Night Doctors

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Night Doctors, also known as night riders, night witches, Ku Klux doctors, and student doctors are bogeymen of African American folklore who emerged from the realities of grave robbing, medical experimentation, and intimidation rumors spread by Southern whites to prevent workers from leaving for the North.

African American folklore spoke about white doctors that would steal, kill, dissect and run different experiments, which were referred to as “Night Doctors”.[1] These tales are difficult to verify, but what has been said is that white slave owners told African Americans about the tortures performed by “Night Doctors” to prevent freed slaves from moving to the North.[2] In order to further emphasize the rumors, white owners would dress in white sheets to represent kidnappers. They wandered the African American communities to make them believe that they would be abducted, taken to medical facilities and killed.[2] To many African Americans these "night doctors" weren't just fictions used as scare tactics, they were real life.[3]

A poem was created from the fears of the African Americans that applied more realism to the Night Doctor myths:


Yuh see dat house? Dat great brick house?
Way yonder down de street?
Dey used to take dead folks een dar
Wrapped een a long white sheet.

An' sometimes we'en a nigger' d stop,
A-wondering who was dead,
Dem stujent men would take a club
An' bat 'im on de head.

An' drag dat poor dead nigger chile
Right een dat 'sectin hall
To vestigate 'is liver-lights-
His gizzardan' 'is gall.

Tek off dat nigger's han's an' feet-
His eyes, his head, an' all,
An' w'en dem stujent finish
Dey was nothin' left at all.""


Grave robbers[edit]

In the early 19th century, most states made grave robbing a crime, but African Americans were powerless and voiceless so they were unable to put up resistance against grave robberies.[5] It was more risky for doctors to run dissections on white people than blacks, but defenseless poor whites were also used especially when there was a great abundance of them.[6] Body snatching increased during the post-Revolutionary period in New York due to the impact of medical students performing dissections rather than observing professors. Laws were passed after the exposure of the truth by newspapers and the rapid increase of grave robbers. For example, Pennsylvania passed a law requiring public officials to turn in unclaimed bodies to the state anatomy board, in order to put a stop to the grave robberies.[5] There resulted to be people dedicated in robbing graves of blacks and poor whites and sold the cadavers to medical schools.[7]

African Americans were the main source of cadavers through the end of the civil war.[8] Many municipalities and states had laws against grave robbing, so it was only practiced on those who were unprotected by the law. This law was flouted by medical schools who often bragged about the ease of obtaining cadavers from the slave and free black population, as shown in an 1824 advertisement for the Medical College of South Carolina:[9]

"Some advantages of a peculiar character are connected with this institution, which it may be proper to point out. No place in the United States offers as great opportunities for the acquisition of anatomical knowledge. Subjects being obtained from the colored population in sufficient numbers for every purpose, and proper dissection carried out without offending any individuals in the community"

Excavations at the Medical College of Georgia in 1989 yielded more than 9,000 bones, mainly from working class individuals. Approximately 80% of those were from African Americans.[10] In addition to being the majority of cadavers, many Southern teaching hospitals would only perform new surgical techniques and demonstrations on African-American patients.[11]

The Night Rider[edit]

“Don’t you know white men taught them all that about ghosts? That was a way of keeping them down, keeping them under control.“[12]

There is a long history of whites using the supernatural to intimidate African Americans. During the slavery era, the masters would ride around dressed as ghosts. Later there were patrols called patterollers. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan continued the "night rider" tradition, and it was finally taken up by the night doctors.

Between the Civil War and the 1930s, labor agents were sent by Northern employers to recruit African Americans from the South. In addition to restrictive laws, Southern employers used rumor to intimidate the workforce into staying in the South. One of the most popular rumors concerned doctors who would roam the Northern streets at night and kill African Americans to use for dissections. Sometimes Southern whites would also dress in white gowns to spread the fear.

