D.C.

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.

First Statue Representing D.C. Unveiled in U.S. Capitol

It was a long wait for sculptors and local politicians.

Since 2008, a seven-foot tall, 1,700 pound bronze statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass stood in the lobby of a building called One Judiciary Square. It remained there for five years while Washington officials fought to move it to another building less than a mile down the road: the U.S. Capitol. 

 

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of Douglass’ statue in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall. The ceremony was the culmination of a fight spanning over a decade. 

Assassin's Cranium

Lewis Powell, the would-be assassin of Secretary of State William H. Seward, was prone to goof-ups. You might even say he had the tendency to lose his head.

As you know from our previous post, Powell was one of the co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot. After his bloody rampage in the Seward home, Powell was tried and hanged along with three other conspirators on July 7, 1865. That should have been the end of the story, but it took over one hundred years for Powell's tale to come to an end.