Judge Grandison Harris (And His Other Career)

Commencing before the Civil War and lasting until WWI, the imposing brick manse on Telfair Street in Augusta served, no longer as a home, but as the main academic building of the Medical College of Georgia.

The antebellum faculty purchased a slave in Charleston in 1852. He was a large muscular Gullah youth named Grandison Harris, and he was destined to work at the medical school. His official job title was “porter and janitor,” but in reality, his presence was for wholly illegal purposes: to steal corpses from nearby graveyards to feed the demand for anatomic specimens for the medical students.

At that time, nearby Cedar Grove cemetery was the preferred site from which to pilfer the dead, as it was only a degree above a potters’ field, catering to the poor and minority of the area.

Harris was fully literate, a rarity for slaves at that time; this was a necessary skill, however, given his job duties. He needed to monitor newspapers closely to see who had died and where they were going to be buried.

The modus was always the same: enter the cemetery late at night, excavate at the head of the fresh grave, smash the lid of the coffin, and pull out the corpse. Then Harris would toss the body in a burlap sack and haul it back to the school, where it would be immersed in a vat of whiskey awaiting the anatomist’s knife.

It is said that students initially liked Harris, and not only because he was doing their dirty work. He became a de facto teaching assistant who helped during dissections, and the students felt more comfortable with him than with the stern professors. However, the South was still the South. When the Civil War ended, the newly freed Harris – remember, he was fully literate, and was said to be a sharp dresser – served briefly as a judge in the state government then under military Reconstruction. Once federal occupation ended, though, and with the rise of Jim Crow, Harris left the court and returned to the anatomy lab, where many students saw him as a carpetbagger who had shown disloyalty to the South. For a long while, the students derisively addressed him as “Judge,” and many gave him the cold shoulder.

The faculty of MCG, 1877. That's Harris in the doorway

The faculty of MCG, 1877. That’s Harris in the doorway

Still, Harris continued to rob graves, and post-war, he was even occasionally funded by the school to purchase unclaimed bodies from jails and asylums. Having started in servitude and then having evolved into an actual employee, by 1905, after more than 50 years of work, Harris retired and was granted a pension from the medical college. And three years after that, he returned to give a final lecture, said by those in attendance to have touched upon the finer points of grave robbing.

Grandison Harris died in 1911, in his 70s, and was buried at Cedar Grove, the very site he robbed so many times. Unfortunately, the Savannah River flooded in 1929 and all of the cemetery’s burial records were destroyed. Thus, Harris now lies in an unmarked grave, as do all of his former ‘subjects.’

Well, not all of them. In 1989, renovations on the old medical school building uncovered dozens of partial and complete human skeletons in the dirt basement, along with rusty and broken parts from 19th century dissection tools. The police and the county coroner were called, but after examining the find, it became apparent that this was not a modern crime scene, nor one that the district attorney cared to prosecute… given that all of the principals were themselves by then deceased.

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