Halloween

Vigo Jansen: The Resurrectionist King

Resurrectionists robbing a gravesite.

To conclude our series on Washington, D.C.’s professional grave robbers, we’ll focus on one of the most interesting individuals to ever stalk D.C.’s cemeteries, Vigo Jansen Ross. Like most professional grave robbers of the era, information comes mainly from local newspapers. Jansen in particular was quite well known as someone who loved the attention that the media could provide for him. Jansen claimed to have been born in Denmark in the late 1840s or early 1850s. It is unknown when he made his way across the Atlantic to America, but it seems that he studied medicine in his native Denmark and came across the sea to ply his trade in the growing American market. Jansen brought the love of drinking across with him, which destroyed any hope he had of pursuing a career in medicine, forcing him to provide bodies for medical colleges to make a living.

Professional grave robbers procuring a body

George Christian's Shipping Ring

December 13th, 1873. The streets of Washington, soupy with mud from the previous day’s rains, began crystallizing with slick patches of ice as the first kiss from winter’s lips touched the city. Despite the oncoming cold, Officer Hawkins remained focused, his suspicions high. Nearby, a horse-drawn wagon and its female occupant continued to sit idle near the circle of 22nd Street. Upon earlier questioning, the young woman claimed she was only waiting for her husband to conduct business in a nearby home. Yet as the minutes ticked past midnight, the hairs on Hawkins’ neck began to stand on end—no honest business took place this late into the night.

Grave Robbing in Washington: A History of the Morbid Trade

Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

As Halloween fast approaches, it seems like a fitting time to explore one of Washington’s horrific nineteenth-century professions, the professional grave robber. Known as “resurrectionists” by the media outlets that covered their deeds, grave robbers haunted Washington’s many graveyards and potter’s fields in the cover of night, acquiring bodies to sell to local medical colleges. With several medical colleges operating in Washington during the later decades of the nineteenth-century, the District of Columbia became a hub of grave robbing activity in the United States. Their exploits may be thought of as morbid and disgusting, yet their contribution to modern medical science is an important one that is often ignored by medical historians.

For a medical professional to learn the skills to be a surgeon, a hands-on knowledge of human anatomy is essential. Potential surgeons need to perform dissections on human remains—remains that are intact and with as little decomposition as possible. In today’s society, supplies of subjects for dissection purposes are easy to obtain. In nineteenth-century America, acquiring needed subjects proved to be a challenge. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, death traditions favored the condition of the corpse. Religious views proclaimed that the body should be buried in the earth to await eventual resurrection upon the Day of Judgment. Despite the pleas by the medical community expounding the importance of available bodies for dissection, people remained repulsed by the thought of former loved ones lying out upon a dissection table being poked, prodded and sliced by medical students.

Witch Hunts in the DC Area - Older Than You Think

An extremely dramatic depiction of the 1692 Salem trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft. Presumably there was considerably more order in the court when Rebecca Fowler was tried in Maryland seven years earlier, but she and George shared the same fate. (Image source: Library of Congress)

 

When you think of witch trials, Salem, Massachusetts usually comes to mind, as the site of a rash of accusations and mass hysteria that ended with hundreds accused and twenty people executed for witchcraft in a span of a few weeks. The DMV was never gripped by a panic of Salem’s scope; for one thing, the District was founded in a significantly less witch-paranoid century. However, the area was not quite a stranger to witch trials. In 1635, the Maryland Assembly adopted England’s Witchcraft Act of 1604, declaring witchcraft to be a felony, punishable by death in some instances. Before, witches were the province of the church; now both church and state would punish witches. While this law was seldom used, a few witches were actually put to trial, including Rebecca Fowler, the unfortunate Marylander who was the only person to be executed for witchcraft in the state’s history.

The "Exorcist" stairs in Georgetown, which did not figure in the actual case that inspired the movie. (Credit: Sarah Stierch, Wikimedia Commons)

The Real Story Behind "The Exorcist"

One of the most famous movies set in Washington is The Exorcist, the 1973 tale of a Roman Catholic priest's struggle to save a 12-year-old girl named Regan (Linda Blair) from demonic possession, which transfixed theater-goers with its phantasmagoric gore. The William Friedkin-directed film not only was a box office smash, but also became the first horror film ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and four decades after its release,The Exorcist and its D.C. connection continue to resonate in the public imagination. Case in point: The film's shocking climax, in which the progagonist, Father Damien Karras (portrayed by Jason Miller) takes the demon Pazuzu into his own body and is hurled to his death, has turned the steep set of steps in Georgetown where it was filmed into a macabre local landmark.

But The Exorcist has another, even more unsettling connection to the Washington area. William Peter Blatty, who wrote both the screenplay and the bestselling 1971 novel from which it was derived, was inspired by an actual case in which a 14-year-old boy purportedly was possessed by the devil, which occurred in Prince George's County 65 years ago.

The Legend of the Bunny Man

Bunny Man Bridge in Clifton, Virginia has haunted local teens for decades. (Photo source: Flickr user Motoboy92)

You’re sixteen years old, caught up in the intoxicating freedom that comes with your new driver’s license, and it’s Halloween night. You and your friends are driving around your small town looking for a quiet place far away from adult supervision. You decide to park on the side of the road near a secluded railway overpass. It’s the perfect place to get “up to something,” as your mother would say: woods creeping up on either side and the complete darkness you can only find on rural roads without streetlamps or nearby houses.