The Mystery Of The Night Doctors

In 1889 the Boston Herald published an article describing a phenomenon terrorising the Deep South African-Americans across the region had “for several weeks past been in a state of fear and trembling

They claim that there is a white man, a doctor, who at will can make himself invisibleand proceeds to fill up a bucket with the victim’s blood, for the purpose of making medicine…” But these rumours were far from new Since the early 1800s talk of malicious “night doctors” had haunted the South

They allegedly kidnapped, tortured and dismembered slaves in the name of medical research In the decades since, archaeological discoveries have suggested this may be more than simple rumour Night doctors became a fixture in African-American folklore in the early 19th century Early accounts claimed these shadowy figures would capture slaves after nightfall They would silence them by pouring molten wax into their mouths and nostrils

This sickening procedure would, according to one contemporary source, stifle “their cries and ultimately suffocate them Their bodies are then carried to the medical college, where they are dissected and a valuable extract is made from the coloring matter, which makes the ‘darkey’ browner than the white person…” Indeed, the folk stories purport that black Americans were targeted because they were considered to be biologically different to white people Night doctors carried out their macabre operations to investigate these internal differences These concerns were rooted in a dark reality Grave robbing was epidemic in this period, and slave graves were the most frequently targeted source for bodies

At the start of the 19th century there were just four American medical schools; by its close, there were over 160 But there were not enough bodies for the schools to experiment on Contemporary medical procedures and treatment of slaves suggest that capturing live victims may have been a very real aim The Baltimore Medical and Surgical Journal and the Western and Southern Medical Recorder describe intrusive and dangerous medical experiments that doctors would carry out on unsuspecting slaves, horribly mutilating them for no reason These included one fatal incident where a slave with a minor head injury had his “healthy looking brain” sliced up

In another, a young female slave had a tumour removed from a lymph node, resulting in painful and dangerous swelling A North Carolinian plantation owner called William Aiken also notoriously experimented on his slaves In one case, the female slave had a congenital condition that manifested as a bony growth by her right eye To test their theory for a cure, Aiken and his team of doctors slowly chiselled a series of holes into her skull without using the standard chloroform rag as anaesthetic University of Rhode Island Professor Marie Schwartz uncovered the tale of a slave called Harriet, who suffered from seizures

Doctors treated Harriet with excruciating electric shocks for almost an hour The procedure inflicted severe burns to her back Despite her screaming and writhing in agony, doctors refused to stop They recorded the “surgery” as a success However, there is evidence to suggest that night doctors were invented by white slave owners as part of a strategy to stop slaves from meeting at night, to mobilise or plot rebellious activities

Some testimonies say these plantation owners would even pretend to be the ghostly night doctors, to perpetuate the myth Gladys Marie-Fry, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, reported that they would wear long white robes, surgical masks and white gloves She notes that “night doctors were a powerful imaginative tool because of the dread they inspired” We may never know for sure if live “specimens” were ever used No concrete evidence of this practice has been found, but in 1891, Dr Daniel Hale Williams – founder of America’s first black-controlled hospital – claimed that white doctors frequently used black people for medical experiments

Meanwhile, archaeologists have found grisly hauls of African-American remains whose origins remain unknown The first of these discoveries was made in 1989, when a mass grave was uncovered at the Medical College of Georgia It contained around 10,000 skeletons, over 80% of which were African-American Between 1835 and 1918 the space had been used as a laboratory for medical students to practice dissection and experimentation Grave robbing was illegal, nevertheless the university relied on a network of freelance grave robbers to supply it with bodies, even keeping one of them as a permanent member of its faculty

Another haul of human bones was found in 1994, during an excavation at the Virginia Commonwealth University medical school Historians discovered that from the 1860s until 1919, Chris Baker, a janitor employed by the university, had been in charge of raiding slave graves to supply the medical school He would then deposit the remains in a local well, which he called the “limb pit” Yet, slavery in America was abolished in 1865 So these discoveries show just how little we still know about how African Americans were targeted and abused

The legend of the night doctors disguises a disturbing truth The myth was probably invented by white plantation owners to exert control over black slave populations Yet it was reinforced by the exploitation of slaves – both dead and alive – by white medical professionals The night doctors may never have existed But, they are still essential to unravelling America’s charged history of racial division and control

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