My Georgia History

GRANDISON HARRIS – “The Resurrection Man”

Grandison Harris

Grandison Harris was a black man born in the year of 1816 in West Africa.  In 1852, then 36 years old, Grandison found himself on the slave auction block in Charleston, South Carolina.  That day the dean of the Medical College in Augusta, Georgia came to Charleston to bid on a slave.  He saw Grandison Harris and bid $700.  He won the bid, and Grandison Harris came to Augusta, Georgia.  Now Grandison left his wife, who was pregnant, back in Charleston.

It was against the law to teach slaves how to read or write, but the doctors taught Grandison Harris how to read and write because they knew it would be an important part of his job.  The Medical College needed to get cadavers, dead bodies, so the medical students could dissect them.  In the past they had offered 75¢ per body, but few people had taken them up on the

Georgia Medical College Class of 1877

offer.  This would be the job of Grandison Harris.  When the newspaper was printed, Grandison would read it seeing who had died and when they were supposed to be buried.  The main cemetery for black folks was Cedar Grove Cemetery.  Grandson would read and when he found someone was being buried he would go to work.  That night, late at night, he would take his cart, sack{s} and shovel.  He would quietly go into the cemetery and find the grave.  He would look and remember how everything was and then dig down to the body.  If the body was in a casket, Grandison would break into the end of the casket.  Then with a firm grip, and strong-arms he would pull the body out.  He would then put the body into a bag and load it on his cart.  Grandison Harris would then put everything back on the grave, in its original position.  People could not tell the grave had been tampered with.  At that time, he would roll the cart back to the Medical College on Telfair Street.  The bodies would be dissected and used to teach the students about the human body.

The faculty and the students knew about the work of Grandison Harris.  Around the school he became known as the “Resurrection Man.” 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 ended.  Harris’s wife and child, George, moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to live with him in Augusta, Georgia.  Grandison Harris briefly left the school, but he returned a short time later, hired as a porter getting paid $8 dollars a month.

Just think, in 1852 on the slave auction block, Harris didn’t know what he was going to be doing.  Would he be working on a plantation, as a horseman, or in his master’s house?  But as fate would have it, he went to work for a Medical College.  In the college, Harris set in on anatomy classes.  In 1889, as word spread throughout the black community about the use of their dead from Cedar Grove Cemetery for dissections, authorities faced civil disobedience.  The school almost had its own riot.  There is no record of what calmed the storm in the black community, but it was calmed.

In 1908 an enfeebled Harris made his last appearance at the school.  In 1911, Grandison Harris died of heart failure at the age of 95.  Three days later, he was laid to rest in the cemetery that knew him well, Cedar Grove Cemetery.

For the next 100 years, people would mention the “Resurrection Man”.  Most people would hear bits and pieces and thought of it as an old wives tale.  It couldn’t be true.  In 1989, the old Medical College building, built in 1835, was getting a “face lift.”  The construction workers were tearing up the floor in the old kitchen and found a bone, a human bone.  In a few minutes they found another bone.  By the time they got the floor up they discovered there were hundreds of human bones.  The authorities say 350 to 450 people were buried

Georgia Medical College Chemistry Class 1897

there.  They couldn’t give an exact number.  Some of the bones had specimen numbers written on them; a large wooden vat holding dozens of bones was also found.  Workers found another vat that held body parts still preserved in whiskey.

Well, what was the Medical College of Georgia supposed to do?  They knew the bones were from the work of Grandison Harris.  When the students dissected the bodies, they were buried in the Medical College building and lime was used to cut down the smell.  All of the bones were put in a large crate, and given to the city of Augusta.

Georgia Medical College Class of 1902

In the year 1998 the crate of bones was laid to rest in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

Written by Mark Woodard

Research resources:

The Place We Call Home, A Collection of Articles About Local History From; The Augusta Chronicle; 1997

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