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Fear of the Dark: The Night Doctors in Folk Belief and Historical Reality

For generations, an ominous warning had been used to instill fear and obedience in African-American communities: “The Night Doctors will get you.” It was a means of social control that combined elements of folklore and historical experience; a scare tactic used at various times by slave masters, white vigilantes, and overly-protective parents alike. The night doctors were terrifying figures, the boogeymen of their day, and the stories surrounding them are rooted in a uniquely American folk tradition – a tradition shaped by the legacy of racial violence and subjugation from the not-so-distant past.

There are a number of regional variations to the night-doctor belief. The standard version begins with an unsuspecting individual traveling alone after dark. From out of the shadows a group of ghastly figures emerges, their faces concealed by crudely-stitched masks. To the unsuspecting victim, they appear as ghosts, witches, devils, or disfigured monsters. Some wear white lab coats. Consciousness is soon lost, the result of a hypodermic needle or chloroform-soaked rag. From here the true horror unfolds.

The victim is transported in a hearse-like wagon, drawn by horses fitted with rubber shoe pads to muffle the sounds of their movement. They are taken to a dimly lit basement laboratory where faceless observers gather around an operating table to witness unspeakable acts of human experimentation, dissection, and blood harvesting. A prolonged and tortured death is the individual’s ultimate fate, after which their mangled remains are either kept as macabre trophies or else disposed of as common medical waste. As far as scare stories go, it’s downright terrifying. Particularly due to the very real history that surrounds it.

Folklorists have traced the origins of the night-doctor belief back to the antebellum period: a time when “Negro Hospitals” performed risky experimental procedures on slaves with impunity, African-American cemeteries were routinely ransacked as part of the illicit corpse trade, and Night Patrols used violence and psychological warfare to uphold the white racial order throughout the southern countryside.

Specific references to “Night Doctors” – also known as “Night Riders,” “Needle Men,” “Black Bottle Men,” “sack ’em up boys,” “night witches” or “Ku Klux Doctors” – would surface later, during the period of Reconstruction and Jim Crow era that followed. It was said that the night doctors lurked the streets around medical schools, hospitals, poor houses, and train stations in search of victims to kidnap for research purposes. The social vulnerability of African-Americans made them a preferred target, entangling the night-doctor belief with the culture of racial terror that existed at this time. [1]

The height of the night doctor scare took place during “The Great Migration,” which brought thousands of African-Americans to urban centers across the country in search of economic opportunity or, in many cases, to escape the rising wave of white vigilantism under Jim Crow. Faced with financial ruin, plantation owners did everything in their power to hold back this mass exodus and retain the supply of cheap labor to work their fields. Violence and intimidation were common practices. But oftentimes, psychological warfare proved to be more effective in the long term. Cities were rumored to be the hunting grounds for night doctors and rural black folk were warned to avoid them at all costs. In time, these beliefs entered into the oral tradition of many African-American communities as children were told of what awaited them in the shadows if they wandered off after dark.


To understand the enduring impact of the night-doctor belief, one must look back to the earliest days of the African-American experience. Like most Anglo-Christians who settled the eastern American shores, the initial slave populations imported from West Africa held firmly to Old World supernaturalism. In the folklore of Ashanti people of Ghana, for instance, was a deep-rooted fear of the Asasabonsam. [2] According to popular belief, this vampiric forest creature preyed on night travelers, using its hook-like talons to capture hapless victims and drag them into the trees where they would be drained of their blood – a frightening archetype that adapted well to the horrors of the New World.

