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Tony Gentry

The Egyptian Building's Dark Legacy


Egyptian Building, circa 1845,

1200 East Marshall Street, Richmond, VA


The Egyptian Building, one of Richmond’s most fascinating and unusual structures, is the primary setting for my new biographical novel The Night Doctor of Richmond. The novel’s real life protagonist, Chris Baker, was born enslaved there and spent his entire career inside its walls, serving as the Medical College of Virginia’s janitor, grave robber, and anatomical man. Indeed, Baker lived in the building, his home a basement cell.

 

Virginia Commonwealth University, where I worked as an occupational therapy professor for 20 years, is proud of this National Landmark, probably the most faithful rendering of Egyptian Revival style architecture in the U.S. A sketch of the building, still in use by the Medical School, is the university’s logo:


In my book, the Egyptian Building is portrayed as almost a living, breathing character. In one passage, Baker sits waiting for an interview with the medical school’s dean, where they will discuss how to manage grave-robbing at the school, and imagines his home this way:


Barn loft or no, this queer old building was Baker’s real homeplace. And it ran more like a living thing than a structure, the way a human body does, or any animal really. As he saw it, the low-ceilinged basement, his chief domain, represented the bowels, where nourishing decomposition took place, the infirmary floor where sick people lay moaning gasped and pumped like the structure’s lungs, while up top, the three classrooms and the dissection lab made up the brain. The office suite, with its plush chairs and oaken desks, might be the strange old building’s fatty liver, and the auditorium, where he sat now among rows of empty chairs, was the arms of the institution, reaching out to the people at graduation and the like. Which made all the doctors and students and patients and nurses and the cadavers, too, for that matter, the building’s life blood, circulating here and there. They all came and went, but Baker knew he was the one constant, the true backbone of the place.


In 1994, during excavation for an adjoining medical building, human skeletons turned up in a pair of old wells outside the Egyptian Building. Some of those bones were disinterred, sent to the Smithsonian Institute for examination and DNA testing, and – to no one’s surprise – judged to be the remains of bodies torn from local graveyards and used as anatomical specimens by the medical students at MCV. Most of the bones were of Black men, women and children.

 

Since then, those remains have been re-interred with ceremony, and VCU has posted a mural explaining and apologizing for the depredations of the resurrectionists, as they were called, who robbed those graves. My novel imagines the life of the most prominent of those night doctors, a man who freely admitted to robbing hundreds of graves across his long career. Chris Baker was probably the most feared and hated person in Richmond during the second half of the 19th Century, when he plied his gruesome trade. He was hounded, beaten, jailed and shot at, and regularly featured in the city’s newspapers, which called him a monster, yet he continued on as a loyal and trusted employee of the medical school, dying of natural causes in 1919, age 70.

 

It was here, at the old Egyptian Building, where he brought the bodies, where the dissection classes took place, and where he then disposed of the remains, year after year. That is a part of the unusual building’s legacy, and one that adds a rather nightmarish air to its odd veneer.


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Guest
May 24

GULP! Only you, Tony, could tell a story like this and make me want to read it. Ginger

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tonygentrywrites
May 25
Replying to

Kind of you to say that, Ginger - I'm still a little confounded over why this guy so fascinates me; did my best to go there, and do him justice, but yeah, gulp!

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