Haunted St. Louis
History & Hauntings Along the Mississippi


The Infamous Gratiot Street Prison

St. Louis is considered today to be one of the outstanding medical training centers in the United States. Over the years, dozens of medical schools have flourished here, along with many excellent hospitals, but not since Dr. Joseph McDowell’s college was closed just before the Civil War has there been another school like his. It was a place where wild rumors, lurid stories and tales of the owner’s eccentricities were often told. And unfortunately most of those stories were true.

The McDowell Medical College was founded in 1840 as the Medical Department of Kemper College. The head of the medical school was Dr. Joseph McDowell and it became the first to be successfully established west of the Mississippi. In 1847, McDowell struck out on his own and constructed a building to house the school at Ninth and Gratiot Streets, overlooking Chouteau’s Pond. This would become one of the most notorious buildings in the city and later would even become a Confederate prison during the Civil War.

The notoriety of the building though was often overshadowed by the notoriety of the school’s founder. Joseph McDowell was considered to be one of the finest doctors of his day. His eccentricities aside (and there were many!), he was thought of as an excellent physician and a very capable surgeon in a city where medical standards were high.

Dr. Joseph McDowell

In spite of this, it was McDowell’s personality traits that got him talked about in the city. He was described as having "an erratic temperament that approached insanity" and he was often said to be horribly jealous and suspicious of other doctors and schools. He was also an ardent secessionist and believed strongly in the rights of the southern states and in the institution of slavery. While well known for being generous in his treatment of the poor and the sick, he was also known for his hatred of immigrants, colored people and Catholics. He would lecture on those subjects at street corners to anyone who would listen. McDowell made a habit of wearing a breastplate of armor, believing that his enemies might try and kill him at any time.

The building on Gratiot Street was erected to McDowell’s specifications. It was designed with two large Greek Revival wings and was flanked by an octagonal tower. The tower had been fitted with an unusual deck around which six cannons had been placed to defend the school against possible attack. One of the cannons was said to have once been the bow piece on the deck of Jean Lafitte’s pirate ship. He also kept the school stocked with muskets that could be handed out to the students during the possible attack. The building had other unusual elements as well. The central column of the tower had niches that were intended to hold the remains of the McDowell family members after their deaths. The bodies were to be placed in alcohol-filled copper tubes. The building also included a dissecting room, a chemical room, a lecture hall, a laboratory and a dispensary where the poor were treated for free. McDowell also opened a museum that contained more than 3,000 specimens of birds and animals from North America. There were also minerals, fossils and antiquities too, all of which could be viewed for a 25 cent admission. The clergy and medical men were admitted for free.

McDowell was especially known for his surgical skills and he emphasized anatomy in his classes. This forced the students to take part in human dissection and it would be this practice that would bring notoriety to the school and the building. In those days, it was nearly impossible for medical colleges to get bodies for research because dissection was against the law. To obtain bodies for study, McDowell was forced to introduce the art of "body snatching" to St. Louis, although he preferred to refer to he and his student’s night time forays into the city’s cemeteries as "resurrectionist activities."

The McDowell Medical College

No matter what the good doctor called it though, local residents were horrified when they discovered just what was going on behind the walls of the college.. and where the fresh cadavers were coming from! For the most part, the school was superstitiously avoided as a haunted place, but occasionally, the more courageous citizens could be stirred into mob action. The dispersing of mobs was another good use of McDowell’s cannons and muskets. On one occasion though, he actually loosed his pet bear into the crowd. The mob scattered quickly and the bear returned unharmed to his lair in the college’s basement. The animal actually lived there until its death of natural causes some years later.

But it would be an incident involving one of McDowell’s stolen corpses that would change his entire attitude about the possibility of ghosts and life after death. The incident so unsettled him that he turned away from his religious upbringing as a strict Calvinist and became an ardent Spiritualist instead.

Apparently, a German girl who lived in the neighborhood died of an unusual disease and McDowell and some of his students became determined to steal the body for study in the lab. They managed to make off with it and hid it away at the college. News spread of the theft and many of the local Germans became angry and vowed to break into the school and find the body. McDowell received a note that the visit was to be that night and he went the school to hide the body. When he arrived all was quiet and he went into the dissecting room with a light. He lifted the girl’s corpse onto his shoulder, planning to carry it to the attic and conceal it. As he was climbing the stairs though, he reportedly sighted the ghost his mother, warning him that intruders had entered the building. After hiding the body, he began to search for a place to hide himself. His mother's ghost then directed him to duck into an autopsy room and conceal himself under a sheet. He managed to escape notice (except for being mistaken as a corpse) and a group an angry German men left without finding him or the body of the girl.

After that, McDowell’s newfound respect for the spirit world often affected the decisions he made and the ideas that he came up with. Of pressing concern to him were the eventual deaths of his family. He hated to think of their decay after death, so he planned to have them encased in copper tubes and installed in the niches of the medical school’s tower when they died. When his daughter died though, he purchased a cave near Hannibal, Missouri and it was here that the body of his 14 year-old daughter was taken at the time of her death. She was placed inside of one of the alcohol-filled tubes and hidden away in the cave. Unfortunately though, his daughter did not rest here in peace for some of the locals pried the iron door off the cave and often went inside to peer at the girl as a curiosity. Perhaps because of this, McDowell purchased a mound across the river, near Cahokia, when his wife died and had a tomb for her built atop it. It was said that he would sometimes watch the tomb with his telescope from a cupola on top of his home.