As slaving networks were established along Africa’s western coast in the sixteenth century, rumors spread between the interior villages regarding the nature of the strange white men who came from far-away lands. Many came to believe that they were cannibals who possessed the powers of witchcraft. Given the inhuman cruelties and advanced technology of the European slavers, these fears were well-founded. In his book Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting, historian W. Scott Poole reminds us that “the slave trade, after all, did represent a kind of witchcraft and a kind of cannibalism, a dark blood-magic that transmogrified human beings into a species of property for the consumption of the voracious plantation system.” [3]

For those who survived the trans-Atlantic voyage, the life of bondage that awaited them in the New World was a literal hell on earth. The work was back-breaking, living conditions were poor, and punishments could be severe. Public lashings or a death sentence by hanging were the standard means by which plantation order was maintained. However, discipline often came in more depraved forms, such as sodomy and castration; nose-splitting or eye-gouging; branding, skinning and scarification; amputation; and, in extreme cases, burning at the stake. [4]

Through toil and torture, enslaved Africans earned a reputation of possessing an impressive capacity for enduring pain and suffering. This proved to be a dangerous attribute in the racist and exploitative culture of the Old South. Considered less than fully human, slaves were readily subjected to the riskiest, most invasive, and often dubious forms of experimentation at a time when the field of medical research was in its infancy in the United States – establishing a pattern of racialized medical abuses that continued well into the twentieth century. [5]

“The history of human experimentation is as old as the practice of medicine and in the modern phase has always targeted disadvantaged, marginalized, institutionalized, stigmatized and vulnerable populations,” explains Stephen Kenny, a lecturer in Nineteenth & Twentieth Century North American History at the University of Liverpool. This included “prisoners, the condemned, orphans, the mentally ill, students, the poor, women, the disabled, children, peoples of color, indigenous peoples and the enslaved.” [6]

Enslaved patients, in particular, became an indispensable resource for the early southern medical establishment. “All of the key training, networks and power bases of southern medicine – apprenticeships, private practice, colleges, hospitals, journals, and societies – operated through slavery’s ruthless traffic and exploitation of black bodies,” argues Kenny. “White medical students, as a matter of course, expected education and training based on the observation, dissection and experimental treatment of black bodies.” [7]

Procedures generally lacked official oversight or basic clinical standards, not to mention the benefit of anesthetics. Untold numbers died on the operating table or during recovery and corpses were then sold off or “donated” to medical institutions without consideration of family consent. It was a practice that, in many ways, represented “an extension of slavery into eternity” as white control over black bodies was maintained even beyond death. [8]

Southern medical schools prospered during the 1830s, in no small part due to the abundant supply of “clinical material” that allowed for hands-on opportunities to study physical anatomy, deformities, and disease. [9] In an effort to attract more students, the South Carolina Medical College, for instance, boasted that “[n]o place in the United states offers as great opportunities for the acquisition of anatomical knowledge. Subjects being obtained from among the colored population in sufficient number for every purpose, and proper dissection carried on without offending any individuals in our community.” [10]

Corpses could be harvested from nearby hospitals or almshouses, or else received following the execution of someone who had committed an especially heinous crime. Living subjects were obtained through “slave clinics” or, in some instances, by placing ads in local newspapers and offering cash for slaves who suffered from chronic diseases. One such advertisement, placed in 1838 by Dr. T. Stillman in The Charleston Mercury, read: “Wanted: FIFTY NEGROES. Any person having sick negroes, considered incurable by their respective physicians and wishing to dispose of them… the highest cash prize will be paid upon application.” [11]

However, these sources alone could not satiate the medical establishment’s appetite for human flesh as the number of medical schools nearly doubled in the decades following the Civil War. Medical students, anatomists, and researchers alike would come to rely on a variety of extralegal means for obtaining sufficient quantities of “clinical material” to serve their needs.


Entangled in Night Doctor folklore is the iconic image of the body-snatcher: ghoulish men who skulked around graveyards after dark and trafficked in the dead. Grave-robbers, or “resurrectionists,” were believed to be “men of the lowest type, murderers, criminals, desperate fellows” who readily transgressed moral taboos and strongly held religious beliefs for their own financial gain. [12]

Although “desperate fellows” certainly played their role, at its height the body-snatching trade became something of a professional industry. Coordinated white-collar networks sourced cadavers from funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries and oversaw the distribution networks that provided them to medical schools throughout the country. An article in the Richmond Times Dispatch reported on a mass grave-robbing where over forty corpses were taken from Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, in January 1880. According to one witness, the bodies had been placed in coal-oil barrels and transported by train “up north” where they were set to be received by various medical schools. The scale and organization of the theft points to a fairly sophisticated trading network, one of many that existed at this time. [13]

