Family discovers man is in vat at Yale Medical School

Posted 9/6/22

Lillian (Rouse) Hall didn’t know that her 38-year-old brother Charles was dead, so it came as quite a shock to discover that he was “pickled” at Yale Medical School.

Charles …

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Family discovers man is in vat at Yale Medical School


Lillian (Rouse) Hall didn’t know that her 38-year-old brother Charles was dead, so it came as quite a shock to discover that he was “pickled” at Yale Medical School.

Charles Stephen Rouse had grown up in Pawtuxet and left there as a young adult, destined for a life at sea. He became the captain of a tugboat and, in 1897, began renting a room from a lady in New London to use as his home base. He didn’t make a habit of staying in touch with family or friends and they heard from him only at intervals.

His mother, Mary, had died in 1899 at the age of 53. His father, Stephen, a fisherman and furniture upholsterer, lived in Cranston with Charles’s 33-year-old sister Lillian and her 10-year-old son Robert. Some sources list Lillian as a married woman while others list her as a widow. One family history has her 45-year-old husband, Harry Hall, being killed in a car crash in Colorado in 1901 prior to her bringing her son back to Rhode Island to live with her father. Yet, there are records of her giving birth to a daughter, Alice Bradley Hall, in Rhode Island on Nov. 29, 1902 which list the father of the child as 29-year-old cabinet-maker Robert H. Hall. Lillian was living with her father on Bridge Street at this time and there is no husband with her. In addition, no records are located for Alice ever again. Lillian’s death certificate, which explains that she died due to “neglect” at Rhode Island Hospital on Oct. 31, 1910 at 10:56 in the morning, states that her clothing had caught on fire while she was putting kerosene in the stove and caused extensive burning of her neck, arm and chest and culminated in sepsis and shock, lists her as being a married woman. At this time, she was living on West Street in Providence with her father where she told the census-taker just months before her death that she was a widow and had only given birth to one child.

When Lillian received a message from a representative of Yale Medical School on Jan. 5, 1903, she was informed that Charles had been killed in a train accident in New London on Christmas day. She was told that if she had no desire to claim the body, the result might be financially rewarding to her. Shocked not only by the knowledge that her only sibling was dead, Lillian was also taken aback by the offer of money for forfeiting his body.

Lillian immediately informed her father that Charles was dead and had been sent to the dissection room at Yale. As news spread throughout the extended family, several people attempted to gain some answers but none were forthcoming. One finally took it upon himself to contact a local politician who got to the bottom of things. Charles had not yet become a cadaver for a medical student. He was lying in a vat of preserving chemicals in the school’s cold storage room.          

The family also discovered that Charles had not been killed in an accident. His landlady came forth to explain that he had been sick in bed with consumption of the lungs, bronchial tubes and bowels for quite some time and expired on Christmas. As relatives needed to claim the body, the landlady gave the address of Stephen Rouse to the town’s Charity Commissioner, Ronald P. Mussell. He informed her that he would take possession of the body and have it turned over to the family. However, that was not what he did.

Once the investigation began, he told a story of a man named Mr. Stennett who arrived claiming to be a relative of Charles’s wife who had directed him to bring the body back to New Haven, where she lived. This story was extremely confusing to all who knew Charles, as he had never been married. Mussell then quickly changed his story, explaining that he turned the body over to Yale Medical School and had every right to do so. The members of the Charity Commission responded that he had absolutely no authority to do such a thing. By law, if a body went unclaimed for 24 hours and the person had been an inmate at a jail or poorhouse, rather than bury the body at public cost, the keeper of the institution could direct that it be donated to a medical school. Mussell, however, overstepped his bounds and when confronted with this accusation, quickly resigned his position.

Stephen Rouse and Lillian Hall were so furious that they threatened they would take legal action if they were in a better financial position. They contacted an attorney to see how much legal assistance they could afford. Meanwhile, Herbert E. Smith, dean of the Yale Medical Department, strongly denied that the school had anything to do with procuring the body. He stated that Yale did not send people to go and stealthily obtain dead bodies for them as they obtained all they needed through the legal means of accepting donations of bodies that went unclaimed.  

However, Yale anatomy professor, Dr. Harry Burr Ferris, stated that he knew the body to have been purchased at New London to be used by medical students and that it was a practice which was followed quite regularly. Those investigating the matter found it quite interesting that Frank Valentine Chappell, a member of the Charities Commission, owned the barge which Charles captained for the Thames Tow Boat Company before he fell ill.

Stephen demanded that his son’s body be returned to him immediately and it was placed on the 12:05 train headed for Providence that day. It arrived at the Thomas F. Monahan undertaking rooms and prepared for a proper burial in the family lot at Oakland Cemetery in Edgewood.

At the time Charles Rouse’s body turned up in a vat at Yale Medical School, there was a severe shortage of cadavers for those practicing to become doctors. There were records of medical schools paying $50 to $75 for a fresh body where, in the years prior to that, they were paying from $5 to $40. In 1902, it was not uncommon for doctors and undertakers to personally sell the bodies of those who had died without a family.

In 1883, it was discovered that the janitor at the poorhouse in Boston had been preserving those who died there within a pickling solution in pork barrels and selling them to Harvard for anywhere from $3 to $12. Funeral mourners had no idea that the janitor packed the coffins with wood to give each the weight of a dead body which wasn’t there.

In Feb. of 1900, Mrs. Mary Henry of Naugatuck was shocked to discover her husband was deceased and in a vat at a medical school, just as Mrs. Robert Baird had been in July of the previous year. Selling cadavers was big business. The medical schools needed the bodies, the procurers needed the money, and most families didn’t even know what was going on. Stephen Rouse was one of the lucky ones who reclaimed his son before the carvers did and laid him to rest in hallowed ground.  


Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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