By Frank Leone
Hughes Mews is a picturesque alley today, but at the turn of the 20th century, it housed “the most infamous professional body snatcher in Washington.” Sam McKeever worked as a laborer and rag merchant by day, but by night he was reputed to exhume recently buried corpses and kill people to provide their bodies to medical schools for study. “McKeever became a kind of bogeyman around Washington during the period between 1880 and 1910. The simple mention of his name was usually sufficient to send adults and children scurrying home.” (Fry, 1975).
McKeever, an African American, was reported to be “close to 7 feet tall, with hands like shovels.” He wore rubber shoes, to make it easier to sneak up on people. Oral histories don’t detail his methodology, but it was believed that “night doctors” such as McKeever often chloroformed their victims and sold them to medical schools, which then bled the victims to death and performed experiments. The receiving hospitals were not identified, but GWU Medical School was located at 15th and H Streets at the time, not too far away.
One evening, Sam’s wife Eliza left their residence to run an errand. Not recognizing her in the dark, Sam kidnapped her and sold her body to local doctors. He returned home and asked his children where their mother had gone. He realized what had done and rushed back to the hospital to save his wife’s life, but it was too late. Other versions of the story have him killing her on purpose or the doctors recognizing her and letting her go.
Prof. Gladys-Marie Fry reported the tales of McKeever from D.C. residents she interviewed in the 1960s. She placed the story of “night doctors” into the broader context of control of African Americans originating in the deep south. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, owners wanted to discourage enslaved people from meeting and gathering at night. Before the Civil War, they told stories of ghosts and witches and organized patrols, sometimes wearing white sheets, to scare people into staying at home. After the war, this intimidation developed into the terror rides of the Ku Klux Klan, who claimed to be ghosts of confederate dead. The tales of night doctors in northern cities were meant to deter emancipated people from moving to such cities and keep them working on the plantations.
We can’t confirm that McKeever was a night doctor, but we can document some information from Census, City Directory, newspapers, and other sources. McKeever was likely born in 1841in Virginia. He could neither read nor write. He married Eliza Lloyd on Nov. 20, 1880 in D.C. The stories indicate that they had three children but as of 1900, they were reported as living with two 10 year old sisters of Eliza. City Directories indicate that Samuel McKeever lived in the Foggy Bottom area at least from 1878 to 1906, including at 2419 I St. R Snows Court (now the Zip Car lot) from 1888 to 1891 and 912 Hughes Court (or Alley) from 1897 to 1906 (the 1897 directory places him at #919). McKeever died at Garfield Hospital on Nov.12, 1906. He was buried at Georgetown’s Mt. Zion cemetery, which was appropriate because he allegedly dug up bodies from that cemetery. Eliza McKeever, widow and laundress, is reported as dying on July 5, 1921 (thus outliving her alleged murdered). A Civil War pension record indicates an application on Dec. 12, 1906 for Samuel McKeever (alias Robert Kemp), NY Infantry, listing Eliza McKeever of D.C. as his widow. Was Sam a veteran?
Although few reports exist of people actually being murdered to obtain corpses, grave robbers were active throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries in cemeteries catering to poorer people. In 1902, Congress decreed that unclaimed dead from the poor community of Washington would be sent to medical schools according to the number of students enrolled each year. The services of the grave robber middleman were no longer needed.
Sources: Gladys-Marie Fry, Night Riders in Black Folk History, UNC Press, 1975; “Mount Zion Cemetery/ Female Union Band Cemetery (Old Methodist Burying Ground),” Historic American Landscapes Survey, DC-15 (2008); Edward C. Halparin, “The Poor, The Black, and the Marginalized as the Source of Cadavers in United State Anatomical Education,” Clinical Anatomy, 20:4890495 (2007); FBA History Project.
For more frightening stories, see our discussion of Haunted Foggy Bottom, including the Octagon House and the Van Ness Stable. October is Indigenous Heritage Month – read about Foggy Bottom’s Native American history HERE. Also for Sept./Oct. Hispanic Heritage Month, HERE is our post on Foggy Bottom’s Avenue of the Americas.