By the late nineteenth century it’s estimated that about 5,000 cadavers were dissected each year in the United States, the majority of which were procured illegally. [14] As can be expected, it was the corpses of poor and marginalized segments of society that were most often targeted. Particularly those of African-Americans. “For the resurrection man, the black cemetery was the easiest of targets,” explains Harriet Washington, author of the book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. “Most of the black populace could barely afford funerals, to say nothing of guards or mortsafes, cage-like arrays of vertical iron gates that were inserted over the coffin to prevent access by grave robbers.” [15]

The ratio of black medical dissections was indeed vastly disproportionate to that of whites during this period. In Kentucky, a state with an overwhelmingly white population, nearly 80% of all postmortem examinations that took place at medical schools used black cadavers. This trend continued even after human dissection became legal. For example, two-thirds of the cadavers used by Baltimore’s John Hopkins University between 1898 and 1904 were African-American. [16]

In August 1989, while renovating a building that once housed the Medical College of Georgia (in Augusta, Georgia), construction workers stumbled across a grisly find. Buried beneath the basement floor was a cache of nearly ten thousand human bones and skulls, mummified remains and jars containing a variety of organic matter – “clinical material” that dated back to the nineteenth century. The detailed analysis concluded that 75% of these human remains were African-American (despite the fact that only 42% of the area’s population was black prior to 1900). It was later determined that most of the corpses were stolen from the nearby Cedar Grove Cemetery, an African-American burial ground. [17]

The discovery was not at all unusual. Similar corpse dumps have been found on the campuses of the University of Michigan, Medical College of Virginia, and Columbia University in New York City. Likewise, scores of African-American cemeteries across the country retain evidence of nineteenth-century body-snatching efforts. [18]

In addition to plundered graves, black corpses were also regularly “lost” by Southern morgues and shipped to the highest bidder. The trade became so common that some schools even had standing orders. According to one account, “a Professor of Anatomy in a New England medical school [had] an arrangement under which he received in each session a shipment of twelve bodies of Southern Negroes. They came in barrels marked Turpentine…” [19]

Not surprisingly, the association between body-snatchers, medical colleges, and human dissection led many African Americans to view the growing medical establishment with fear and suspicion. But that’s only part of the story.


At the heart of night-doctor belief is the use of fear as a means of social control. With the potential for slave revolts always present, slave-owners relied on a variety of tactics to maintain obedience among their slaves. In addition to laws restricting access to education, free movement, and general privileges, an informal system of psychological control was developed in order to stifle potentially rebellious initiative among the slave populations. Such tactics continued to be used after slavery’s abolition and played an important role in maintaining a culture of southern white supremacy well into the twentieth century.

One means of preventing night travel (and thereby reduce the potential for conspiratorial gatherings) was to exploit folk beliefs and superstitions in regards to the supernatural. [20] A general fear of ghosts, witches, and curses was common within slave communities. In part, this was rooted in West African superstitions that held over through the generations. But more directly it was fueled by scare stories that originated with the white plantation owners.

In her study “The System of Psychological Control,” folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry interviewed an elderly woman named Evelyn McKinney. Detailing the fear known to her slave family prior to the Civil War, McKinney recounts: “These stories were about things that happened at night. And these were the things that kept you from going out. You see, they knew that on a dark night, a dark man could get away and he could not be seen. So they’d tell you these various stories about these night things, I mean these things that kept you in fear not of the master himself, but of the supernatural. You know that you may be able to avoid the master because perhaps he is sleeping. But you couldn’t avoid the supernatural. So that he, that way, he left controls on you.” [21]

