Unearthing Bodies: Writing about Blackness, Whiteness, and Liberians going to Medical School

Robert Murray

Harper, Liberia, Samuel McGill’s African home. Drawing circa 1840‒1900. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

My new Journal of the Early Republic article “Bodies in Motion: Liberian Settlers, Medicine, and Mobility in the Atlantic World” began with light blasphemy. I was working through the correspondence of the Maryland State Colonization Society, looking for anything relating to their decision to dispatch a Liberian settler, Samuel F. McGill, northward for medical training. That story was already a remarkable one as McGill would be the first African American to graduate with a medical degree from a U.S. institution. In January 1837, Edward E. Phelps, a Vermont doctor, sent word to the colonizationists that he would take McGill in as an apprentice. Phelps’s lengthy letter included the good doctor’s thoughts on colonization, notes to the colonization society’s managers on the various expenses their medical student would incur, and a recommendation that McGill transport two cadavers for anatomical study with him from Baltimore. Phelps assured his readers that despite the great distance between Baltimore and Windsor, Vermont, “They can be packed in barrels safely and transported safely (I have for four years past supplied myself from Baltimore and am thus enabled to at all times to keep my rooms open to everyone who has curiosity enough to visit them).”[1] I read that line, leaned back in my chair, folded my fingers behind my head, and muttered to no one in particular, “there’s no damned way.”

The distance seemed too great; the logistics were mind-boggling. But as I dug deeper, there did, in fact, seem to be a way. An archival quirk forced me to plot the correspondence on a timeline; some letters had found their way into the Maryland Historical Society while others ended up in the Friends Historical Library. When I finished piecing together the disassociated correspondence, however, I ended up with a remarkably detailed account of how to ship black bodies across the country. I knew the costs of the “resurrectionist”—the nineteenth-century euphemism for a grave robber—and the procedures for sealing the subjects in barrels, and even the shipping firms the Dartmouth surgeons utilized so no one would inspect the contents of these barrels innocuously labeled as cereal grains. I knew the whole operation cost $23.75. While the presence of the trade in cadavers for anatomical study has been thoroughly documented, I could not find any scholarship detailing a trade of this scale and distance. Unfortunately, this deep dive into the dark world of the body trade did not really fit with my larger project, and I was left with the common problem of “extraneous” research material. An article pointing the way for scholars of medical history seemed to be the obvious solution; I would offer up what I had found and let others continue that work.

The first draft of this article submitted to the JER began with and remained focused on the cadavers. In a testament to the value of peer review, the external readers rightfully panned that article’s focus (the “go forth, good and faithful servant” model was not terribly effective) and raised important questions about the doctor who was the beneficiary of those transactions that resulted in the bodies of multiple Baltimore youths being shipped to upper New England. The piece was extensively revised and McGill brought to the forefront; the bodies moved to the third act.

Of course, these changes presented their own problems since bringing McGill front and center forced me to addressracialization and the very complex ways in which Liberian settlers understood their own identities, which in turn fed their ambitions, in the Atlantic world. The rhetoric of white colozationists centered on the idea that this “return” to Africa would elevate African Americans. The United States would escape racial conflict by whitening itself; African Americans would prosper by leading Africa into a new era as Africans would defer to the settlers. This belief that settlers would find uplift in Africa was reinforced by the indigenous African practice of identifying the African American settlers as white. For African Liberians, the designation simply reflected the reality that the cultural practices of the settlers more closely resembled the Europeans who had been plying the West African coast for centuries. White colonizationists trumpeted this racial identity as evidence of African subservience to the settlers. Paradoxically, the prophets who predicted unending racial conflict in the United States were remarkably aware that race was malleable and constructed within their own colony. In turn, the settlers were remarkably adept at turning coloizationist reports of their elevated African identities against the colonizationists themselves. They secured previously inaccessible opportunities when traveling through the United States. McGill, although a particularly skilled master of these negotiations, exemplified what Liberian residency and racialized malleability could mean. That was his pathway to becoming the first African American graduate of an American medical institution.

The final product is undoubtedly a better article, but I confess to a twinge of anxiety that the section on black cadavers will fade from readers’ sight. In one of his letters, Phelps explained that he had begun importing black cadavers from Baltimore in 1833 “in consequence of the disturbances which are occasionally made about grave marauders.”[2] The timing seems less than coincidental given a series of “anatomy riots” that targeted the Vermont Medical College and Castleton Medical College in 1830.[3] Responding to white fears that they would be victimized by the new medical establishment, Phelps sidestepped those concerns by figuring out how to secure black cadavers while living in one of the whitest regions in the nation. Despite the expense and logistical complexity required to do this, Phelps in a very real and corporeal sense managed to bring the Slave South to Windsor, Vermont, and then he put it on display “to everyone who has curiosity enough” to visit his dissecting room. This episode encapsulated so much of the racialized history for peoples of African descent and reinforced for me once again the artificialness of dividing the antebellum nation between “slave and free.” Blackness as subject and blackness as spectacle so powerfully shaped the nation that those forces of white supremacy could be found in a small town of one of the whitest states in the nation. I know the white citizens of Windsor gawked at McGill, who at least hoped to utilize that spectacle to achieve his personal goals, but I have often pondered how many of Phelps’s neighbors had “curiosity enough” to gaze upon the black bodies who could not gaze back. That question guided my writing; little wonder that the article was born with a curse. I recalled that detail as I reread my article to prepare this reflection and suddenly realized that I was still quietly swearing under my breath.


[1] Edward E. Phelps to Ira Easter, Jan. 9, 1837, Records of the Maryland State Colonization Society, Baltimore.

[2] Edward E. Phelps to James Hall, Nov. 4, 1836, Moses Sheppard Papers, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA.

[3] Michael Sappol, A Traffic in Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth Century America (Princeton, NJ, 2002), 106.

23 December 2019

About the Author

Robert Murray is Assistant Professor of History and Chair of the Humanities Department at Mercy College.

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