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.

On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced the attack on Cambodia in a televised address to the nation. (Photo: Jack E.Kightlinger/NARA)

Nixon’s Weirdest Day

On April 20, 1970 President Nixon addressed the nation outlining his plan for the withdrawal of 150,000 troops from Vietnam. Ten days later however, the anti-war movement was stunned by his announcement of a major new escalation in the fighting — the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Campuses across the country exploded in dissent, culminating in the killing of four students at Kent State University by National Guard troops on May 4.

In the tense days following Kent State, impromptu rallies erupted all over the Washington region, and a major demonstration was planned for May 9 on the National Mall. Law enforcement entities went on hair trigger alert, mobilizing all available resources including the entire D.C. police force and 5,000 locally-stationed troops.

It was in this combustible atmosphere that an idea germinated in Richard Nixon’s muddled mind in the wee hours of May 9, 1970. It would prove to be one of the most bizarre incidents of his presidency, and that’s saying a lot.

D.C. vs. The Flying Saucers... On Screen and in Real Life

Imagine what Hollywood filmmakers would've come up with if they had gotten their hands on Project Blue Book reports like this one back in the 1950s. (Photo source: Project Blue Book)

From the late 1940s until 1969, the U.S. Air Force kept a record of all of its investigations into supposed alien activity in a report called Project Blue Book. Until a few days ago, the project archive had been accessible only by visiting the National Archives in downtown D.C. But, now the records are online! So, you can see the reports on the many UFO sightings that occurred in the Washington area over the years... like this one... and this one... and a host of others.

Of course, UFO's have long been a source of fascination to Americans and images of alien invaders in the nation's capital have captured our imagination for decades. In honor of the new Project Blue Book release, we take a look at the 1956 Columbia film, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, which had a special connection to Washington -- not only in the plot of the movie itself, but in the real-life inspiration behind some of the scenes of terror.

How Union Station was Saved in the 1980s

Union Station in 1963, prior to a botched 1970s repurposing that nearly destroyed the building. Credit: National Archives


When Union Station opened in 1907, the white granite Beaux-Arts train terminal designed by architect Daniel H. Burnham set a new standard for District's monumental architecture, setting the stage for landmarks such as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Federal Triangle, the Supreme Court Building and the National Gallery of Art. The $25 million project was inspired by classical Roman architecture--the Baths of Diocletian and Caraculla and the triumphal Arch of Rome--and incorporated flourishes such as Ionic columns, chiseled inscriptions. Niches that held carved figures representing fire, electricity, agriculture and mechanics. Inside, the main hall, with its dramatic barrel vault and ornate plaster ceiling. It all created a feeling of grandeur that reflected the economic power and prestige of the rail companies--the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltmore and Ohio Railroad--which had erected it.

But by the mid-1960s, the railroads' fortunes had faded, and they were eager to unload Union Station, and there was talk of demolishing it.

Would-be Presidential Assassin John Hinckley, Jr., in a mugshot taken after his arrest. (Photo credit: FBI)

March 1981: The Tourist From Hell

As the sun rose over Washington, DC, on the morning of March 30, 1981, in room 312 of the Park Central Hotel on 705 18th Street NW, a guest lay in bed, anxious and wired after a mostly sleepless night. He had arrived the night before on a Greyhound bus, and like many other tourists who visit Washington from afar, he had a big day ahead. But unlike most of them, he didn't plan to see the Lincoln Memorial or the Capitol dome, or to peruse the exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution's various museums. No, this visitor had something different in mind. His name was John Warnock Hinckley, Jr., and he was going to try to kill the President of the United States.

Flying Saucers Over DC?

In the 1950s, Washington seems to have been a popular destination for UFOs, both actual ones and cinematic. Two popular science fiction movies, 1951'sThe Day the Earth Stood Still and 1956's Earth Vs the Flying Saucersdepicted alien spacecraft arriving in the nation's capital, to the consternation of both residents and the government. But those close encounters may have seemed a bit more plausible, given that the Washington area also was the scene of one of the most celebrated real-life UFO incidents ever--one that still intrigues those who ponder the possiblity of extraterrestrial visits to Earth.

Before DC United, We Had the Ill-Starred Washington Diplomats

Today, soccer finally is a big enough deal in Washington that DC council is considering a proposed $119 million deal to acquire land at Buzzard Point for a new stadium for DC United, the district's team in Major League Soccer. The franchise has been playing since 1996 at antiquated RFK Stadium, which will turn 43 years old in the fall. But RFK always will have a storied place in local soccer history. In addition to serving as one of the host sites for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, it also was the home of a string of teams from the 1960s through the 1980s  —  forgotten names such as the Whips, the Darts, the Washington Diplomats, and Team America — who unsuccessfully tried to establish the sport here.

Of those ill-fated franchises, the most long-lived was the original Washington Diplomats, who played in the now-defunct North American Soccer League from 1974 to 1980.