During the antebellum period, many slave-holders relied on an informal patrol system to keep watch over their slave populations. Night Patrols – commonly known as “patterollers” due to the sound of their horse-drawn wagons – were volunteer groups that would capture and whip slaves who were caught traveling at night without a pass, block roadways into town and break up social and religious gatherings. Although violence was the primary means of enforcing obedience, many patterollers were also known to disguise themselves as ghosts or devils and use stage props such as “a rotating false head, which gave the appearance of all-around vision,” as both a means of psychological intimidation and personal amusement. [22] Other props included noisemakers, headless disguises, fake horns, and stilts to give the appearance of ghosts floating above the ground. [23]

In reality, direct encounters with the crude costumes and clunky props of the patterollers did little to convince disobedient slaves that they were being stalked by the supernatural. They recognized the threat of night encounters with white men in disguise, often armed and drunk, for what it was. However, shared stories of such confrontations often lent themselves to exaggeration and rumors began to circulate of the various nocturnal phantoms that haunted the countryside, “add[ing] a supernatural dimension to an atmosphere already fetid with fear and rich with the promise of violence.” [24] They spread rapidly, with few opportunities for verification, and each re-telling only added to their frightening impact within slave communities. [25]

Despite the defeat of the Confederacy and the formal end of slavery marked by passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the tactics and costumes of the Night Patrols continued to be used by clandestine vigilante groups who terrorized the Southern countryside – the most infamous being the Ku Klux Klan.

The original Klan grouping was formed on December 24, 1865, by a handful of ex-Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee. Initially conceived of as something of a mischievous social club, the first phase of the organization “relied almost exclusively on the Black’s fear of ghosts, intimidating them by capitalizing on their known superstitions.” [26] This largely came in the form of public demonstrations, targeted pranks, and low-level acts of vandalism. Members dressed in white sheets or ghoulish masks and paraded through town at night, presenting themselves as “ghosts of Confederate dead who returned to earth by way of Hell.”

An ex-slave named Lorenzo Ezell, from Spartanburg County, South Carolina, recalled, “Dey all dress up in sheets and make up like spirit. Dey groan around and say dey been kilt wrongly and come back for justice. One man, he look just like ordinary man, but he spring up about eighteen feet high all of a sudden. Another say he so thirsty he ain’t have no water since he been kilt at Manassas Junction. He ask for water and he just kept pourin’ it in. Us think he sure must be a spirit to drink dat much water. Course he not drinkin’ it, he pourin’ it in a bag under he sheet.” [27]

Like the paterollers before them, the early Klan also exploited more overt Christian fears with their supernatural pageantry. The Pulaski Citizen reported a visit by “a huge, monstrous, fire-breathing creature with cloven hooves and horns” to the homes of four ex-slave families in Bracken County, Kentucky, in March 1866. [28] Such pranks were generally performed under the cover of darkness and used to create a climate of insecurity in the communities of freedmen.

It wasn’t long before the Ku Klux Klan transformed itself from a secret brotherhood of pranksters into a full-fledged terrorist network. During Reconstruction, the group used violence and intimidation in order to sabotage Republican political organizing, drive out “carpetbaggers” and, most importantly, disrupt the free movement and economic independence of African-Americans. By 1870, the Klan had expanded into nearly every state of the former Confederacy and its membership included white men from all social classes: laborers, small farmers, the unemployed, large plantation owners, ministers, lawyers, merchants… and doctors.

The later Klan is remembered for its terroristic legacy of beatings, arson, and murder. However, they also continued to cultivate an air of supernatural mystique and retained many of the psychological tactics used by the pre-war Night Patrols. The head of the order was commanded by a “Grand Wizard.” Rank-and-file members were referred to as “Ghouls.” And local groups were headed by a “Grand Cyclops.” Additional officer titles included “Night Hawks,” “Goblins,” “Furies,” “Hydras,” and “Geni.” [29]

As an organization, the Ku Klux Klan sought to uphold what they considered to be “the natural order” of the South. They never advocated for any sort of mass expulsion of the resident black population, but rather the continuation of pre-war racial subservience under a strict plantation system – the status quo antebellum.

