Harvard University is one of the most prestigious universities in the entire world. It’s known for its academics, sports teams, and, of course, its elite student body that includes a few United States presidents. But that’s all on the surface.
In 1999, a dark secret was discovered in the basement of Holden Chapel, one of the oldest buildings on campus. The building was in need of some renovations, but when construction workers went in to do their job, they left with a dark discovery that was better left buried. Keep reading to learn what they found among the rubble.
It Started With The Renovation Of Holden Chapel
Back in 1999, construction teams were hard at work renovating one of the most historic buildings on Harvard University’s campus, Holden Chapel. The building is the third oldest on the campus, built way back in 1744.
Needless to say, if walls could talk, Holden Chapel would have quite a few interesting stories to tell. But as the workers began demolishing a structure in the basement, they weren’t prepared to find a dark secret hiding within the bricks.
Harvard Has An Elite Student Body
Harvard University is an old institution, opening its doors to students for the first time back in 1636. The Ivy League college is known for its elite student body and alumni, including eight United States presidents, over 30 foreign heads of state, a few hundred billionaires, 14 Turing Award winners, and 160 Nobel laureates.
The university is also lucky enough to add 48 Pulitzer Prize winners and 108 Olympic medals to its pool of students and alumni. All the accolades have Harvard standing as one of the most prestigious colleges in the world.
Home To Many Accomplished Programs
The elite students who graduate from Harvard each year go through a series of classes, like any college. But Harvard is known for some very accomplished programs, such as Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School.
The latter program is grounded in medical research and a whole lot of “firsts.” HMS assisted with the first successful human kidney transplant, the first chemotherapy for leukemia in a child, and the first heart valve treatment. And, after many homes on campus, HMS moved to Holden Chapel in 1744.
HMS Wasn’t The Only Program That Utilized Holden Chapel
HMS used Holden Chapel for its medical program from 1744 to 1825, when the faculty decided to relocate again. Then, in the 20th century, Harvard’s Glee Club decided to move in and establish offices throughout the building, making it the club’s headquarters.
From there, the Radcliffe Choral Society and Collegium Musicum moved in. The three parties soon became known as the Holden Choirs. To this day, the three musical clubs still use the space to rehearse.
Holden Was Reconstructed To Be A Classroom
With all of the changes that had happened in Holden Chapel since its construction, it was in major need of some renovations. So, in 1999 it was decided that Holden Chapel was going to be reconstructed to create a classroom.
But don’t worry, the Holden Choir’s spaces were being renovated as well, they weren’t losing their rehearsal spot! But when they started, the workers had no clue there were secrets hidden inside the walls. Dark secrets that probably should have been left alone.
They Were Going To Break Through A Circle Of Bricks
While in the basement of Holden Chapel, the workers focused their efforts on a particular spot. There was a circle of bricks on the ground, a mortared ring that looked like it could be some sort of well or something to store water, like a cistern.
Not thinking twice about it, the construction team broke through the ring of bricks. No one could have guessed what they were about to stumble upon once they broke through the surface.
It Wasn’t A Well Or Water Storage Tank At All
After breaking through the ring of bricks on the basement floor, the workers were shocked to discover the well wasn’t a well at all, but what looked like a very old garbage chute. If they had to guess, they believed it was from the time Holden Chapel was home to the HMS program.
It was a good estimate since the items they found at the bottom of the chute weren’t from any musical club! They found old medical and scientific equipment, such as beakers and microscope slides.
The Workers Were Very Confused
The equipment wasn’t the only thing the construction workers discovered, though. They also revealed discarded containers that had possibly held disinfectant substances that students would have used. There were non-medical items, too, like jars of mustard and pickles.
To say the workers were confused by the items would be an understatement, especially when they found some old shoes among the rubble. Unfortunately for the construction crew, their findings were about to unravel a huge university secret.
They Found Sawed Human Bones
If you can believe it, the random artifacts they found were the least of their concerns. One can deal with finding old medical equipment and jars. Old shoes aren’t even that abnormal to find lying around in the basement (or at least that’s what we’ll tell ourselves).
The most surprising discovery the construction team found in the basement floor was discarded human bones. And not whole bones either. It looked as though some had been cleanly sawed in half.
Construction Was Put On Hold
After the finding of the human remains, construction was put on hold until further notice. They couldn’t just get rid of the bones; they had to figure out what happened in Holden Chapel all those years ago.
