his shoulder, McDowell headed for the attic. As he went for the attic ladder, McDowell saw the ghost of his mother.


Knowing the attic wouldn’t be safe, McDowell said that his mother guided him to the body storage room. McDowell threw the girl beneath a sheet-covered table, and crawled beneath it himself.


“Several immigrants burst into the room,” the old racist explained. As McDowell laid next to the young girl whom he stole from her deathbed, and heeded the advice of his mom’s ghost, a man lifted up the sheet behind which he was hiding. The man, mistaking McDowell for a corpse, then left the room.

Image result for joseph nash mcdowell

I kinda get it, though.

“On that night,” McDowell said “I renounced Calvinism, and became a spiritualist.”


McDowell had a weird fascination with preserving people’s bodies. After that night, though, his fascination became an obsession.


“The central column of the octagonal tower had hooked sections that were intended to hold the remains of the McDowell family members after their deaths.”


He even told his kids that he wanted to be preserved in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Which, like, that’s a fun conversation you like to have with your kids.


In 1839, McDowell visited the city of Hannibal Missouri, roughly 90 miles from St. Louis. In the town’s recently discovered cave, now known as “Mark Twain Cave,” McDowell left behind his signature along one of the walls. Signed: J.N. McDowell, M.D., 1839. The same exact signature, with the same date, can even be found in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.

Image result for joseph nash mcdowell

It wouldn’t be the last time McDowell would visit Hannibal, though. 10 years later, he came back and bought the cave.


McDowell had nearly 10 children, very few of which made it to adulthood– which was pretty typical for anything prior to the 20th century. One of those unfortunate kids was Amanda McDowell, who was born somewhere between 1833 and 1836. Amanda contracted pneumonia, a slow and excruciating illness that overwhelms your lungs with mucus, until you eventually drown in your own fluids. In 1850, Amanda finally died of her illness.


Now I can’t even put myself in the headspace of losing a daughter, but if I had to guess what went through McDowell’s head, he was probably thinking something like “I should put her in a big ol’ container of alcohol and hang her from the ceiling of this cave.”


Yes, despite the amount of rumor and folklore surrounding this real life ghost story, Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell did place his 14 year old daughter’s corpse into a large copper tube full of alcohol, and suspended it from the ceiling of his newly purchased cave. At first, nobody knew but McDowell.


He barred the only known entrance to the cave with a large iron gate, and in order to deter theft, he “made the key weigh more than a pound.”


Image result for large key

Thieves hate him! CLICK HERE to learn this one easy trick!


But do you know where little kids liked to go exploring in Hannibal in the 1800s? CAVES. NEWLY DISCOVERED CAVES. Do you know what a 15 year old Mark Twain saw when he went into that cave in the 1800s? A LITTLE GIRL FLOATING IN A COPPER TUBE HANGING FROM THE FUCKING CEILING.


That ghost story I opened up with? True. I seriously couldn’t believe it, but that actually happened. That’s how I found out about this guy, is after someone told me that it wasn’t just a ghost story.


The one part I can’t really confirm or deny is that they were lifting the girl out of the tube by her hair. I mean, according to the ladies who wrote this guys big ol’ biography, the tube was super-sealed to keep her preserved. I do think, though, that it had a glass cover on it that the kids were looking through.


The actual quote from Mr. Clemens says: “In my time the person who owned it [the cave] turned it into a mausoleum for his daughter, age fourteen. The body of this poor child was put in a copper cylinder filled with alcohol, and this suspended in one of the dismal avenues of the cave.”


So naturally, the kids can’t keep this a secret for very long. Within the month, the rest of the adults hear about it, and someone busted that gate off its hinges. The town saw for themselves that McDowell, the owner of that cave, had thrown a little girl in a tube and hung her from the ceiling.


I can’t find a reliable source to back it up, but I read that the central column of the octagonal tower had hooked sections that were intended to hold the remains of the McDowell family members after their deaths


Which, welcome to H.R. Geiger’s Hogwarts, everyone! This is the McDowell tower, where you can see he and all of his progeny eternally on display in their preservation tubes!


When tensions between the north and south began to rise, McDowell made the same choice every American did and picked a side.


Give you two guesses who he joined.


In an effort to aid the south, McDowell boxed up 1,400 of his school’s muskets and prepared to ship them down to the confederate forces. Fearing federal confiscation though, McDowell had to find a way to make sure the boxes would reach the south without falling into Union hands.


So he put a label on them that said “polished marble” and proceeded to ship 1,400 guns in one giant box all the way to the confederate army without a single issue.


Related image

Pictured: How to smuggle a thousand guns into rebel hands.

McDowell followed close behind, and joined up with the rebels as the Surgeon General to the Western Confederate Forces.


During the war, school was converted to the Gratiot street prison as a huge “fuck you” to McDowell.


The amount of crimes against humanity committed in this prison were beyond what I can describe, but it basically boils down to 250 people jammed into a 60 square foot room. It was actually one of the midsections of the giant octagonal tower that they were thrown into, actually. With horrible ventilation, tight quarters, and exposure to Missouri’s god awful weather, prisoners in McDowell’s college died from disease and exhaustion on a regular basis.


When Union forces took over the college, they took an inventory of McDowell’s bizarre possessions. Rummaging through his museum, anatomical collection, and McDowell’s personal collection. The college itself, actually, wasn’t as thoroughly ransacked. They specifically only inventoried his things. There is very little documentation of the amount of bodies found in the college, but as far as his personal effects, the union forces catalogued all of his exhibits and turned them over to the Academy of Science, in Missouri.


While digging through the basement, though, the union soldiers did note finding nearly two dozen human skeletons, and the remains of one bear.


After all the hullabaloo died down, McDowell took his defeat in stride and returned home. Depressed by the state of his college, McDowell spent the next several years trying to return it to its former… glory?


Image result for sad doctor

“This place used to be so beautiful, Jeffrey. The mobs would stretch out to the next street!”


In an effort to step up the weird factor that was lacking in his life, McDowell added a room to the college that would follow his name for decades to come. Enter: Hell.


Picture a room. In it, there are live rattlesnakes, badgers, and crocodiles. Oh, and a replica of gallows, from which an effigy of Abraham Lincoln was hanged.


I think it’s justifiably criminal to say that I actually don’t know much more than that about Hell. I’ve referenced just under 15 sources for this piece, and none of them can even tell me why he had such a room. If I had to make an educated guess, it was detention for anyone who humored the existence of our 16th president. 


But that’s the end of his escapades, really. After several years of presidency at his college, McDowell eventually died on September 18, 1868— and the school with him. His faculty, and that of the St Louis Medical College, would eventually merge minds and become the foundation of Washington University, the Midwest’s most prestigious medical school.


What remains of McDowell’s octagonal fortress is now beneath the Purina headquarters in downtown St Louis. 

To learn more about Dr. McDowell, I encourage you all to check out the following videos, books, and websites:










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