Dissecting bodies was a risky endeavor in the 19th century. Schools relied on the technique to teach anatomy to budding doctors, but the public found human dissection to be barbaric. Not helping public relations was the regular practice of body snatching–stealing recently deceased corpses for public and private dissection.
Nevertheless, physicians continued to rely on dissection for anatomical knowledge. In 1807, Baltimore doctor John B. Davidge constructed a small building to house anatomy lessons. Only one week later, it was partially destroyed by a rioting mob.
The riot perhaps helped the Maryland General Assembly to recognize the need for a proper medical-training facility, as later that same year they charted the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Davidge Hall–by what the anatomy building would become known–was built in Baltimore in 1812. It is the oldest building in the US continuously used for medical education.
Public dissections occurred in the aptly named Anatomical Hall, a small domed room on the third floor. This European-style anatomy theatre would have been filled to capacity as eager students listened to lectures and observed dissections. The large oculus and skylights would have filled the room with natural light; circular seating would have provided every student a prime view.
A plaque in the middle of the floor notes that it was on this spot that the Marquis de Lafayette received an honorary doctorate.
Today it is in a shockingly dilapidated state.
A fine dust of fallen plaster covers every seat, while parts of the walls have rotted away to reveal the wooden frame. The beautiful rosette patterns curling over the dome are black with water damage.
But the decay almost adds to the appeal of the room, even if I cannot fathom why I was permitted to walk around in it. This quiet, crumbling theatre seems like a natural spot for something a bit unseemly.
The really unseemly stuff, though, occurred in a room just outside the Anatomical Hall.
Before dissection of unclaimed bodies was legalized, cadavers were brought to this room for dissection in secret.
The Hall janitor, Frank, would procure the bodies from nearby cemeteries and bring them up a back staircase.
Frank became so good as body snatching that his services were hired out to other medical universities along the Eastern Seaboard. The bodies would be smuggled out of state in barrels of whiskey.
Baltimore, Body-Snatching Capital of America…who knew?
This area is as creepy as you would expect. A single light fixture illuminates the oddly shaped room, and a few historic photos on the walls depict medical students posing with skeletons. Another item, which I declined to photograph, completes the nightmare: an actual mummified corpse.
When rioters would inevitably appear at the front gates of Davidge Hall, faculty and students would escape down the same staircase by which cadavers were smuggled in.
Despite the Hall’s more-nefarious side, the education it provided was crucial to the understanding of human anatomy and medical procedures. Cases full of historic medical instruments line the narrow walkway around the Anatomy Hall.
The artifacts on display reportedly constitute one of the finest medical museums in the US.
The wonderful artifacts, creepy past, and historical importance make it such a terrible shame that Davidge Hall is not better maintained.
On my way out, I looked around for a donation jar. All I found was a bust of Davidge himself, jauntily decorated for the holidays.
200 years ago, Davidge Hall provided a cutting-edge medical education to students. Today it is now mostly used to house the alumni association, who provide the audio tours for public visitors. It is worth a visit for those in the medical field or those who, like me, have a soft spot for the macabre.
Tour the rooms, consider yourself lucky you will never be on the receiving end of those ancient medical instruments, and slip a five under the alumni door so they can get some repairs.
If You Go
Davidge Hall is located at 522 W Lombard Street in Baltimore. There is plenty of paid parking–both street and lot–nearby. The hall is open to the public Monday-Friday during regular business hours; to gain entrance, you must buzz up to the Alumni Association through the intercom at the main entrance. Audio tours are free, but you will need to leave an ID until you return the audio system.