Hidden Histories

'John Brown's Body,' 1859: Philadelphia's Medical Schools Rebellion Against Its Presence in the City.

Monday, 7/18/11
As most people realize, the execution of the famous abolitionist, John Brown, on December 2nd, 1859, by the state of Virginia for 'treason, and for conspiring and advising with slaves and other rebels, and murder in the first degree," prompted a wave of anti-Southern feeling within the Northern states, where he was perceived as a 'martyr for freedom,' although some Northernors believed Brown to have been quite insane at the time.

It is also well-known that once the various Southern States began to secede from the Union, hundreds of medical students attending various Philadelphia colleges, went South to enlist within the Confederate armed forces. However, many are unaware that prior to the outbreak of the Civil War itself in 1861; in December of 1859, hundreds of Southern-born medical students left Philadelphia for their native South land, specifically because of John Brown as well.

Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, a native Virginian, was a graduate of the Winchester, Virginia Medical College in 1855 where he also taught anatomy. He later came to Philadelphia to teach surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as at Jefferson Medical College.  He and another native of Virginia, Dr. Francis E. Luckett, were offended by Brown's famous raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), on October 16th, 1859, and more acutely upset, once they discovered that 'John Brown's body,' was first to be embalmed in Philadelphia, then transported by rail, through Philadelphia in early December, on its way to his final resting place in North Elba, New York.

Prior to the commencement of the Civil War, Philadelphia in December of 1859 was filled with both abolitionists and pro-slavery factions, and numerous medical students native to Virginia and elsewhere were residing in the 'City of Brotherly Love' at the time of John Brown's raid, execution, and transportation to New York. Mayor Alexander Henry, aware of the above friction and threats from both sides to plan demonstrations, wisely "made a fake casket, covered with flowers and flags which was carefully lifted from the coach and the train and sped onward in its destination..." In reality the train carrying Brown's body never actually stopped in Philadelphia, and thus violence was averted by a "sham coffin." (see, "The John Brown Excitement....Arrival Here of the Body. A Sham Coffin," in, Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, December 4th, 1859; Philadelphia Germantown Telegraph, January 4th, 1860).

However, Dr. Hunter H. McGuire "organized a movement" which encouraged over three hundred medical students attending the University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Medical College, to leave Philadelphia by rail en masse, on December 21st, 1859, in direct opposition to 'John Brown.' They first marched from Jefferson to the 'Musical Fund Hall' while giving the 'Rebel yell.'  Their passage by train out of the city, was paid by the Medical College of Virginia, an amount of almost $4,000 dollars, where many officially enrolled as students, while others continued on further South to medical colleges located in Charleston, Nashville, and New Orleans (see, "Another Civil War Story," The Pennsylvania Gazette, July/August, 2011, p.8).

Dr. McGuire left Philadelphia as well and returned to his native city of Winchester, in Frederick County, Virginia. Once war began, he would join the Confederate Army as a private, but soon became the Medical Director for the Army of the Shenandoah, serving with the famed Confederate officer, Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson. It was McGuire who amputated 'Stonewall' Jackson's wounded left arm in May of 1863, as well as General Richard S. Ewell's left leg above the knee. After Jackson's death, McGuire would continue to serve as Medical Director of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Truly the Civil War and our nation's response to the events preceding its outbreak and culmination are fascinating to study. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has original 'John Brown' materials as well as many sources relative to the above incidents. Thus, there are many primary sources by which one can learn about pre-Civil War activities within Philadelphia, during this 150th Commemoration or Anniversary of our nation's worst and most intriguing disaster.