It’s 1999, and construction teams are hard at work on renovating Holden Chapel – one of the most historic buildings on the Harvard University campus. Indeed, if these walls could talk, they would no doubt have plenty to say. But as workers begin to demolish a brick structure in the building’s basement, they have no way of knowing that they are about to uncover a dark secret.
We’ll return to exactly what was discovered at Harvard University a little later, but first let’s learn a bit more about the institution. Established in 1636, the Ivy League college is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it is the oldest higher learning institutions in the United States. Today, it accommodates around 6,800 students at undergraduate level and 14,000 postgraduates.
After graduating from Harvard, those students will join an elite list of the university’s alumni. Among the people to went to the prestigious college are eight presidents and over 30 foreign heads of state. Former attendees of the school also include 188 living billionaires, 160 Nobel laureates and 14 Turing Award winners.
Harvard’s high-achieving alumni have also bagged 48 Pulitzer Prizes, 108 Olympic medals and ten Academy Awards. Many former attendees of the school have also gone on to found notable companies around the world. With that in mind, Harvard is among the most prestigious universities on the planet.
Harvard University consists of 11 principal academic units, which is made up of ten faculties and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Within these, there are 12 schools including Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, and the highly-esteemed Harvard Medical School – which is particularly noted for its research work.
Harvard Medical School (HMS) was established in 1782 – making it one of the oldest medical higher learning institutions in the U.S. During its early years, HMS consisted of just a handful of students. Classes were initially held in Cambridge’s Harvard Hall, but in 1906 they were moved to the school’s iconic Longwood campus in Boston.
Of course, medical education back in the 18th century differed greatly from that of today. Wannabe doctors usually attended lectures for no longer than a couple of semesters – before completing an apprenticeship with an established physician. In order to embark on a medical profession, students needed no academic preparation and were not required to sit written exams.
Rather than paying a tuition charge, HMS students at that time used to buy tickets for lectures. And because teaching hospitals were yet to be invented, there were very little clinical training requirements. Nevertheless, HMS would become one of the most influential medical training establishments in the world.
HMS really came into its own under the tenure of Charles William Eliot, who became the 21st president of Harvard University in 1860. A few years into his position, he established a new curriculum for HMS, and he also raised admissions standards. As part of Eliot’s overhaul, passing grades were also introduced and written exams became mandatory.
As part of Eliot’s reforms, new departments of clinical and basic sciences were established at HMS. Moreover, the apprenticeship system was also scrapped in favor of a three-year degree program. HMS soon became one of Harvard University’s professional schools, and it set the standard of medical education within the U.S.
Over the years, the faculty of HMS has been linked to a number of major medical breakthroughs. Some of them include the first use of anesthesia to control pain in surgery, the implementation of insulin in diabetes treatment in the United States and the introduction of vaccinations for small pox.
Other medical developments that the HMS faculty have assisted in include the first chemotherapy treatment for leukemia in children. It is also associated with the first successful human kidney transplant and heart valve surgery. They also carried out a reattachment of a human limb that had become severed before anyone else.
Throughout its history, HMS has had many homes. After its initial lectures in Harvard Hall, the faculty moved to the historic Holden Chapel. This structure was built in 1744 and is the third oldest building on the Harvard Campus. It’s also among the oldest college buildings in the U.S. Holden Chapel was used by HMS until 1825, when the faculty relocated once more.
In the 20th century the Harvard Glee Club decided to establish offices in the building. After that, the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and the Radcliffe Choral Society moved in. They became known as the Holden Choirs, and they still use the space for rehearsals to this day.
Adding to Holden Chapel’s reputation, in the 1930s it was honored by the Historical American Buildings Survey Commission. Alongside Hollis Hall – a student dormitory on the Harvard campus – the building was cited as one of Massachusetts’ finest examples of Colonial architecture.
However, by 1999 Holden Chapel was in need of some modernizing. So remodeling work got underway on the historic building to create a classroom and modify the aforementioned rehearsal space for the Holden Choirs. But little did construction workers know what their renovation efforts would ultimately uncover.
As workers focused their efforts on the basement of Holden Chapel, they began to dig into a brick circle. The mortared ring resembled some kind of cistern or well. However, as the remodeling team broke through the intriguing round structure, they made a chilling discovery within.
It seemed that construction workers had stumbled upon some kind of primitive garbage chute – likely dating from the time that Holden Chapel formed part of HMS. That’s because – within the cavern – the renovation team found scientific equipment such as microscope slides and beakers.
Furthermore, shell which may have been used as a disinfectant was discovered inside the hole. There were also some unidentified red crystals and some jars of pickles and mustard. Confusingly, workers found some old shoes, too – seemingly left behind from a bygone time in Harvard’s long history.
But this random assortment of artifacts was far from the most unusual items discovered during the renovation work on Holden Chapel. That’s because construction staff also located a number of discarded human bones, some of which had been disturbingly sawed in two.
