Vigo Jansen: The Resurrectionist King

Resurrectionists robbing a gravesite.
An image from The Resurrectionists (1847) by Hablot Knight Browne showing a group of grave robbers in the middle of their act. Source: Wikimedia Commons via Archive.org

Officer Brown guided the young reporter through the police station grounds to the horse-drawn wagon sitting in the courtyard. The stench coming from the back of the wagon sickened Brown, making him thankful that he skipped eating before his shift. Inside, two bodies were hastily stacked in a wooden crate, the mark “C. E. Still, 25 cents express, Fifth and 1 northwest” painted on each side.

“I’d like to speak with him, officer,” the reporter said.

It dumbfounded Brown why these reporters cared so much for this grave-robbing low life, but the fresh $5 bill in his pocket temporarily eased his disgust. He led the reporter to a cramped holding cell at the back of the station. Inside sat an unassuming man greedily sucking tobacco from a clay pipe that he always carried with him.

“You’re the infamous Jansen, the ‘Resurrectionist King’?” the reporter asked.

“That’s what some people have called me.” Jansen said.

“From all accounts you are a talented practitioner of medicine, yet you continually ply the trade of robbing graves. How many times have you been in a prison cell in recent years? You still pursue your old trade regardless of consequences?”

Jansen smiled, smoke drifting slowly out of his mouth, “Yes. It pays better than anything else that I know of.”[1]

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.[2]

Jansen’s first visit to a Washington prison cemented his infamy as the city’s most notorious grave robber. A young African-American named Charles Shaw was convicted and hung for the murder of his sister. Buried in the daylight hours, The Washington Post reported that not an hour had passed after Shaw was buried that Jansen and his hired assistant exhumed his body. “Go and get the wagon and I will hold him. He can’t get away from me now,” joked Jansen as his assistant quietly went off to retrieve their means of escape. With the body loaded, Jansen asked his assistant to sell the body to Georgetown Medical College and return with the spoils of their deed. However, trouble ensued when the students at Georgetown refused to pay full asking price for Shaw’s corpse. The assistant returned to Jansen with half of the agreed rate. In retaliation, Jansen returned to Georgetown Medical in the early hours of the morning, breaking in and stealing Shaw’s corpse to sell again to another college. With the sun beginning to rise, Jansen attempted to sell the body to Freedman’s Hospital, but was turned in to local police by hospital staff and forced to surrender.[3]

Known as the “Resurrectionist King” throughout his career, Jansen claimed to have stolen over 200 bodies to sell to medical schools across the East coast, and he plied his trade in Washington, Baltimore, West Virginia, and even as far as Kansas. He was acquainted with several reporters at The Washington Post, and would go out of his way to hold interviews whenever possible. He would spend his interview time boasting about his many exploits, but also spend his time defending his profession and how important he and others like him were to not only the medical community but also to the public at large.

In 1884, Jansen took his trade away from the cemetery and onto the stage, attempting to hold a lecture series based on his life and his legend of being Washington’s most famous grave robber. Yet the flamboyant and unabashed Jansen who had no problem bragging of his exploits to local reporters found himself tongue-tied and reserved due to stage fright. Only after several trips off-stage to calm his nerves with drink was he able to speak intelligently to the small crowd that had gathered for his show. Facing catcalling and laughter from the assembled crowd, Jansen gave up trying to speak and instead staged a mock resurrection with a ticklish stagehand who laughed uncontrollably with each attempt to pull his “body” from the ground. Overall, Jansen’s lecture series was a disaster, though it was widely reported throughout the newspapers of the city.[4]

Jansen’s story ended rather tragically for the flamboyant grave robber. Following his failed lecture series, local Washington residents raised a fund to get Jansen to leave the city. He surfaced in several places throughout the East coast, but his notoriety ensured that he was arrested whenever he got anywhere near a local graveyard. With no way to earn a steady stream of income, Jansen faced the barrel of a revolver rather than starvation and ended his life in October of 1887 in a boardinghouse in New York. The Resurrectionist King had made his final curtain call.[5]

Today, little is known about the man behind Vigo Jansen’s resurrectionist persona. From all accounts, Jansen truly believed that the work he did was an important contribution to the advancement of medicine. Jansen’s desires for money and media attention is well documented, but Jansen ultimately sought respect; respect from the city, but more importantly respect from the medical community. “No one respects a dead person more than I do, but some respect is due to the living.”[6] Those words, spoken to the crowd gathered at his lecture series, sums up the man who was Vigo Jansen Ross—a man seeking respect in a disrespectful profession, upping the ante of his antics reaching for an unreachable goal.

Professional grave robbers like Vigo Jansen Ross and George Christian only scratch the surface of the individuals and stories through the history of Washington in the nineteenth-century. They provided a much needed service to medical schools, yet at the same time faced scorn from their communities and imprisonment from the authorities. Their lives and their exploits are fascinating and are a colorful part of Washington’s rich history.

Footnotes

  1. ^ This fictional reenactment taken from "Robbing the Graves of Their Dead," The Washington Post, October 11th, 1884.
  2. ^ Michael Little, “Esprit De Corpse” The Washington City Paper, April 22nd, 2005.
  3. ^ “Career of a Resurrectionist,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, November 7th, 1887. “The Grave Robber,” The Evening Critic, January 24th, 1883. “The Theft of Shaw’s Cadaver,” The Evening Star, January 24th, 1883.
  4. ^ “The Resurrectionist King,” The Washington Post, May 19th, 1884. “How to Rob A Grave,” The National Republican, May 19th, 1884. “The Ghoul at Work,” The Evening Critic, May 19th, 1884.
  5. ^ “A King Among Ghouls,” The Washington Post, November 6th, 1887.
  6. ^ The Washington Post, May 19th, 1884.