Boston City Hospital, 1867: The ‘first’ postmortem examination of Moonspawn

This photograph's accuracy cannot be independently verified, but it was included with a series of dispatches sent from Boston to the Johnson administration in 1867. Wentworth subsequently provided it to the New-York Historical Society in 1868.
This photograph ran in the Boston Post on Dec. 20, 1867, accompanying what is widely considered to be the first published article addressing the existence of Moonspawn. Second from the right is Samuel Fogg of Boston City Hospital. At far right is Professor Lewis Vanderhilt of Havard. The nurse and assistants to the left of Fogg are unidentified. While the photograph is credited toward John Bishop, the Post journalist that wrote the article, it was more likely taken by a staff photographer, with Bishop claiming the credit in order to minimize the staff’s exposure to federal reprisal.

The Federal government and the American cities (later, City-States) pursued different tactics in publicly addressing the rise of “Moonspawn”–the wide-ranging collection of unnatural, post-Moon plants and animals that span numerous biological kingdoms.

Prior to its collapse in 1868, the Federal government undertook a systemic campaign of medical misinformation, downplaying the havoc Moonspawn were wrecking throughout rural America. Increasingly stringent controls upon hospitals and universities resulted in a backlash by these naturally-progressive institutions, culminating in the John Hopkins Rebuke of Nov. 17, 1867.

After Federal artillery had reduced the famed Baltimore hospital to rubble, a number of doctors angrily rejected demands to cease Moonspawn postmortem examinations. The most famous of these “protest procedures” was conducted at the Boston City Hospital on Nov. 21, 1867. Excerpts of the postmortem ran in the Boston Post that very day as a special daily edition (also known as a bulldog), under the headline ‘MONSTERS STALK BOSTON.’

BOSTON, MASS. – December 19, 1867

Written by the esteemed Doctors Fogg & Vanderhilt, with assistance from Jonathan Bishop and Boston Post staff.

Residents of Beacon Hill and the North End are well aware that soldiers, both Massachusetts and Federal, have been shooting along the banks of the Charles River these past weeks. While official denials have flown thick and fast–the latest, ludicrous release indicated that month-long training maneuvers was responsible–wise Bostonians know that the wagons tell a truer tale.

These would be the slaughterhouse wagons that roll down Hanover Street each and every day; always covered with thick, oiled tarpaulins and accompanied by escorts of discomforted policemen. Unmolested, these wagons proceed to Beacon Street, rolling past the serene parks and ponds, all the way to Boston College. There, the curious students are shooed aside (gently or otherwise; see last Tuesday’s Post for coverage on the indefensible arrests of two women students) as the wagons are unloaded. The mysterious cargo is toted up Chestnut Hill and set to the torch. Black smoke and the odd, scorched bone are the only products of the city’s strange industry.

However, that was before the unthinkable reports out of Baltimore set the country’s foremost minds ablaze. While details of Monday’s bombardment remain sketchy, Gen. Benjamin Clarke, U.S. Army, announced at yesterday’s briefing that John Hopkins staff had fired upon Baltimore City police as they attempted to arrest doctors engaged in “unwholesome and unlawful experimentation on human subjects.”

Clarke offered no rebuttal to numerous witnesses who claimed that Federal artillery fired without any such provocation, or the accusations of mass executions leveled by Baltimore Mayor John Lee Chapman.

Upon learning of this attempt to silence scientists seeking to study recent events, two prominent members of the Boston medical community set previous-developed plans in motion. At both individuals’ request, the Post is identifying these men as Samuel Fogg of Boston City Hospital and Lewis Vanderhilt of Harvard. While they were assisted by others, this publication is holding their identities as confidential sources.

Both doctors were accompanied by reporter Jonathan Bishop. All other Post staff involved in the editing, publication or distribution of this article should be held blameless in its inception.

We begin our report at the corner of Hanover and Locke Street, as the morning wagons roll toward Boston College and the bonfires. A different destination awaits the last wagon in line, however, as the good doctors and their confederates dissuade the understandably unenthusiastic police escort at the point of Fogg’s revolver. The officers are gently removed to a local drinking establishment, trading their truncheons for tankards and left under the tender care of North End residents.

Swiftly disguised as a milk wagon with a roll of canvas and pre-printed signs, the wagon is rolled to the City Hospital. A disused ambulance garage has been prepared, and the hospital’s U.S. Army monitors find themselves locked in a broom closet. The wagon’s grim cargo is borne into the main operating theater, that gas-lit arena that has seen so many medical miracles over the years.

