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The Gruesome Tale of Charles Shaw & Grave Robbing in 19th Century DC

Discover the gruesome tale of Charles Shaw, convicted of murdering his sister & sentenced to death in 1883 DC. Unearth the dark world of 19th century body-harvesting & grave-robbing for medical research in this macabre story.
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Jack, a GoDCer in Poolesville, sent over a series of great story ideas, mostly focused on the ghoulish and ghastly. This is an excellent candidate for best “From the Crazy Vault” post yet. Well done Jack, you dug up some impressively crazy stuff.

Medical students dissect a cadaver during the Civil War (National Museum of Civil War Medicine)
Medical students dissect a cadaver during the Civil War (National Museum of Civil War Medicine)

This is an article from the Washington Post on January 24th, 1883. Charles Shaw was tried and convicted of murdering his sister. He received a death sentence, was hanged and subsequently buried in Potter’s field (where the Nazi saboteurs were buried). You may not know this, but in the 19th century, body harvesting was a lucrative trade with grave robbers wandering local cemeteries for recent burials. Bodies would be sold for about $20 to local hospitals or medical schools to perform research on them.

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The body of Shaw, upon being received at the college, was taken up-stairs and placed, as bodies usually are, upon a dissecting board, and suffered to remain until night. When the class assembled in the dissecting room Crook, it is said, made a proposition to the students to dispose of the body by auction. This was at once opposed by the members of the class, and Crook was not allowed to proceed with the auction. The usual custom was then followed by drawing for the parts of the body by straws. The head fell to a prominent hospital doctor for six dollars, and the two legs and two arms were drawn by students for three dollars each. Crook, it seems, pocketed all the money, which aroused Jansen’s indignation, and on this hinges all the developments which followed.

Jansen, feeling that he had been cheated out of his share, determined on a method of getting even. This was in short to steal the body from the dissecting room. He matured this plan on Sunday, but did not take any action. On Monday afternoon he communicated his purpose to a POST reporter, and on the same night he said: “I will take that body out to-night, if I am arrested in the attempt. It belongs to me. I got it, and I have not been treated right.”

It was nearly 1 o’clock yesterday morning when Jansen entered the local reporters’ room of THE POST. His short, thick-set figure was hidden in a rubber coat, and his rubber boots and clothes were covered with clay. He had evidently been out after bodies, and looked like a typical Gaffer Hexam. The room was very quiet, and the uncertain gait of his entrance attracted at once the attention of the two occupants. “Come,” said Jansen, “and I will show you where Shaw’s body is.” So out the reporters went, following him. It was only a few steps to the corner of Tenth and E streets, where the medical college is located. The moon was shining brightly and the form of a police officer was plainly seen a short distance ahead of the trio. When the college had been reached, Jansen pulled a key out of his pocket and fitting it into the lock an entrance was quietly and easily effected. In the hall the gas was burning brightly, and the winding stairs which led up to the dissecting room in the top story, were also illuminated. A glance around the room itself showed a picture worthy of the most ghostly-loving painter of the medieval age. On long, narrow tables were naked corpses stretched out, on some of which the student’s knife had left its visible mark. There was a horrible smell in the room–the smell of decaying flesh. But all of this had not effect on Jansen. He was in his element. He suited the place, and the place suited him. He moved carelessly about from table to table and was a living man at ease among the dead.

Shaw’s body was on a table near the southern wall, and Jansen lit another jet that it might be more plainly seen. There was no doubt of the body being that of the executed man. Around the neck the mark of the cord which had done the fatal work was plainly visible. The skull had been removed by the lecturer earlier in the evening to practically demonstrated [sic] the art of trepanning, and the brain and vertebrae had been taken out. There was blood upon the table and upon the face of the corpse, but no other mutilation that that mentioned was observable. Jansen carelessly shifted the head from right to left to show the boken neck. Then he crossed over to where the body of a “resurrected” baby was lying and stroked it with ghoulish tenderness.

Creepy enough for you? Yeesh, this dude Jansen sounds like a freak. We’ll have more on Jansen for you later today. Stay tuned.

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