In the summer of 1989, construction workers doing renovations in the basement of an old campus building made a gruesome discovery: layer upon layer of bones, including complete skeletons that were unmistakably human. According to the forensic anthropologists assigned to investigate the remains, there were more than 10,000 bones though even the experts couldn't tell how many there were in all. They also unearthed piles of human clothing, buttons, and medical instruments though there was nothing else to indicate the names and identities of the deceased.
While all the bones were eventually unearthed to be taken to Georgia State University for research, there was no real mystery about where they all came from. The building that was being renovated was once the home to the Augusta Medical College and the bones themselves were the remains of hundreds of dissections carried out by medical students during the 19th century. That many of the dissected bodies had been obtained illegally by "resurrection men" digging up freshly dead corpses from local cemeteries has no secret, but newspaper stories covering the discovery did focus on one almost-forgotten figure from history: the former slave who had been the most prolific body snatcher of his time.
Little is known about Grandison Harris' early life before being purchased by the Augusta Medical College in 1852. By all accounts, he had been chosen by the medical college because of they needed a strong slave for the type of work they had in mind. Though his official job title was "janitor," his true job was much more sinister. During the 19th century, laws banning the use of human corpses for dissection were widespread (it was typically considered "desecration") and medical schools were faced with the problem of getting enough bodies to train students in surgery. While some places allowed the bodies of executed criminals to be used instead, this was hardly widespread and the body shortage remained acute on both sides of the Atlantic.
All of which led to the demand for people who specialized in securing bodies for medical schools in a variety of ways. Many of these bodies were obtained either by robbing cemeteries or claiming the corpses of people without families. Usually treated as a misdemeanor by courts recognizing that resurrection men served a necessary purpose, the ghoulish Burke and Hare case that emerged in 1828, not to mention the "Burkers" of London who followed their example, led to a change in UK laws that eventually eliminated the need for body snatching altogether.
In Georgia, unfortunately, the laws against body snatching remained in place. And so, for nearly three decades, Grandison Harris plied his trade as a full-time grave robber. While many other resurrection men worked in teams due to the effort in digging up corpses, the powerfully built Harris managed just fine on his own. What made his job even easier was his privileged position with the medical school and his position as a "janitor" which helped allay suspicions. His nightly routine was straightforward enough: driving his horse cart to the cemetery of his choosing, he would slip in, pick out the grave he wanted, dig it up, smash the coffin lid with an axe, and toss the body into a sack to go on his cart. By carefully refilling the grave, he also removed any traces to show it had been disturbed.
It probably also helped that Harris preferred not to steal from the more prominent cemeteries that could afford proper security to prevent body thefts. Instead, Harris focused on the cemeteries that catered to African American families as well as the local "Potter's field" where paupers and unidentified corpses were buried. Not that this was unique to Georgia in any way, mind you. Back in the 19th century, cemeteries were as segregated as neighbourhoods were with "Negro burying grounds" being set aside even in Potter's fields in most U.S. cities. This made them prime targets for resurrection men looking for bodies to sell and, despite complaints from families of the deceased, the stealing would continue for decades.
In his own quiet way, Grandison Harris became a legend among the staff and students at the medical college. According to one story, a medical student had snuck up to Harris' horse cart while he was getting a drink in a local tavern (as he usually did after a hard night's work). The student then removed a body from one of the sacks in the cart and took the corpse's place. When Harris returned to the cart, the student began moaning in a ghostly voice: "Grandison, I'm cold. Get me a drink!" Harris, who likely had lots of experience dealing with student pranks, reportedly told the voice to "get your own drink."
But resurrection men like Grandison Harris rarely had an easy job securing bodies. Well-publicized cases of body-snatching (usually involving the bodies of white people) often led to family members taking the law into their own hands to protect the bodies of their recently buried relatives. This included hiring security to watch the graves or, in some cases, setting up a spring-gun trap in the coffin. Newspaper stories about the thousands of bodies "mutilated every year on dissecting tables in medical colleges in the United States" were also used to sell "burglar-proof grave vaults" to the well-to do. As for poorer families that couldn't afford extra security, all they could do was to leave trace markers such as specially-placed stones on the graves to tell if they had been disturbed in any way.
All of this also led to widespread public resentment against medical schools, including the 1788 Doctor's riot in New York City that left many rioters and militiamen dead. But there was nothing equivalent occurring in Georgia since Grandison Harris was canny enough to avoid exposure for decades. Considering what he was able to accomplish for them, the college administrators certainly appreciated Harris' work. In 1858, just a few years after his body-snatching began, they purchased Harris' wife and son from a South Carolina plantation for $1,250 (hardly a small sum in those days) and brought them to Augusta to join him.
Ironically enough, Grandison Harris became a prominent figure in the local African American community (likely because the had no idea he was the one stealing the bodies of their loved ones). Not only did his time at the medical college allow him to become an authority on human dissection and anatomy, but he lectured medical students on these subjects as well. Still, considering the discrimination and class barriers that were common at the time, it's hardly surprising that he was never officially acknowledged for his work.
Also, with the changing times and the greater availability of corpses due to changes in legislation, he eventually lost much of the legal protection the medical college provided. Finally, in 1882, he was arrested for body-snatching and ordered to pay a fine of $1000 and spend twelve months working on a chain gang (no word is given on whether the fine was paid). Despite this setback, he continued to work for the college though he was only paid about $15 a month according to records. He eventually retired in 1905 on a pension of $10 a month and died in 1911 having lived well into his nineties. He is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery, not far from many of the graves he had stolen bodies from over the years.
Aside from the inevitable mention whenever new stories of human remains linked to the college come to light, Grandison Harris has also become enshrined in local legends surrounding resurrection men and body-snatching. In 2013, a debut novel by author Matthew Guinn was released to popular acclaim, including being a finalist for the Edgar Award for best mystery novel. Titled, "The Resurrectionist", the novel is largely based on the story of Grandison Harris who is represented in the book by a tormented slave named "Nemo" (no man). Just something to keep the Grandison Harris legend alive for another generation.