The post-war economy was entirely dependent on the labor of freed slaves; a fragile reality that was threatened by new employment opportunities and the promise of better wages in the expanding industrial centers to the north. During the years of “great migration,” the importance of restricting the movement of African-Americans cannot be understated. It was a necessity that gave rise to new repressive laws and forms of disenfranchisement, unprecedented levels of violence, and even more imaginative forms of psychological coercion. Soon the fearful image of a robed Klansmen nightrider would be overshadowed by a far more frightening existential threat.


The Night Doctors, it has been argued, represented a new phase of psychological control used by southern white plantation owners against the rural black population. As with the earlier Night Patrols and Ku Klux Klan, a fear of the supernatural was exploited through rumors and targeted pranks. These traditional scare tactics were combined with elements that played off the (well-founded) suspicion of the white medical establishment and concerns of body-snatching among African-Americans, giving birth to a new and truly terrifying monster.

The height of the Night Doctor scare coincided with “The Great Migration,” which lasted between the 1880s and the First World War. Rapid industrial expansion led to labor shortages, prompting employment agents to travel across the South with promises of free transportation, higher wages, and better living conditions to all who were willing to relocate to various urban centers. The resulting exodus of black workers had a devastating effect on the southern economy and efforts were made to prevent further flight. [30]

Southern blacks were warned of the harsh winters and outbreaks of pneumonia or tuberculosis that supposedly ravaged the northern cities. Another rumor involved dishonest labor agents who were employed by slavers to lure freedmen to the coast and ship them off to work Cuban plantations. But it was the bone-chilling tales of the night doctors that proved to be the most effective means of psychological control. [31]

The ranks of night doctors were said to be made up of physicians, medical students, or hired “burkers” – body-snatchers who weren’t above committing murder to meet a demand for human cadavers. Disguised by ghostly garb or crude masks, these men preyed on African-Americans in order to use their bodies for medical experiments and anatomical dissections. According to the childhood memories of one elderly sharecropper, “[Father would] say that you mustn’t go out to visit people in the other cottages because the night doctor get you and ‘sect’ your body, cut you up to see how you are made.” [32]

It wasn’t difficult for this belief to take root among southern blacks. Slaves and freedmen alike had lived through the bloody legacy of white vigilante violence, much of which took place under the cover of darkness and was enshrouded in supernatural mystique. Likewise, it was a known fact that the early southern medical establishment preyed on the social vulnerability of blacks, both living and dead. And above all, the exploitation of longstanding African-American superstitions, coupled with a natural suspicion of advancing medical science shared by most people at this time, allowed for imaginations to run wild.

Documenting the night-doctor belief as it existed at the time, a dispatch from Columbia, South Carolina appeared in The Boston Herald, May 23, 1889. The article relayed how “[t]he Negroes of Clarendon, Williamsburg, and Sumter counties [in South Carolina] have for several weeks past been in a state of fear and trembling. They claim that there is a white man, a doctor, who at will can make himself invisible, and who then approaches some unsuspecting darkey, and, having rendered him or her insensible with chloroform, proceeds to fill up a bucket with the victim’s blood, for the purpose of making medicine.” [33]

A number of oral testimonies were collected by Gladys-Marie Fry for her book Night Riders in Black Folk History. At the time of these interviews, the informants were advanced in age, however, they still had vivid memories of the “night doctors” who haunted their youth. One individual recounted their experience of being chased home by shrouded figures after attending an evening dance; another spoke of disembodied voices heard outside of his family’s home, groaning repeatedly: “I’m looking for a man, I’m looking for a man.” In retrospect, they understood this to be the work of white men, likely plantation owners, who sought to keep the resident black population under control. But as young children, it was proof that the terrifying stories that had been circulating in the community were real. [34]

There are many descriptions of the night doctors, ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary. Many alleged sightings involved men dressed in traditional physician’s attire, “either white intern suits or long white coats.” One man, a Washington DC resident who “used to see them here in town,” claimed that “most of them used to be dressed in a long white coat like these doctors wear, long like that, straight down to the ankles.” A number of people also reported attire that resembled the uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan. “They usually come dressed in white,” according to another witness. “Like a white sheet over them, a gown, or something like that.” [35] Surgical masks, hoods, or cloth sacks made up in some monstrous fashion completed the night doctor’s disguise.