Work on the Holden Chapel was temporarily put on hold following the chilling discovery of the bones. An associate professor of anthropology at Harvard, Carole Mandryk, was then called to investigate the site. And she couldn’t help but jump to a dark conclusion as to how the human remains had ended up there.
Mandryk revealed her initial reaction to the discovery of the remains in an interview with Archaeology magazine in 1999. She said, “Before I saw the bones, I thought they might be from some early murder.” However, after seeing them, she realized that this couldn’t be the case. Mandryk explained, “It was obvious right away that they weren’t.”
Mandryk came to that conclusion after discovering vertebrae that had a piece of rusting metal poking out of it. The professor of anthropology then suggested that the body part had once formed part of a prepared skeleton – like those that are used by medical students for anatomical studies.
So, it seemed that there was a perfectly logical explanation behind the discovery of the bones. In order to get to the bottom of the macabre find, experts had to look back to the 19th century – when Holden Chapel still formed part of the HMS. And during that time, it fulfilled a very specific purpose.
Between the years of 1782 and 1810, the Holden Chapel had been the school’s main location. However, for 40 years after that, the building was used specifically for anatomy classes. In that time, real human bodies would have been used for teaching students – therefore explaining the discovery of the bones.
Human bodies have been used in medical education ever since the Renaissance era. Today, medical schools rely on anatomical donations to aid their studies. They are still tested on their knowledge of the human body by having to dissect a cadaver. But back in the early 19th century, donated bodies weren’t in such ready supply.
Shockingly, body snatching became a common method of obtaining cadavers for medical research during the 1800s. The practice involved secretly removing a corpse from a burial site, and in the U.S., this was usually done in groups who worked together to covertly steal cadavers.
One person who was no stranger to body snatching activities was John Warren – the founder of HMS. He was part of a secret society known as the “Spunkers” – alongside other future doctors and anatomists. And the group’s purpose was to carry out secret dissections using bodies which they had obtained themselves.
For the Spunkers, body snatching was considered an art form that required great skill to complete without detection. And in a letter penned in 1775, Warren enthused over the grave robbing talents that his fellow Spunkers possessed. He even drew comparison to another so-called resurrection he had heard of where the perpetrators had mistakenly left the grave open.
Describing the botched body snatching incident, Warren wrote, “It was done with so little decency and caution… It need scarcely be said that it could not have been the work of any of our friends of the [Spunker] Club… where the necessities of society are in conﬂict with the law, and with public opinion, the crime consists… not in the deed, but in permitting its discovery.”
Using the anatomical knowledge Warren had built up, he began teaching dissection in 1780. Then two years later he founded HMS and took up the position of professor of anatomy and surgery. And while teaching in this capacity, Warren found it increasingly difficult to find cadavers for his students to learn from.
Massachusetts had more progressive laws regarding dissection than many other states. Back in 1647 the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony had allowed for the use of cadavers in dissections every four years. Furthermore, the state also allowed medical schools to use the bodies of executed criminals as their subjects.
But even with Massachusetts’ fairly liberal dissection policies, there were still not enough cadavers available for medical students. As such, university employees and even students turned to body snatching in order to keep the anatomy lessons ticking over.
In order to tackle the problem of grave-robbing, in 1831 Massachusetts passed the Anatomy Act. This legislation gave medical schools access to the bodies of the insane, prisoners and poor people. As a result, the rate of body snatching reduced, though it didn’t prevent it from happening altogether.
In fact, it’s known that one janitor at HMS was involved in body snatching even after the Anatomy Act was passed. Ephraim Littlefield, who was employed by the faculty in 1842, was known to earn extra money by sourcing cadavers for medical students.
It’s not clear whether Littlefield snatched the bodies himself or was simply a middle man. However, what is known is that he played a central role in the conviction of HMS lecturer John Webster, who was charged with killing Boston businessman George Parkman in a highly-publicized murder case in 1849.
Littlefield had lived with his wife in the basement of HMS, which was in close proximity to Webster’s lab. Among his duties, Littlefield was charged with cleaning up after dissections. And apparently, he would dispose of medical waste in an old well in the basement of Holden Chapel – the very one that laid forgotten until the renovation work of 1999.
An osteological examination subsequently found that the bones discovered at Holden Chapel belonged to at least 11 people – the majority of whom were adults. The remains were a mixture of men and women, though some were so cut up that it was hard to tell which sex they had belonged to.
So it seemed that the most plausible explanation behind the discovery of the body parts was that they belonged to cadavers used during the 18th century at HMS. The bones appeared to be random and did not form intact skeletons. This meant that they may have been preserved for study, while the rest of the body was laid to rest.
Though macabre, the bones offered anthropologists a unique insight into the early years of HMS. In 1999 Mandryk told student newspaper The Harvard Crimson, “What’s really neat about it is that there’s been a lot of different little digs in Harvard Yard telling us about student life. But we never really found anything having to do with academics.”