top of page

Tony Gentry

Praise for The Night Doctor of Richmond

"An audacious tour-de-force of historical reimagining and radical empathy from one of my favorite writers. In telling the story of Reconstruction-era resurrection man Chris Baker, Gentry resurrects more than just a man—he restores a vanished Richmond whose racial fault lines still have the power to shake a nation." 

– Paul Witcover, author of Lincolnstein and The Emperor of All Things


"Tony Gentry has discovered that rarest of secret places where historical truth and stirring fiction become indistinguishable from one another."

– Jack Trammell, author of The Richmond Slave Trade and Tales of a Soldier Revenant

"The most mundane aspects of his daily routine are the stuff of other people's nightmares. As the Medical College of Virginia's resident grave robber, Chris Baker was probably the most feared and hated man in late nineteenth century Richmond. But Tony Gentry's novel inspired by the forgotten true story of one of the darkest chapters in Richmond history just might leave you sympathizing with (and even liking) this fascinating figure."

– Chris Semtner, Curator, Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond, VA

Who Was the Night Doctor of Richmond?

Reviled grave robber, conjure man, and anatomist doomed to a life in hiding.


In 1994, during excavation for a new medical building in downtown Richmond, Virginia, work crews made a horrifying discovery, an old well full of skeletons. As it turned out, these were the remains of bodies torn from Black cemeteries in the 19th Century and used as anatomical specimens by students at the Medical College of Virginia. 


While archeologists disinterred some of the bones for study, researchers at the college revealed the man responsible for these transgressions, an employee named Chris Baker, who had by his own admission robbed hundreds of graves during his career.


Baker was notorious in his time, featured regularly on the front pages of local newspapers, which called him a ghoul, a witch doctor, a murderer and even a cannibal.


Hated by the Black community, he was hounded, jailed, beaten and shot, finding his only shelter inside the basement of MCV's Egyptian Building, where he prepared and disposed of cadavers. To the medical community, however, Baker was a respected essential worker, his efforts key to the teaching of future doctors.


As he plied his gruesome trade, Baker walked a tightrope along the fraught racial lines of his time. In this deeply researched and richly imagined biographical novel, enter the world of Chris Baker, the Night Doctor of Richmond.




We arranged to meet, the reporter said, in his quarters at the medical school, in the basement of the old Egyptian building, and I must say in all my years in Richmond those are not portals I had ever wished to darken!  Butter in my rum, will you barman?  Have you passed by there of late, the entire edifice clothed in ivy, up its columns along its walls, as if mother nature herself seeks to pull the crumbling monstrosity down to the grave? Yet this structure, they say, is the chief medical college of the South, so in I went in search of my interview.

The tiled floors with their hieroglyphic inlays gleamed, the new electric lights of the wall sconces shone without a flicker, but already in the portico my nose piqued at the odor, oh my – part pig-stye, part pharmacy, part abattoir – all stirred in together. I had been warned, pulled out a quite heavily perfumed handkerchief, and held it to my face as I turned down the stairwell. Now, you who walked the bloody crater at Petersburg know well the charnel house of war, but we youngsters, I must admit that fetid stench was too much for me.

I stopped halfway to the basement and called out for him. From the murk below his face appeared, lantern-lit, gleaming and black as night, except for a snatch of white beard. Those confounding eyes people have spoken of, piercing and blank, peered up at me. He came up the steps to greet me in his butcher’s apron and skull cap, led me further upstairs to the anatomy theater with its impressive skylight, on this bright morning not at all the horror I had supposed, more like a courtroom with a half circle of benches around examination tables, all in order, no one else about. He gestured for me to take a seat, pulled up a rocker and lit a pipe, which did in some way help mitigate the aura of decay that seemed to hang in a fog about the place.

He coughed frequently. Imagine the life he has lived inside those unwholesome walls! But his answers were frank, his gaze even and direct, his manner calm, a man at peace it seemed in his occupation. Isn’t that odd, knowing as we do, what he is?

Oh yes, no qualms a’tall, admitted quite candidly to snatching, he guessed, hundreds of bodies from the cemeteries hereabouts over his long career. Said he has done what was needed, takes some pride in his knowledge of anatomy, which Doctor Tompkins has told me exceeds that of his own demonstrator. I asked if it bothers him that he is shunned, treated as a sort of ghoul, in his community. At that he gave no reply, simply pulled at his beard, a slight smile, I thought, playing at his lips. We spoke for an hour before he demurred, saying there was work to be done downstairs. He invited me down, but it was then my turn to demur!  Yes, I have the piece in draft, one thousand words, of course, by deadline tonight. 

I must say, I don’t know that I have ever met a character such as this Chris Baker. Upon taking his leave, freed again to the bracing air of Marshall Street, I found myself stumbling as if in a trance alongside the trolley tracks, clear out past the penitentiary to Hollywood Cemetery. There I stood amidst the many thousand tombs of our Confederate dead, gazing back at our fair city from a hilltop overlooking the James, and realized that my body entire was shaking, had been quivering like a tuning fork, that whole somnambulistic stroll. The strangest thing, wouldn’t you say? As I speak to you now, this toddy trembles in my hand.

bottom of page