Occasionally, a news story would surface that seemed to confirm the frightening rumors. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported on just such a case in February 1884. In an article entitled “The Ohio Horror,” it was claimed, “The Ohio Medical College was short of subjects and called on [their] usual purveyors, [who] promised to have three subjects that night. Sure enough, the bodies were brought to the dissecting-room on time. They were the bodies of a colored family named Taylor and were still warm when placed on the tables. They showed evidence of violent death. It is the common opinion, and it is supported by good evidence, that these colored persons were murdered by the body-snatchers.” [36]

There were also stories of a more sensational nature, claiming that the night doctors were reaper-like entities that “formed like a man, [but] having long, hook-like fingers and a poisonous breath.” According to one local superstition, “wherever he turns and breathes upon a house where a child lies sick, the child is doomed to death before another night.” [37] But these beliefs were rare. Most people generally understood the night doctors to be mortal men with connections to the white medical establishment. However, that didn’t prevent certain supernatural elements from finding their way into some of the beliefs associated with them.

For many people at this time, regardless of race or locality, the advancing world of science was not all that different from the type of magic traditionally associated with witchcraft. The practitioners of both, after all, appeared to possess the ability to manipulate the forces of the natural world in order to serve their own ends. Depending on the witness account or particular local legend, the powers of invisibility, levitation, spell-casting, hypnotism, and, as already mentioned, “poisonous breath” could be attributed to these fiendish beings.

Cannibalism, or more specifically, the production of medicine using the blood or rendered fat of African-Americans, was another variation of the night-doctor belief. “I have heard that they start at the bottom of your feet and begin to bleed you,” claims Minnie Bell Fountaine, a Virginia native who relocated to Detroit at the height of the night doctor scare. Another woman, from South Carolina, “insisted that she knows the white men make castor oil out of negro blood, and that in slavery times a negro would die before he would take a dose of castor oil.” [38]

Although the genesis of the scare traces back to the rural south, it didn’t take long for it to be transferred to the urban realm by migrant black families. [39] Most major cities where medical colleges and research facilities were located held a reputation of being night doctor hunting grounds. However, whether out of bravery or desperation, waves of African-Americans continued to go in search of opportunity in these urban locales despite the frightening tales associated with them.

One such scare took place in New Orleans in the early 1920s, where a rash of attacks was said to have taken place in the neighborhood surrounding Charity Hospital (now the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans). Reports of unknown assailants attacking people with hypodermic needles circulated throughout the community. Most were dismissed as the product of an overactive imagination (or else too much Prohibition gin). But the fear remained. Anytime a suspicious death was reported in the area there were those who firmly believed it to be the work of The Needle Men. “You takes a chance just walkin’ on the streets,” explained one area resident. “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.” [40]

In time, such stories had entered into the collective consciousness of various African-American communities around the country, with a lasting impact that persisted for generations. According to an article in Time Magazine from October 1954, “Even today in some southern states, mothers threaten naughty children with ‘the night doctor will get you’ – a reference to the antebellum breed of burkers.” [41]


The night-doctor belief is not as widespread as it once was, but it has also not disappeared entirely. In July 1972, the Associated Press published an investigative article entitled “Syphilis Victims in U.S. Study Went Untreated for 40 Years.” In the wake of the pubic outcry that followed the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs appointed an advisory panel to review the controversial study, which was eventually declared to be “ethically unjustified” and shut down. A class-action lawsuit was filed soon after and a $10 million settlement was reached with the victim’s families.

The infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (aka “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”) ran from 1932 to 1972, during which time the United States Public Health Service allowed for nearly four hundred low-income, African-American men from rural Macon County, Alabama, to suffer from the effects of untreated syphilis. Subjects were recruited from local churches and clinics and led to believe they would receive free meals, medical treatment (for “bad blood”), and burial insurance. [42]

Although originally projected to last only six months, the Tuskegee study carried on for forty years without the knowledge or consent of those who had been infected. During this period, penicillin treatments were purposely withheld so that autopsies could be conducted on their disease-ravaged bodies. [43]

Official recognition of the crimes committed against the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment offered little real justice to the African-American community, and even less in the way of confidence in the white medical establishment. Reinforced by the scare stories of older generations, this continued mistrust left many open to the possibility that there might actually be “night doctors” who lurked in the shadows at night. After all, the Tuskegee scandal had more than proven that there were still monsters all too willing to prey on black bodies in the name of medical advancement.

Such fears would be raised during the investigation into the “Atlanta Child Murders,” when twenty-eight African-American children, adolescents, and adults were found murdered in the Atlanta area between 1979-81. Rumors of strange mutilations and hypodermic needle marks on some of the bodies began to circulate, suggesting that the victims may have been experimented on prior to death. An African-American man named Wayne Williams was eventually convicted of the crimes, but there were those who firmly believed that this was a cover-up and the serial killings were, in fact, the work of night doctors. [44]

Even today, we continue to be haunted by the night doctors as we confront the racist medical horrors of the past. In August 2017, a statue in New York City’s Central Park made national headlines after becoming the target of political vandalism. The imposing bronze figure was discovered with its eyes, mouth, and neck splattered with blood-red paint and the word “RACIST” spray-painted across the back. It was an act of protest, one of many used to target public symbols of hate associated with the Confederate past, which took place just days after a public demonstration was held to denounce the monument and call for its removal. [45]

The defaced statue commemorates Dr. J. Marion Sims, both a celebrated and controversial figure in American medical history. Considered to be “the father of modern gynecology,” the South Carolina-born doctor is best known for his pioneering medical research (in particular, a surgical technique used in treating vesicovaginal fistulas) and establishing the New York-based “Women’s Hospital,” the first institution in the country exclusively dedicated to women’s health.

In the years prior to his career move north, however, Sims practiced medicine in Montgomery, Alabama, where he routinely performed medical experiments on enslaved African women (including those under his ownership) without the use of anesthesia. Most of his patients/victims died of infection or trauma as a result of their surgeries. In addition to his gynecological work, Sims also tested on enslaved children in an effort to surgically treat a variety of physical development issues. He believed that African-Americans were less intelligent than white people because their skulls grew too quickly around their brains. Acting on this racist hypothesis, he used a shoemaker’s tool to pry the children’s bones apart in order to loosen their skulls. The experiments yielded little in the way of medical advancement, essentially serving as pointless exercises in torture. [46]

The protesting of Sims’ legacy is not only reckoning with the uncomfortable truths associated with the medical practices of the antebellum past. It is also an acknowledgment of how deeply rooted such racial atrocities are within American society – “a dark blood-magic” that was not only tied to the plantation system but also fueled the economic expansion and scientific progress of the century that followed.


The persistence of the night-doctor belief within African-American communities has been studied and documented by folklorists. However, it would be wrong to simply classify these hushed rumors, cautionary tales, and claimed encounters as works of horror fiction. At the heart of most urban legends is an element of truth. In most instances, this comes in the form of an isolated incident which is then given a life of its own through generations of creative story-telling. There is no hooked-hand psychopath terrorizing lovers’ lanes across the country and police have yet to uncover any widespread conspiracy to poison children’s Halloween candy. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a kernel of historical truth in these urban legends. Each one does, in fact, contain elements derived from real crimes of the past.

What makes the night doctors all the more frightening is that the belief is not based on one isolated incident. They are the nightmare figures that embody the blood-soaked legacy of racial exploitation in this country – true monsters birthed in the shadows of slavery, white vigilantism, and racist medical experimentation. It’s a folk belief that was shaped by the African-American historical experience and, sadly, a reflection of the very real horrors that continue to be perpetrated against black communities into the present day.