Fogg and Vanderhilt begin their examination by unwrapping layers of tarpaulin, many of them soaked in kerosene to conceal a striking, chemical reek. The last layer, sown canvas stamped prominently with ‘United States Army: Do Not Open,’ yields only to the shears of a brave nurse. It is peeled away from a specimen that sends cries and consternation around the operating theater.

It is a corpse, newly-executed via a precise rifle wound punched through its most prominent node. One might call it a head–it bears the fragments of skull, an agape mouth and two eyes, vestigial and dreadfully lifeless–but that would lend far too much order to its chaotic aspect. Instead, this appears a corpse grafted with a great mass of worms.

The stink alone is sufficient to send at least one orderly for the toilet. The color of a shining, purple bruise, its rotting skin is pressed tight across the thing’s bloated flesh, arrayed into four elephantine limbs. Where the skin splits under the repressed force of corpse gas, dusky worms, limp in death, can be seen.

It is a rotting horror, better suited for the carnival’s grotesquerie than the sane lamplight of the Boston City Hospital’s surgical theater.

With pale faces but narrow eyes, the doctors set about their grim business. The creature’s rotting skin is peeled away and set in jars of formaldehyde. The musculature is familiar, Vanderhilt says, sweat shining on his face. Oddly so.

The doctors confer as nurses apply their suction pumps to the tarry effluent that pools within the exorcised flesh. They conduct more than one necropsy; the host corpse and its attendant worms are two separate, biological entities.

Forceps are applied and each worm is drawn forth for preservation. While each appears to have followed their host into death, but each clings most loathsomely to the flesh.

The worms are plucked from one limb, but the next discovery shakes the resolve of even Doctor Fogg, an Army surgeon that plied his trade across the corpse-choked battlefields of the Civil War. It is a bone, approximately a 18 inches long, withdrawn at the heart of the overgrown limb.

It is an ulna, Fogg says. A forearm bone, undoubtedly human. We are examining a human.

Shocked gasps give way to screams, as the corpse twitches and attempts to sit upright. Worms deemed dead are now writhing beneath the peeled skin. It tries to rise, fighting against both doctors whom have taken hold of it. Vanderbilt cries for formaldehyde, and a nurse douses the unspeakable struggle from one of the largest sample jars. Darting away, Fogg takes up a cauterizer, a heated iron instrument designed to suture wounds, and jabs it into the corpse’s neck.

It shrieks and then bursts into flame, chemically-soaked flesh burning as if pitch. There is significant disagreement over what, if anything, the creature cried out before it met its merciful end. While this reporter heard only a bestial howl, other sober-minded witnesses reported hearing “Please” or perhaps “Flee.” In any case, the morning events are horrific enough without any embellishment.

It becomes clear that the soldiers are not conducting mere maneuvers on the banks of the Charles, but instead struggling against a most unnatural foe. This may indeed be our darkest hour since the War, and both city and Federal officials owe Boston more than sealed wagons and the Boston College bonfire.

The Boston Post will be following this story in greater detail in tomorrow’s full edition.


The Boston Post indeed ran a full edition, after Federal demands that the city close the newspaper down were rebuffed. Federal troops would withdraw within four weeks, retreating to more defensible holdings. The city would hold against the Moonspawn until mid-January, when the Boston Flu broke out in the North End. By February, all pretense of organized, local governance had been discarded; the last refugees of the Flu would arrive at Manhattan on March 18.

The final edition of the Boston Post (another bulldog) ran on Feb. 4, 1868. The headline was ‘CITY: GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN.’

Professor Vanderhilt would leave the city soon after the Boston City Hospital autopsy. He and his family would settle in the City-State of Richmond, where he became an unabashed critic of both Federal and (later) Church & State scientific approaches to the Moonspawn. He was garroted on Broad Street in 1874 after publishing a series of articles criticizing C&S examination procedures. Vanderhilt was 41.

Doctor Fogg was one of the leading experts on the Boston Flu (a.k.a. the Bloody Slake) until his death in 1877, due to a laboratory accident. He was 42 years old, and working in the City-State of Philadelphia. A wing of the Pennsylvania Hospital was dedicated to him following the 1880 renovations.

The fate of the Post reporter, John Bishop, is unknown. His sister’s obituary appeared in local papers on January 5, 1868 (probably due to Bishop’s connections within the industry; obituaries in Boston and other major cities were replaced by the famous ‘God Rest Ye Souls’ lists by mid-December), but whether he died in Boston or fled to another City-State is mere conjecture.

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