Night Doctors, also known as Night Riders, Night Witches, Ku Klux Doctors, and Student Doctors are bogeymen of African American folklore, with some factual basis. Emerging from the realities of grave robbing, enforced and punitive medical experimentation, and intimidation rumours spread maliciously by many Southern whites, the Night Doctors purpose was to further prevent slaves, Free Men, and black workers leaving for the North of the United States of America, in a prescient foreshadowing of the inevitable events during the early to mid 20th century, now known as The Great Migration.
African American folklore told of white doctors who would abduct, kill, and dissect, performing a plethora of experiments, referred to as “Night Doctors”. These tales are difficult to verify. White slave owners disseminated scare stories of putative tortures performed by “Night Doctors” to prevent freed slaves from moving to the North. In order to augment rumours, white slave owners dressed in white sheets to represent kidnappers. Wandering the African American communities, perpetuating beliefs slaves would be abducted, taken to medical facilities and killed. To many African Americans these "Night Doctors" weren't just fictions used as scare tactics; they were real life.
A poem was created from the fears of the African Americans that applied more realism to the Night Doctor myths:
THE DISSECTING HALL
Yuh see dat house? Dat great brick house?
Way yonder down de street?
Dey used to take dead folks een dar
Wrapped een a long white sheet.
An' sometimes we'en a nigger' d stop,
A-wondering who was dead,
Dem stujent men would take a club
An' bat 'im on de head.
An' drag dat poor dead nigger chile
Right een dat 'sectin hall
To vestigate 'is liver-lights-
His gizzardan' 'is gall.
Tek off dat nigger's han's an' feet-
His eyes, his head, an' all,
An' w'en dem stujent finish
Dey was nothin' left at all.
In the early 19th century, most states legislated against grave robbery. African Americans were powerless, voiceless, and unable to resist grave robberies to any meaningful extent. Dissection of white cadavers carried far greater risks for doctors. Nevertheless, poor whites were used, especially when available in abundance . Body snatching increased during the post-Revolutionary period in New York. Reflecting the impact of medical students performing dissections, rather than simply observing professors. Following outraged newspaper reporting, laws were passed attempting to circumvent the rapidly increasing incidence of grave robbery. For example, Pennsylvania legislature required unclaimed bodies to be given to the state anatomy board, by public officials.
African Americans were the main source of dissection cadavers to the end of the civil war. Newly formed laws were openly flouted by medical schools as demonstrated in an 1824 advertisement for the Medical College of South Carolina:
"Some advantages of a peculiar character are connected with this institution, which it may be proper to point out. No place in the United States offers as great opportunities for the acquisition of anatomical knowledge. Subjects being obtained from the colored population in sufficient numbers for every purpose, and proper dissection carried out without offending any individuals in the community"
Excavations at the Medical College of Georgia in 1989 yielded more than 9,000 bones, mainly from working class individuals. Approximately 80% of those were from African Americans. In addition to being the majority of cadavers, many Southern teaching hospitals would only perform new live surgical techniques and demonstrations on African-American patients.
“Don’t you know white men taught them all that about ghosts? That was a way of keeping them down, keeping them under control.“
There is a long history of whites using the supernatural to intimidate African Americans. During the slavery era, slave masters dressed as ghosts, rode around black communities on horseback. Later there were patrols called patterollers. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan continued the "Night Rider" tradition. It was finally taken up by the Night Doctors.
Between the Civil War and the 1930s, labour agents were sent by Northern employers to recruit African Americans from the South. In addition to restrictive laws, Southern employers used rumour to intimidate the workforce into staying in the South. One of the most popular rumours concerned doctors roaming Northern streets nightly, killing African Americans for dissection purposes. White Southern employers would also maraude around black communities in white gowns, further spreading fear, anxiety and unease throughout neighbourhoods already overburdened with anguish.
New Orleans had an interesting variation on the Night Doctors called the "Needle Men". Thought to be medical students from Charity Hospital (now the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans), the eponymous Needle Men, would poke unsuspecting individuals in the arm, resulting in death. Several explanations have been suggested, such as epilepsy and the 1924 case of a man who would poke women with a bayonet.
"I sure don't go out much at this time of year. You takes a chance just walkin' on the streets. Them Needle Mens is everywhere. They always comes 'round in the fall, and they's 'round to about March. You see, them Needle Mens is medical students from the Charity Hospital tryin' to git your body to work on. That's 'cause stiffs is very scarce at this time of the year".
Students at Charity Hospital were also referred to as "Black Bottle Men". The black bottle would be a poison given upon entrance to Charity Hospital, and the resulting death would allow dissection. It is now thought that the black bottle referred to cascara (Rhamnus purshiana) mixed with milk of magnesia, a diuretic commonly given to admitted patients of the era.
Charity Hospital did not have sole responsibility for "Needle Men" or "Black Bottle Men." Johns Hopkins Hospital was believed to be another source. These legendary figures were thought to kidnap African Americans from the street. A woman from the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks states that: "You'd be surprised how many people disappeared in East Baltimore when I was a girl. I'm telling you, I lived here in the fifties when they got Henrietta, and we weren't allowed to go anywhere near Hopkins. When it got dark and we were young, we had to be on the steps, or Hopkins might get us."
In 1979, when 25 African-American young men and boys disappeared in Georgia, the Night Doctors were blamed. In this incarnation, the Night Doctor removed internal organs for aphrodisiacs.
The discovery of the Tuskegee experiment in which doctors withheld treatment from 399 African-American men also revived the tale of the night doctors.