Leading the investigation was Carole Mandryk, an associate professor of anthropology at Harvard. Knowing the building’s history, professor Mandryk couldn’t help but come to a dark conclusion on how the bones wound up at the bottom of the garbage chute.
Mandryk Knew It Wasn’t An Unsolved Murder
At first glance, the remains looked like an unsolved murder that had happened on campus years ago. How else do you explain forgotten bones in a garbage chute beneath a building? But professor Mandryk wasn’t so sure.
In a 1999 interview with Archaeology, she said, “Before I saw the bones, I thought they might be from an early murder. It was obvious right away that they weren’t.” Well, if they weren’t from some unsolved case, then why were the bones there?
The Bones Were Used As A “Prepared Skeleton”
After further inspection of the bones, professor Mandryk came to the conclusion that they were not there as the result of a murder. After discovering vertebrae with rusted metal poking out, she revealed that the bones were most likely used as a prepared skeleton, such as the ones medical students use for anatomical studies.
But there had to be more to the story. So, experts looked back to the 19th century when HMS used Holden Chapel to study. The answers had to lie somewhere in its history.
The Bones Were Used As Teaching Materials
Holden Chapel was the medical school’s main location between 1782 and 1810. Then, 40 years after that, the historic building was primarily used for anatomy classes. During that time, real human bodies were used for studies, to help teach students while using actual elements they’d see in the field.
That would explain why the bones were at the bottom of the garbage chute. But one question still remained. How on earth were they able to get the bodies?
Grave Robbers And Body Snatchers
While bodies are donated to medical schools today, back when HMS was using Holden Chapel, that wasn’t the case. Surprisingly, medical schools obtained their ready-to-dissect corpses from graveyards!
The act of body-snatching usually happened in a group who would all work together to dig up a casket and take the body. Then, they would sell the corpse to the highest bidder, such as a medical institution that taught their students proper dissection and anatomy.
The Founder Of HMS Was No Stranger To Body Snatching
John Warren, the founder of HMS, was no stranger to the act of body snatching. He, along with other up-and-coming doctors and anatomists, was part of a secret society known as the “Spunkers.” As Harvard is known for its many not-so-secret secret societies, this doesn’t come as a huge shock.
But what is surprising is what the Spunkers did in their free time. They were known to steal bodies from graves and preform secret dissections.
Warren Considered Body Snatching An Art Form
For Warren and his fellow Spunkers, body snatching was an art form that they took pride in performing flawlessly. It took great skill to grab bodies without detection from the graveyard workers.
In 1775, Warren wrote a letter illustrating his appreciation for his fellow Spunkers’ talents. He even went so far as to compare the secret society’s skills to other people trying to rob graves, saying that others made mistakes such as forgetting to cover the graves back up.
He Began Teaching Anatomy And Surgery
With his extensive knowledge of dissection and surgery, Warren began teaching both topics in 1780. Two years later, he founded HMS, taking up the position of professor of anatomy and surgery.
While teaching the two subjects, one thing became very clear to Warren: corpses for teaching materials were few and far between. How was he supposed to teach his students proper techniques if he had no materials for them to use in their studies?
University Employees And Students Snatched Bodies
With a shortage of corpses, university employees and even some of the student body took it upon themselves to body snatch. They had to keep the anatomy lessons going somehow! But with the increased number of body snatchers, the state was sure to catch on eventually.
In 1831, Massachusetts passed the Anatomy Act, giving medical schools access to the corpses of the mentally insane, poor people, and prisoners. The result was as expected; the rate of body-snatching decreased. But it didn’t go away altogether.
Ephraim Littlefield Lived In Holden Chapel’s Basement
Even the new legislation didn’t stop Harvard faculty member Ephraim Littlefield from stealing corpses for medical students as another source of income. His extracurricular activity made sense, since he lived in the basement of Holden Chapel during the time HMS used the building.
Some of his duties included cleaning up after dissections and disposing of any leftover medical waste in the old basement well/garbage chute, the same one that was forgotten until 1999.
The Bones Were From 11 Different People
After a thorough osteological examination, it was concluded that the bones found at the bottom of the well were from 11 different people, a majority being adults. They were from a mixture of men and women, but with some of the bones so cut up, it was hard to determine gender.
It’s safe to say that the remains were used at HMS during the 18th century for various studies. As the bones didn’t form a skeleton, as previously predicted, they were most likely preserved for evaluation while the body was put to rest.