top of page

Tony Gentry

The Night Doctor Tour of Richmond

Updated: Jul 5

My new biographical novel The Night Doctor of Richmond imagines the life of Chris Baker, the Medical College of Virginia's notorious 19th Century body snatcher and anatomy man. Though downtown Richmond has changed dramatically since his day, a tour of the places where he lived and plied his trade can, if you squint a little, readily evoke that era. Here's one route I recommend for doing just that.


We begin our tour at the Egyptian Building (East Marshall and College Streets), the original home of the Medical College of Virginia, where Chris Baker was born, where he lived his whole life in a basement apartment, and where he plied his morbid trade.

Note the instructive plaque outside. Step inside if the front doors are unlocked (the building is still in use by VCU Medical School), maybe dare to go down the stairs to the basement, all a maze of pipes now, but pause for a moment. Supposedly, under that concrete foundation lies a pit where the remains of bodies dissected in anatomy classes for half a century are buried. And if you meet someone who works here, ask. They’ll tell you about doors slamming shut and phantoms in hallways. Easy to see why this landmark building, designed after the example of an ancient, death-worshiping culture, and the site where hundreds of human bodies, illegally torn from their graves, were dissected and disposed of, might spark ghost stories.

 

Now walk a block south on College Street to Broad Street, and a sign marking the original site of the First African Baptist Church. Key events in my novel occur there.


You are now at the northern terminus of Richmond’s historic slave trail. You may wish to download a map of the trail (https://www.rva.gov/sites/default/files/2022-06/Slave%20Trail%20Brochure.pdf), as this tour follows it for the next few sites.

 

Walk eastward downhill on Broad Street into the Shockoe Gorge. Imagine it as it was in the 19th Century, as described in the novel. Your next stop is the original African Burial Ground site, a broad expanse of grass and a small monument directly below the Egyptian Building (and Interstate 95). History- and justice-minded Richmonders recently reclaimed this field from the asphalt parking lot it had been.

From there, follow the slave trail markers south to the site of Lumpkins Jail, which – in my telling – is one of the slave markets liberated by Baker and his father on the day the Confederates fled Richmond in the Civil War. (I recommend a recent book about the history of that site, The Devil's Half-Acre, by the local journalist Kristen Green.) Beside the jail site sits a two-room cottage once the home of an enslaved woman and her family (far left corner of image below). Imagine Schockoe Bottom dotted with such cottages, as in Chris Baker’s day.


You can continue on along the slave trail to the river, where Baker’s mother, in my telling, was sold south on a steamboat. Or you can get back in your car and drive to the next site (though it’s only a 20-minute walk from the Egyptian Building), the Shockoe Hill African Burial Ground (North 5th and Hospital Streets) where Chris Baker robbed graves for the medical school's anatomy classes until the cemetery was closed midway through his career. Like the earlier African graveyard and the slave markets, most of this cemetery lies under highways now, but in 2022 a historical marker was placed atop the hill, an abandoned gas station was repainted to mark the spot, and if you stand there in the gas station’s lot you can almost imagine the 22,000 graves ranging down that long hill towards Shockoe Bottom.

Nearby stands the imposing brick alms house (currently under renovation as a Section 8 senior apartment complex), which served as a military hospital during the Civil War, and Shockoe Hill Cemetery, the city’s first municipal graveyard for white folks, where Chief Justice John Marshall and Edgar Allen Poe’s foster parents are buried.

 

Two climactic moments in my novel occur on Schockoe Hill. Both came to me while wandering about there, a little spooked.

 

If you get back in your car and drive south on North 2nd Street, you find yourself in Jackson Ward, once known as Black Wall Street but destroyed by the Interstate Highway that passes through it now. A few of the streets still look as they did during Baker’s time, and Maggie Walker’s home at 600 North 2nd Street has been preserved as a national landmark that you can visit. A statue of Maggie Walker, an important character in my novel, was recently unveiled nearby at North Adams and Broad Streets.

 

Two other cemeteries figure in The Night Doctor of Richmond. Hollywood Cemetery (entrance at Cherry and Albemarle Streets), one of the city’s beautiful strolls, where Baker and his father helped inter some of the 18,000 Confederate soldiers buried there, and on the city’s east end, Oakwood Cemetery (3101 Nine Mile Road), the primary site of Chris Baker’s body snatchings after the African Burial Ground on Shockoe Hill was closed. Among the 48,000 graves at Oakwood, at least 17,000 are those of Confederate soldiers. It takes nearly an hour to walk from the Egyptian Building to Oakwood, but Baker had use of the hospital’s horse-drawn ambulance for many of his night-time excursions, which no doubt made the journey faster.


Baker was buried in an adjoining cemetery Evergreen, which volunteers have been laboring to reclaim from decades of neglect and overgrown vegetation. So far, we haven't come across his gravestone, but one day! Here's Maggie Walker's grave, also at Evergreen.



Here in downtown Richmond at a walkable distance lies Chris Baker's world. Explored alongside your reading of The Night Doctor of Richmond, I hope this tour may engage your imagination, offering a window into our city during its most tumultuous and troubling age.


PS: Article in July 5, 2025 Washington Post about the Shockoe Hill African Burial Ground, and a new study that has found intact graves on the site: https://wapo.st/3zDlA7Q

 

 

22 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page