Spooky tales are always fun especially at this time of year. Some are so fantastic they are hard to believe while others involve real historical events that are too gruesome to ignore such as tales involving grave robbing.
Body snatchers, fishermen, and resurrection men were all names given to grave robbers, and if you don't think they did their gruesome work here in Douglas County then you need to think again. Grave robbing occurred all over mainly due to the profits that could be made, and the steady demand for cadavers to supply the state's medical colleges.
Dissection of human cadavers was illegal in Georgia until 1887, but that doesn't mean it wasn't done. In the summer of 1989 construction crews found thousands of human bones at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. The bones were found in the basement of a building that had been used as a lecture hall and laboratory space from 1835 to 1913.
Closer to home, the Atlanta Medical College, the forerunner to Emory University's School of Medicine, was funded by the General Assembly as early as 1854, and by 1856 their first building at the corner of Butler and Jenkins Streets was built. Today, a faculty office building for Emory sits on the site. While I've found no mentions of thousands of bones being found on the Atlanta site during renovations or construction, I did locate the "Annual Announcement for the 1880-1881 Session" for the Atlanta Medical School which stated, "…before the close of session the students are afforded the opportunity of performing all surgical operations on the cadaver under the direction of the Professor of Surgery…" While the assumption was all cadavers in 1880 were obtained through legal means such as through unclaimed bodies or through consent, the demand for cadavers was simply too high to think Atlanta Medical College students didn't happen upon an illegally obtained body in their dissection lab from time to time.
Dr. John Willis Westmoreland was born in Griffin, Georgia in 1855 and was a member of the graduating class of 1876 of the Atlanta Medical College. Soon after graduating Dr. Westmoreland set up his practice at Salt Springs (Lithia Springs) and married Mattie Edge, daughter of John Miller Edge.
Another man well known at Salt Springs at the time was Charles B. Love (1847-1911) who along with his brother, David K. Love, ran a mill and had a fertilizer store. One of Love's employees often described as his driver and sometimes farm laborer was a former slave named Pick Gordon.
One cold Tuesday morning in late December 1879, Pick Gordon went into Dr. Westmoreland's office at a time when the doctor was out on business. Later, it was surmised Gordon was hoping to sneak a quick nip from a bottle of whiskey the doctor was known to keep in his office to medicate or anesthetize the occasional patient.
Gordon located a bottle and without a thought raised it to his lips and drank heavily. More than likely he instantly knew he had made a mistake. Pick Gordon's last few moments on Earth were probably filled with confusion, terror, and terrible pain as the bottle Gordon had found in Dr. Westmoreland's office was filled with carbolic acid.
Just as it would have been a normal thing to find a bottle of whiskey in a doctor's office, it was just as normal to find a bottle of carbolic acid in the 1880s. Most doctors at that time subscribed to the findings of Joseph Lister, the father of antiseptic surgery, regarding the use of carbolic acid to aid in killing germs. The substance, of course, was used externally but never by mouth.
Pick Gordon's accidental suicide was the talk of the county, but gradually, as the days passed, Gordon's tragic mistake was thought of less and less. That is until approximately six weeks after Gordon's death when some folks in Salt Springs noticed his grave appeared disturbed. An examination was made, and it was decided to put concerns to rest, the body would be exhumed. There was no body to be found; the coffin was empty except for the suit of clothes Gordon's corpse had worn.
Notions regarding the zombie form of Pick Gordon wandering the Douglas County countryside was quickly put aside as it was determined more than likely grave robbers had struck at Salt Springs, and the body of Pick Gordon had more than likely been handed over to the medical students at the Atlanta Medical College for a fee, a situation that happened more than you think, and unfortunately wasn't always known.
I have to wonder about the exact number of empty graves due to the gruesome work of resurrection men.
Lisa Cooper writes the amazing stories of Douglas County each Sunday. You can find her new book "Every Now and Then: The Amazing Stories of Douglas County" online at Amazon, print and Kindle versions. Locally, her books can be found at the Douglas County Museum of History and Art, The Farmer's Table and Lithia Springs Pharmacy.