Skeleton In The Attic

I was doing some detail photography outside my favorite historical house in Winchester, Virginia. (It’s actually modern law 0ffices, but during the 1860’s, it was the McGuire family home.) Pointing my camera lens toward the upper garret windows, I zoomed in to check the architecture details.

McGuire Home Skeleton

Yikes! A skeleton! Why is there a skeleton in the attic window?

It’s local history…probably mixed with a little myth and a legend. Here’s the tale (told in a slightly spooky way.)

The medical school needed bodies. No, not live students to fill the seats for the lectures. Rather, corpses for the students to examine and – ahem – dissect. You see, in mid-19th Century America, medical school consisted of attending lectures, taking notes, and hoping to get some hands-on practice when the students really became doctors. There was a lot of “learning on the job” during this period of medical history.

Why? Because folks didn’t willingly donate their bodies to science. That just wasn’t part of the “good death” options during this period. So…medical students were always on the look-out for corpses that might not be missed.

Let’s set the scene of our skeletal story:

Winchester, Virginia – located in the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley (about 75 miles west of Washington D.C.)

John Brown
John Brown

It’s 1859.

In October 1859, a certain radical abolitionist named John Brown led a raid to Harper’s Ferry. His goal? Free slaves in a violent and bloody insurrection. Nice idea to free the slaves, but he really should’ve re-thought his method. To make a long story short, Brown, his sons, and his other followers got trapped; they barricaded themselves and street fighting erupted as U.S. troops arrived to stop the radicals.

Now, Winchester isn’t a lengthy train ride from Harper’s Ferry. Amidst the outrage at the rumors and news of John Brown’s Raid, the students of Winchester Medical College got a brilliant idea. If there was street fighting, there were casualties. If there were casualties, there would be corpses…and maybe nobody was keeping an eye on those bodies.

Medical student cronies got on the train and headed north. They came back with a body and plans for a graphic anatomy class. The unforeseen problem? Their corpse was John Brown’s son…or so the rumors go. They discovered the corpse’s identity when they got back to Winchester, unpacked the body barrel, and found papers in the clothing pockets. Well, they dissected the body anyway, and supposedly hung the skeleton in their “medical museum.”[i]


Fast-forward on the historical timeline to 1862. Most of the medical students had enlisted in the previous year, and were away in Confederate armies. Winchester Medical College was closed, just temporarily everyone thought; the college founders and professors – including Dr. Hugh McGuire who lived in the brick house on Braddock Street – anticipated the war’s end and the continuation of medical academics. Union General Banks and his soldiers occupied Winchester.

General Nathaniel P Banks.
General Nathaniel P Banks.

Stories spread among the Yankee soldiers. And the stories got bigger and more gruesome with each re-telling. Some brave souls finally decided to go over to Winchester Medical College to have a look around. And they found the medical museum room. And they found a skeleton or two hanging there. Firmly believing it was John Brown’s son, the outraged (and probably terrified) Yankees buried the bones and burned the institution.[ii] Strangely, General Bank’s headquarters was across the street, and it seems that he did little (or nothing) to prevent the vandalism and burning.

John Brown’s son was avenged! Or was he?

This is where local history gets fun. There are quite a few contradictory accounts. Apparently, the Yankee soldiers really believed the John Brown’s son’s skeleton version of the story…and there’s a good probability it’s true. Then the documentation gets twisted. Which son was it? William McGuire (youngest son of Dr. Hugh McGuire) firmly believed the mystery corpse brought back in a barrel from Harper’s Ferry was Owen Brown, identified by papers in the clothing pockets. Another Winchester resident claimed it was Oliver Brown. Still another writer said it was Watson Brown. To complicate matters, Owen Brown supposedly escaped and lived in California.[iii] So who was the skeleton?

Hunter McGuire
Hunter McGuire

And did the Yankee soldiers even see the skeleton of John Brown’s son? Winchester journal-keeper Mrs. Mary Greenhow Lee claimed that Dr. Hunter McGuire (yes, “Stonewall” Jackson’s medical director and Dr. Hugh McGuire’s oldest son) had removed the suspicious/offensive skeleton before the Yankees arrived.[iv]

Where did Hunter McGuire put the skeleton? It’s a good guess that he buried it. Or…put it away somewhere safe for when the college reopened. Historically, it seems a little unlikely that he would’ve stashed the “offensive” skeleton in the attic of his family home…but you never know…

The skeleton replica I saw in the attic of the McGuire Home was probably placed there for a “conversation piece” or maybe for ghost tours. A grim, gibbering, historical reminder of enthusiastic medical students, mistaken identities, angry vandalism, and an ongoing mystery.

My suggestion for the evening – don’t go grave robbing. You might get more adventure and retribution than you really want. Or you just might find…a skeleton…in your attic!


[i] Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society Journal, Volume VII, 1993. “A Skeleton’s Revenge: The Burning of Winchester Medical College” by A. Bentley Kinney, page 44.

[ii] Ibid, 44-47.

[iii] Ibid, pages 47-48.

[iv] Jerry W. Holsworth, Civil War Winchester, page 65.

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