The Days of the Gratiot Street Prison

At the beginning of the Civil War, McDowell’s son, Drake, joined the Confederate Army under the command of General Meriwether Jeff Thompson. He took two of the school’s cannons with him. McDowell had already shipped the 1,400 muskets that he had collected to the south in boxes that were labeled "polished marble". After that, he also went south to serve the Confederacy as medical director for the trans-Mississippi Department. McDowell survived the war and after traveling and lecturing in Europe, returned to St. Louis.

In November 1861, General Henry Halleck took over as a commander of the Union Army’s Department of the West, headquartered in St. Louis. He converted the McDowell Medical School into a prison for captured Confederate soldiers .

The job of converting the medical college to a prison was given to a Major Butterworth. In December 1861, 50 men, including 15 former slaves, were put to work renovating the college and cleaning out what the medical students had left behind. The former slaves were given the distasteful task of removing the three wagon loads of human bones and the assorted medical specimens that were found in the basement. Cooking stoves and sleeping bunks were constructed and McDowell’s dissecting room was converted into a dining hall. General Halleck placed Colonel James M. Tuttle in charge of the prison’s operations.

The first prisoners arrived on December 22 and were taken to the Gratiot Street Prison and it was soon obvious that the prison had been poorly planned and prepared. The building’s capacity was about one-third of the number that arrived on the first day. The holding areas were badly ventilated and not suited for large numbers of people and the latrine procedures that were planned quickly became useless. The waste buckets that had been placed in the rooms were insufficient for the number of men who had to use them, as was the trench latrine in the fenced-in yard area.

Discipline in the prison was harsh, especially in the beginning when St. Louis was still embroiled in the incidents, murders and shootings that marked the early days of the war. Guards were ordered to shoot anyone who not only tried to escape, but even who simply stuck a head or body part out of a window! And the guards were often accused of showing no hesitancy to shoot. It was said that they often took potshots at the prisoners just to practice their aim.

And if the fortress-like appearance and security of the prison were not enough, the forbidding interior had a medieval and dungeon-like look about it. Two of the largest areas where prisoners were kept were in the "round room" and the "square room". The round room, which was described as a "very dark and gloomy place, and very filthy besides", was the middle level of the octagonal tower section of the building, the same tower atop where Dr. McDowell had mounted his cannons and where the vaults had been constructed to hold the dead members of his family. The room was about 60 feet in diameter and usually had about 250 men crammed inside of it.

Although crowded, it was at least better ventilated than the "square room". This chamber was about 70 by 15 feet and held another 250 or so prisoners. It was described as being in "utter disregard to the rules of hygiene." Sickness and disease ran rampant in both rooms, but especially in the square room. Captain Griffin Frost wrote that "all through the night can be heard coughing, swearing, singing and praying, sometimes drowned out by almost unearthly noises, issuing from uproarious gangs, laughing, shouting, stamping and howling, making night hideous with their unnatural clang. It is surely a hell on earth."

Federal officers and attendants occupied one wing of the prison, with the Confederate officers on the top floor. The north wing contained the divided basement, where McDowell’s pet bear had once lived. It now had a large room to hold prisoners. The middle floor was also divided, with one room for prisoners. An upper amphitheater, which had once been the pride of the medical school with its large area to view the dissection of cadavers and its six gothic windows, was later converted into two stories. One of them was a convalescent hospital and the other, a dungeon. Above the dining room and extending the length of the entire north wing was the prison hospital. When the medical college had been in operation, this had been Dr. McDowell’s wonderful museum of curiosities. There is no mention of what happened to the exhibits and artifacts once the Federal soldiers moved in to renovate the building.

The hospital contained 76 bunks arranged into four wards. Most of the sick were cared for by Confederate surgeons who had been taken prisoner and who had volunteered for sick duty under the direction of a Federal medical officer. Hospital attendants were detailed from among the prisoners. During the prison’s operation, smallpox occurred here in almost epidemic proportions, along with outbreaks of measles, pneumonia, vermin infestations and the war’s most accomplished killer, chronic diarrhea.

The prison itself continued to be a horrifying place. The population soared and sanitary conditions and food rations further declined. Prisoners were dying at an alarming rate, sometimes as many as four a day. and the conditions inside had collapsed beyond imagination.

After the war ended, the prison was closed down and McDowell returned to start up his school again. He renovated the entire building but left one room just as it had been during the prison days. He referred to it as "Hell" and in it he placed a rattlesnake, a crocodile, statues of Satan and a gallows, where an effigy of President Lincoln was left hanging.

Dr. McDowell died from pneumonia in 1868 and the medical school was left vacant for years. And for years after the building closed down for good, it was anything but a forgotten place for the people who lived in the neighborhood around the old college. To them it was a "haunted" and forbidding place and not only because of the horrific experiments they believed had once been conducted by Dr. McDowell and his ghoulish students. The people in the area were convinced that the ghosts of men who died at the Gratiot Street Prison remained behind at the site.

According to the stories, including one told to me by the descendant of a German man who once lived in this neighborhood, the college really was a haunted place and ghosts were often seen peering out of its dark and usually broken windows. They saw faces and wisps of clothing passing by and then vanishing into the shadows. Most feared to approach the structure, but those who dared to go inside hear cries, wails, mournful screams and the sounds of men weeping in otherwise empty rooms. The noises that came from the confines of the walls were often so loud that they could be heard outside. ( A first-hands family account of the haunting appears in Troy Taylor's book Haunted St. Louis )

In June 1878, the south wing of the former school and prison was condemned as being unsafe and was demolished by order of the fire department. The octagonal tower and the north wing remained until 1882, when they were torn down. Nothing remains of the building today and it is merely a forgotten spot on the Ralston-Purina company lot. The building has been lost and was long ago forgotten. Thankfully though, the stories remain!


©Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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