Sometimes things really do “go bump in the night” and there is good reason to be afraid.


Mark Laskey



1. Robert Damon Schneck, Mrs. Wakefield vs. The Antichrist: And Other Strange-But-True Tales From American History (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 233-36.
2. Robert Sutherland Rattray, Ashanti Proverbs: The Primitive Ethics of a Savage People (San Bernadino: Ulan Press, 2012), 48.
3. W. Scott Poole, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014), 47-52.
4. Donald R. Wright, African Americans in the Colonial Era: From African Origins Through the American Revolution (Chicago: Harlan Davidson, 1999), 90, 174.
5. Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Random House, 2004).
6. Stephen Kenny, “Power, Opportunism, Racism: Human Experiments Under American Slavery,” Endeavour vol. 38, no. 1 (2015): 11.
7. Stephen Kenny, “How Black Slaves were Routinely Sold as ‘Specimens’ to Ambitious White Doctors,” The Conversation, June 11, 2015.
8. Washington, 105.
9. Washington, 106-07.
10. Washington, 115.
11. Washington, 103.
12. Rebecca Boggs Roberts, “Death is Never Over: Life, Death and Grave Robbery in a Historic Cemetery” (master’s thesis, George Washington University, 2012), 19.
13. Allen Cornwell, “Grave Robbers and Dissection Labs: The Nightmares of 19th Century America,” Our Great American Heritage, January 26, 2016.
14. David C. Humphrey, “Dissection and Discrimination: The Social Origins of Cadavers in America, 1760-1915,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, no. 44 (1970): 822.
15. Washington, 127.
16. Anne Grauer, Bodies of Evidence: Reconstructing History Through Skeletal Analysis (New York: Wiley-Liss, 1995), 115.
17. Grauer, 119-21.
18. Grauer, 123.
19. Fredrick Waite, “Grave Robbing in New England,” Medical Library Association Bulletin 33 (1945): 272-94.
20. Gladys-Marie Fry, Night Riders In Black Folk History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975), 45.
21. Gladys-Marie Fry, “The System of Psychological Control,” Negro American Literature Forum 3, no. 3 (1969): 79-80.
22. Schneck, 231.
23. Fry, Night Riders, 70-71.
24. Poole, 50.
25. Fry, Night Riders, 53.
26. Fry, Night Riders, 113.
27. John David Smith, We Ask Only for Even-Handed Justice: Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 86.
28. Elaine Frantz Parsons, “Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 92, No. 3 (December 2005): 820.
29. Smith, 83.
30. Fry, Night Riders, 172.
31. Fry, Night Riders, 173.
32. Colin Dickey, “Night Doctors,” The Paris Review, October 11, 2016.
33. “Concerning Negro Sorcery in the United States.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 3, No. 11 (October-December, 1890): 285.
34. Fry, Night Riders, 180-82.
35. Fry, Night Riders, 188.
36. “An Ohio Horror,” The Milwaukee Sentinel, February 28, 1884.
37. H.T. Peck, The International Cyclopaedia: A Compendium of Human Knowledge (1900), Volume 14, 97.
38. Fry, Night Riders, 200-01.
39. Fry, Night Riders, 172.
40. Robert Tallant & Lyle Saxon, GUMBO YA-YA: Folk Tales Of Louisiana (Gretna: Pelican Publishing, 1987), 75.
41. Colin Dickey, “Night Doctors,” The Paris Review, October 11, 2016.
42. Peter Clark, “A Legacy of Mistrust: African-Americans, the Medical Profession, and AIDS,” The Linacre Quarterly, Vol. 65 no.1: 73.
43. James Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).
44. Schneck, 240-41.
45. DeNeen L. Brown, “A Surgeon Experimented on Slave Women Without Anesthesia, Now His Statues Are Under Attack,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2017.
46. Washington, 63-70.

Written By

Mark Laskey is a writer of dark folklore, strange history and morbid curiosities from Providence, RI.

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