Night Doctors

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 rumors spread maliciously by many Southern whites, the Night Doctors' purpose was to further prevent slaves, freedmen, and black workers leaving for the North of the United States, 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".[1] 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.[2] In order to augment rumors, 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.[2] To many African Americans these "Night Doctors" were not just fictions used as scare tactics; they were real life.[3]

Grave robbersEdit

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.[4] Dissection of white cadavers carried far greater risks for doctors. Nevertheless, poor whites were used, especially when available in abundance.[5] 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, the Pennsylvania legislature required public officials to give unclaimed bodies to the state anatomy board.[4][6]

African Americans were the main source of dissection cadavers to the end of the civil war.[7] Newly formed laws were openly flouted by medical schools as demonstrated in an 1824 advertisement for the Medical College of South Carolina:[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

The Night RiderEdit

Don't you know white men taught them all that about ghosts? That was a way of keeping them down, keeping them under control.[11]

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.

During this time it is believed that Night Doctors abducted African Americans and experimented on them.

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.

Needle Men and the Black Bottle MenEdit

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 take a chance just walkin' on the streets. Them Needle Men's is everywhere. They always comes 'round in the fall, and they're '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 are very scarce at this time of the year.[12]

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 laxative commonly given to admitted patients of the era.[12]

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."[3]

Modern incarnationsEdit

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.[13][better source needed]

The discovery of the Tuskegee experiment in which doctors withheld treatment from 399 African-American men also revived the tale of the night doctors.[by whom?]


A poem was created from the fears of the African Americans that applied more realism to the Night Doctor myths:[14]


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.


  1. ^ Harris, Y., Gorelick, P.B., Samuels, P., and Bempong, I. (1996). "Why African Americans may not be participating in clinical trials?" J Natl Med Assoc 88, 630–634.
  2. ^ a b Halperin, E.C. (2007). "The poor, the Black, and the marginalised as the source of cadavers in United States anatomical education". Clinical Anatomy 20, 489–495.
  3. ^ a b Skloot, Rebecca (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers. pp. 165–68. ISBN 978-1-4000-5218-9.
  4. ^ a b Humphrey, D.C. (1973). "Dissection and discrimination: the social origins of cadavers in America, 1760-1915". Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 49, 819–827.
  5. ^ Savitt, Todd (August 1982). "The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South". The Journal of Southern History. 48 (3): 331–348. doi:10.2307/2207450. JSTOR 2207450.
  6. ^ Semmes, C.E. (1996). "Medical Experimentation". In Racism, Health, and Post-Industrialism: A Theory of African American Health, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers), p. 110.
  7. ^ Bankole, Katherine Kemi. Slavery and Medicine: Enslavement and Medical Practices in Antebellum Louisiana. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1998.
  8. ^ The Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences, Volume 8 By John Davidson Godman, Isaac Hays
  9. ^ Halperin, Edward C. "The Poor, the Black, and the Marginalized as Sources of Cadavers in United States Anatomical Education". Clinical Anatomy, 20(5), p 489-495
  10. ^ Doty, Leilani. "Renewing Trust in Regular(Allopathic) Medicine and Research" SELAM International Newsletter. 9(1), 2007.
  11. ^ Fry, Gladys-Marie. Night Riders in Black Folk History. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1975.
  12. ^ a b Lyle Saxon, Edward Dreyer, Robert Tallant, Gumbo Ya-Ya, Houghton-Mifflan: Boston, 1945
  13. ^[better source needed]
  14. ^ Savitt, T.L. (1982). The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South. The Journal of Southern History 48, 331–348.

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