The Eccentric Dr. Joseph McDowell

The Eccentric Dr. Joseph McDowell

While working at the Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal, Missouri, years ago, I found the story of Dr. Joseph McDowell of St. Louis to be quite fascinating. His daughter died as a young girl, and he had her body pickled and stored in a cask in the cave.

For children growing up in Hannibal, caving is a natural part of childhood. The parents of the children who liked to play in the cave found out about the little girl’s body in the cask, and threw a fit. They demanded that the doctor remove his daughter’s body from the grotto.

Not until recently did I discover that Dr. McDowell was moderately well-known in St. Louis also. The good doctor started the McDowell Medical College in 1840. Considered a brilliant physician and surgeon, he was also known for his eccentricities.

The medical school founded by Dr. McDowell was well stocked with weapons and ammunition provided by the doctor in case of possible attacks. Dr. McDowell believed he had many enemies.

The doctor had a pet bear that he kept in the basement of the college for years until the animal’s death. Sometimes he would set the bear free into throngs of people.

The tower of the school building held recesses designed to hold the bodies of Dr. McDowell’s deceased family members. Like his daughter upon her death a few years later, the bodies were placed in alcohol-filled devices.

The citizens of St. Louis were able to forgive and overlook the unconventional behavior of Dr. Joseph McDowell for quite a while. But, when he commenced the practice of body snatching from cemeteries to obtain bodies for his students to learn the illegal activity of dissection, the townspeople were aghast.

When the body of a young local girl who had died of an unusual disease was discovered missing, family members and friends were convinced that Dr. McDowell had taken the body. They arrived at the school to confront the doctor, but forewarned by the ghost of his mother, the doctor successfully hid the body and himself from discovery.

In 1861, the medical school was converted into a prison for Confederate soldiers. During the renovation process, several wagon loads of human bones were removed from the building.

During the building’s history as a prison, many men were murdered by the merciless guards. The prison was dirty, dark, depressing, and full of sickness. Many inmates died from disease, and unsanitary conditions.

Dr. McDowell returned to the school after the war was over, but died soon after from pneumonia in 1868.

Vacant for many years, the people living near the old school/prison claimed the building was never “empty.”

Faces and shadows were often seen in the windows of the abandoned building. Screams, cries, and weeping could be heard emanating from the edifice.

Unfortunately, we are unable to experience this first hand as the building was demolished well over one hundred years ago.


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