The year was 1830, on the 29th day of November, in the curious town of Castleton, Vermont.
A small group of medical students swiftly pack a knapsack with shovels, pickaxes and a large wool cloth. The clock strikes 2 a.m. and the church bells eerily echo from the high tower of the Old Chapel.
It’s time to go.
The students silently march along the dusty road in darkness to the neighboring town of Hubbardton.
They remain stealthy and cunning in an attempt to go undetected.
Finally, they arrive at their destination; The Hubbardton Cemetery.
“Over there!” the doctor whispers to his students.
They gather in a circle and look down at the ground with a sense of guilt and angst upon their faces.
Here lies the remains of Mrs. Pennfield Churchill. Beloved wife, mother, friend, the stone read.
Silence falls over the group. All that can be heard is the faint chirping of crickets in the distance.
“Shall we?” the man said.
The group begins stabbing at the ground with their shovels and pickaxes. At the final strike, a loud thud stops the mattocks in their tracks.
“There it is,” said one student from the group.
“Let’s just grab it and get out of here,” another added.
They carefully lift the cold, rotting cadaver from the wooden box and toss it up onto the cloth.
The students and the corpse disappear into the night. Little did they know, their efforts wouldn’t go unnoticed.
This was reality for Castleton Medical School students learning about human anatomy in the 1800s, before the days of organ donors.
Joseph Doran, former president of the Castleton Historical Society, has done extensive research on the Hubbardton Raid and said that not only is this a true piece of Castleton history, it also happened on more than one occasion.
“They did it over a number of years. Fellows went as far as New Hampshire to find a body,” Doran said. “Supposedly, they were supposed to get their bodies from outside Vermont.”
In 1804, Castleton passed a law that abolished the exhumation of human corpses from their graves. So the school had to keep what it was doing a secret, he said.
But the day after Mrs. Churchill’s body had been stolen from her grave, it was immediately discovered by her mourning husband and sons.
According to an article published by The National Aegis on Dec. 15, 1830, the woman’s grave was marked, so the townspeople were already skeptical about the medical school.
The interrupted grave confirmed their suspicions.
An angry mob of 300 residents from the two towns stormed down to the school with pitchforks and torches, demanding that the body be returned.
“Give us back our dead, or down goes your house!” they cried, according to “A Poem on the Hubbardton Raid” by G.D. Spencer.
“Whoever enters this building must walk over my cold dead body,” the dean of the medical school is said to have responded according to“The Song of Hubbardton Raid” by J. M. Currier.
With a warrant presented by Sheriff Dan Dyke, the dean reluctantly allowed the search of the Seminary – now known as the Old Chapel – but not before they could smuggle the severed head of the woman past the crowd under a student’s cloak, according to Currier.
The room was torn apart in desperate search for the body.
Amputated limbs and severed body parts lay motionless among the bloodied hacksaws, cleavers, and scythes.
None of which resembled that of Mrs. Churchill.
As they were leaving, a nail sticking from the floorboards raised suspicion, based on Spencer’s account.
They were ripped up, and sure enough, there lay the partially dissected body of Churchill.
According to an article published by the “The Horn of the Green Mountains” on Dec. 7 1830, the body was identified by her husband, minus her head, which was later returned.
“It stained their reputations,” Doran said. “They weren’t expecting a posse to come down and surround the building.”
He noted that when the body was given back, the town did not take legal action against the school and the grave robbings continued for a number of years after.
“I’m not saying it stopped – they just had to be much more careful in how they approached getting their bodies at that time,” Doran said. “It looked like a type of situation where the law kind of had to close their eyes a little bit.”
But a lot has changed in medicine over the last 188 years and Castleton has grown with that change.
Jeanne-Marie Havener, director of the nursing department, said she thinks the practices that the medical school participated in were unorthodox and unethical, no matter how long ago they occured.
“I think by any standards that it was unethical. It’s hard for me to justify that. Part of the professional values are that human beings have the right to dignity, and that right doesn’t end when you die,” Havener said.
Morgan Bazyk, president of the Student Nurses Association, said she also thinks what the medical school did was ethically and morally wrong.
“If the families gave permission for these bodies to be dug up and used for research than I think it is a great idea. If not, then morally it is wrong,” Bazyk said.
Amber Hoisington is a nursing student and she thinks what happened in the Hubbardton Raid was not morally right by today’s standards, but thinks it opened the door to learn more about the human body.
“If it helped them learn, I guess I think it was for the greater good, because they were able to learn from the anatomy and go on to be doctors and nurses from what they learned,” Hoisington said.
She said working on a donated human cadaver would be useful to learn proper anatomy, but she has no interest in digging up corpses to do it.
Taylor Smith is also in the nursing program, but she thinks what happened was morally wrong no matter how valuable the information gained was.
“Death is a very sensitive topic and the family members were probably hurt in the process. I disagree with what they did, it was completely unethical,” Smith said. “Any study performed needs to be done with consent from all participants.”
In 1830, Castleton students were robbing graves to practice medicine.
Today, they are practicing on prosthetic mannequins in a state-of-the-art nursing facility.
Havener said the mannequins allow the nursing students to learn anatomy and care for a patient without using live – or dead – human beings as practice.
“I think it has really changed things for the better, what you find in medical schools now,” Havener said.