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'Resurrection Man' dug way into history
By Stephanie Hunter
They called Grandison Harris the ``Resurrection Man.''
But few if any history books record much about Harris, the man who more than
a century ago helped provide the Medical College of Georgia with fresh cadavers.
Playfully given the nickname Resurrection Man by doctors, Harris was a
36-year-old Gullah slave purchased for $700 off an auction block in Charleston,
S.C., by the Medical College in 1852.
His mission was morbid but simple: Rob graves at Augusta's black Cedar Grove
Cemetery and bring bodies back to the school.
``It didn't take long for him to learn what they wanted him to do,'' said
James Carter III, a historian with MCG. ``And he was good.''
At a time when it was illegal for a slave to be taught to read or write,
Harris sat in on anatomy classes.
He had been taught by faculty members how to read and write and kept abreast
of funeral services by reading obituaries.
When night fell, he would slip out to grave sites, study the position of the
flowers and tombstones, then remove the bodies.
``Grandison could put everything back in its original position to where no
one could tell they were moved,'' Mr. Carter said.
In 1938, Eugene Murphy, an MCG professor who had observed the grave robbing,
recounted Mr. Harris' routine.
``He would go to the cemetery late at night, with only the moon watching. He
would quickly dig down to the upper end of the box, smash it with an ax, reach
in there with his long and powerful arms and draw the subject out. He would put
the subject in a big sack, place it in a cart and carry it to the school.''
Even though Harris was accustomed to his grim job, it still made him skittish
at times. According to Mr. Carter, ``One night Grandison (who was in the midst
of a job) stopped in an alley behind a saloon and went inside to refresh
``Two medical students who had been watching him removed the body from
Harris' sack, hid it and one of them got in the sack. When Grandison returned to
his wagon, one student groaned in a grave-like voice:
```Grandison . . . Grandison . . . I'm cold. Buy me a drink!'''
Before running away, Harris supposedly said, ``You buy your own drink 'cause
I'm getting out of here!''
Before acquiring Harris, MCG faculty had tried several methods of getting
cadavers. At first, cadavers were purchased locally for 75 cents each, but there
weren't enough to meet the college's needs.
Grave robbing was, of course, illegal, but the crime was often ignored, and
the medical school's faculty was never reprimanded.
When the Civil War ended slavery, Harris briefly left the school, but he
returned as a porter, getting paid $8 a month.
Robbing graves was still in his unofficial job description.
In 1889, as word spread throughout the black community about the use of their
dead from Cedar Grove for dissections, authorities faced civil disturbance.
``When the old folks learned about that, Augusta almost had its own riot,''
Mr. Carter said. ``They were so upset because they didn't know whose family
members had been taken.''
There is no record of what calmed the storm in the black community.
In 1908 an enfeebled Harris - who had watched as the grandsons of MCG's
founders became doctors - made his last appearance at the school.
He died in 1911 of heart failure at 95.
Three days later, the old grave robber returned to Cedar Grove - this time as
a resident of the same cemetery he had plundered for more than 50 years.
Grandison Harris' handiwork drew renewed interest in 1989, when construction
workers made a gruesome discovery at the Old Medical College on Telfair Street.
The remains of 400 cadavers were discovered beneath the 154-year-old building.
A few of the bones had specimen numbers written on them. A large wooden vat,
holding dozens of bones, was found. Workers also found another vat that held
body parts still preserved in whiskey.
"We concluded that the professors preferred the bodies of African
Americans over whites, men over women and adults over children,'' said Dr.
The artifacts and the remains are expected to be turned over to the city of
Augusta in five years. Augustans will then decide on proper disposal.
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