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The Legend of the Resurrection Man

The Old Medical College of Georgia
Augusta, GA

Late at night in Cedar Grove Cemetery, nearly two hundred years ago, strange work was afoot. In a scene straight out of a gruesome horror movie, there were those who claimed to see a man committing unthinkable acts against God and nature, and while those claims were reported to the proper authorities, police and other officials turned a blind eye. It was only years later that the man’s dark purpose was revealed, bringing to light an often unsung hero of Augusta’s past.

When one thinks of Augusta, images of the macabre hardly ever come to mind. More likely, images of the PGA Tour and educational institutes come to mind, all flavored with a taste of southern hospitality. But like any other town that has seen the turn of two centuries, Augusta has its share of secrets. Sacrifices had to be made for the advancement of the city, and often in the name of knowledge.

History:
In the year 1852, the prestigious Georgia Medical College of Augusta purchased a thirty-six year-old Gullah slave named Grandison Harris at a price of seven-hundred dollars in Charleston, North Carolina. The story behind his hiring claimed he was to be used as a janitor, and nothing more. However, it didn’t take long for Grandison to discover his new masters’ real purposes.

Grandison was taught to read and write and allowed to sit in during anatomy lessons, activities that were unheard of in the south at that time. It seemed odd, but because the institution was a place of learning, and because Grandison was such an agreeable fellow, his learning was not impeded.

The purpose of Grandison’s education was of necessity by the college. Cadavers, which were usually bought at seventy-five cents each, were in short supply. Those that the college purchased were used quickly. The students needed more bodies, and the administration was not too particular about from where they came. They hired Grandison specifically to rob the fresh graves of Augusta, specifically those of the colored cemeteries, and bring the corpses back to the college for study.

Because grave robbing was illegal even then, Grandison carried out his ghoulish task at night, when only the moon watched his actions. He read the obituaries of the day, then, when darkness fell, he crept to the fresh grave. He dug at the head of the freshly turned earth until he reached the casket beneath. Then, using a hand ax, he chopped his way into the coffin and pulled the body out. The body he would stuff into a sack, which he placed on a cart, then he set to work restoring the grave to pristine condition. According to his former owners and students that witnessed the grizzly activities, Grandison was quite good at his job, leaving the graves as if they’d never been disturbed.

Although he became accustomed to his line of work, digging up bodies still made him skittish. Occasionally, after a dig, he would park his cart in an alley beside a bar and have some liquid fortification. After he’d finished his drinks, he returned to the college where the bodies would be cut up and displayed for the students.

One evening in particular, two students watched as Grandison extracted a body and made his way to his favorite beer hall. The students decided to have some fun at Grandison’s expense. After he parked his cart and went inside, the students removed the body from the sack and one of the two climbed inside. When Grandison returned later, the student in the bag called out to him.

“Grandison,” he said. “Grandison, I’m cold. Buy me a drink!”

The Resurrection Man was reported to say “Get your own damned drink, ‘cause I’m getting out of here!”

Grandison continued his duties for a few more years until the Civil War. The abolishment of slavery meant he was a free man, and he left Augusta for a short time. He returned after only a few years to resume his duties for the college, this time with pay. He continued to work at the college until he died at the age of ninety-five in 1911.

After his death, Grandison returned to Cedar Grove Cemetery, the same burial ground he’d desecrated time after time, this time as a permanent resident.

The story of Grandison Harris, the “Resurrection Man,” was told for years, to children and freshmen alike. Many assumed the story to be just that, a colorful piece of folklore with no historic backing.

In 1989, however, the stories took a macabre turn toward reality with the renovation of the original Georgia College of Medicine at Augusta building. When workers tore through the floor, they discovered a chamber filled with bodies in various stages of decay. Some reports place the number of bodies at one hundred fifty-four while others claim significantly more. Adding up the number of bodies needed per semester, the most likely scenario places the number at well over four hundred. However many were actually found, their condition remains the same. Piles of bones, all of them clearly labeled and tagged for medical students, were found. Also found were whole bodies preserved in vats filled with whiskey. The resurrection man legend, it seemed, was true after all. On November 7, 1998, the restless souls were finally returned to their place of rest, beside their resurrector, Grandison Harris, in the Cedar Grove Cemetery. There are no names on their graves, only a large stone monument that reads “Known but to God.”

Ghosts:
Though most believe sightings of restless souls are thought to be merely extensions of the legend, there are those that claim the original Telfair Street building is still haunted by the souls whose rest was disturbed on orders of the college. A few have even claimed to see Grandison himself in the Cedar Grove Cemetery late at night, under the light of the full moon, digging into graves as he did in life.

Occasionally, the random story will pop up about the college’s current accommodations hosting the restless souls, but those in the know look toward Telfair Street for the truth. Local tour guides have taken photos containing numerous apparitions. Those that have ventured to the old site often refer to it as the most active building in all of Augusta.

Present Day:
Though moved from Telfair Street to its current location on Harper in 1911, The Georgia Medical College at Augusta is still a thriving campus, with classes offered in everything from gross anatomy to psychology. Many fine doctors have come out of the college, staffing hospitals around the world. The grave of Grandison Harris is hidden somewhere in the Cedar Grove Cemetery, its location unknown to prevent angry relatives taking revenge. The cemetery itself, however, located across the street from Magnolia Cemetery, with its entrance on Walker Street. Headstones there date back to 1835.

The old house on Telfair Street still stands, and is a stop along the “Augusta Ghost Walks” tour. It is currently used for parties and by the occasional dance held by the local liberal arts high school, though most of the students have no idea that they are essentially dancing on a mass grave.

Those that know the story of Grandison Harris respect his actions, as, without his macabre duties, the college would never have been able to effectively teach medicine.

Best Times:
Tours of the cemeteries are offered during the day time, with guides pointing out the significant Augustains buried there. There are also “ghost walks,” tours that pass by the site of the old college, now called the Clusky Building, during evenings and weekends. If it’s the resurrection man one wishes to see, however, the best chance is under a dark sky with the full moon high. Don’t be surprised, however, if a ghostly voice calls your name and asks you to buy him a drink.

See you next time! – Scott A. Johnson
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Jon Condit