Needle Men and the Black Bottle Men[edit]

In New Orleans there was an interesting variation on the night doctors called the "needle men". Thought to be medical students from Charity Hospital (now the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans), the needle men would poke an unsuspecting individual in the arm, resulting in death. Several explanations have been found, such as epilepsy and the 1924 case of a real needle man who would poke women with a bayonet.

"I sure don't go out much at this time of year. You takes a chance just walkin' on the streets. Them Needle Mens is everywhere. They always comes 'round in the fall, and they's 'round to about March. You see, them Needle Mens is medical students from the Charity Hospital tryin' to git your body to work on. That's 'cause stiffs is very scarce at this time of the year".[13]

Students at Charity Hospital were also referred to as "black bottle men". The black bottle would be a poison given upon entrance to Charity Hospital, and the resulting death would free the body to be used for dissection. It is now thought that the black bottle refers to cascara (Rhamnus purshiana) mixed with milk of magnesia, a diuretic which was commonly given to admitted patients.[13]

Charity Hospital was not the only hospital that was believed to be involved with the "needle men" or the "black bottle men." Johns Hopkins Hospital was believed to be a source of "needle men" and the "black bottle men." They were thought to kidnap African Americans right off the street. A woman from the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks states that "You'd be surprised how many people disappeared in East Baltimore when I was a girl. I'm telling you, I lived here in the fifties when they got Henrietta, and we weren't allowed to go anywhere near Hopkins. When it got dark and we were young, we had to be on the steps, or Hopkins might get us."[3]

Modern incarnations[edit]

In 1979, when 25 African-American young men and boys disappeared in Georgia, the night doctors were blamed. In this incarnation, the night doctor would sell the internal organs for aphrodisiacs.[14][better source needed]

The discovery of the Tuskegee experiment in which doctors withheld treatment from 399 African-American men also revived the tale of the night doctors.[by whom?]


  1. ^ Harris, Y., Gorelick, P.B., Samuels, P., and Bempong, I. (1996). Why African Americans may not be participating in clinical trials. J Natl Med Assoc 88, 630–634.
  2. ^ a b Halperin, E.C. (2007). The poor, the Black, and the marginalized as the source of cadavers in United States anatomical education. Clinical Anatomy 20, 489–495.
  3. ^ a b Skloot, Rebecca (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers. pp. 165–68. ISBN 978-1-4000-5218-9. 
  4. ^ Savitt, T.L. (1982). The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South. The Journal of Southern History 48, 331–348.
  5. ^ a b Humphrey, D.C. (1973). Dissection and discrimination: the social origins of cadavers in America, 1760-1915. Bull N Y Acad Med 49, 819–827.
  6. ^ Savitt, Todd (August 1982). "The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South". The Journal of Southern History 48 (3): 331–348. doi:10.2307/2207450. Retrieved 2013-09-20. 
  7. ^ Semmes, C.E. (1996). Medical Experimentation. In Racism,Health,and Post-Industrialism: A Theory of African American Health, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers), p. 110.
  8. ^ Bankole, Katherine Kemi. Slavery and medicine: enslavement and medical practices in antebellum Louisiana. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1998.
  9. ^ The Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences, Volume 8 By John Davidson Godman, Isaac Hays
  10. ^ Halperin, Edward C. The Poor, the Black, and the Marginalized as Sources of Cadavers in United States Anatomical Education. Clinical Anatomy, 20(5), p 489-495
  11. ^ Doty, Leilani. "Renewing Trust in Regular(Allopathic) Medicine and Research" SELAM International Newsletter. 9(1), 2007.
  12. ^ Fry, Gladys-Marie. Night Riders in Black Folk History. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1975.
  13. ^ a b Lyle Saxon, Edward Dreyer, Robert Tallant, Gumbo Ya-Ya, Houghton-Mifflan: Boston, 1945
  14. ^[better source needed]

Further reading[edit]

Collection of links about Night Doctors

External links[edit]

  • Full text of Gumbo Yaya [1]