Tag Archives: John Mitchell

- A Knight Unlike Any Other: John Mitchell & The Knights of Pythias

John Mitchell campaign button, found in Nottoway Co. chancery causes, Library of Virginia.

While processing Nottoway County chancery causes several years ago, Local Records Archivist Louise Jones came across a most unusual item fastening several papers together:  a campaign button advertising the bid of John Mitchell, Jr., to become Supreme Chancellor of the Virginia branch of the Colored Knights of Pythias.

The Knights of Pythias is a fraternal benevolent association founded in 1864 by Justus H. Rathbone in Washington, D.C. It began as a secret society for government clerks but soon expanded its membership. The order’s founding was in part an effort to shore up the government by healing the discord and enmity between the northern and southern parts of the country. The society took its inspiration from the Greek myth of Damon and Pythias. In the legend, Pythias had been sentenced to death by King Dionysius and Damon offered himself as collateral so that Pythias could return home to say goodbye to his family. If Pythias did not return, Damon would be killed in his place. Pythias was delayed by robbers while returning and Damon was nearly executed, but Pythias arrived just in time to save him. The king was so impressed by the true friendship of the two men that he released both and made them his counselors. The Knights of Pythias thus took “Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence” as their motto and their mission. Philosophically, the … read more »

- Chris Baker: “Cheerful Among Corpses”

Chris Baker (left) with anatomy students at MCV circa 1899. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library, Virginia Commonwealth University.

Anatomical dissection is a matter of course for today’s medical student. Those who selflessly donate their bodies to science are treated with utmost respect for the critical service that they provide to burgeoning doctors and surgeons. Medical schools in the 19th century had a more difficult time with this aspect of education and often had to turn to “anatomical men” or “resurrectionists” to procure cadavers for study by their students. Virginia schools had no legal means of acquiring bodies until 1884 when legislation established the state anatomical board and made the bodies of prisoners and the indigent available for study. An August article in Style Weekly piqued the interest of some Library of Virginia (LVA) archivists, which turned up some interesting archival records about Richmond’s own “anatomical man,” Chris Baker.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor Shawn Utsey has endeavored to uncover the thus-far unknown history of Baker’s work for the Medical College of Virginia (MCV). In that effort, he has combed the archives of MCV and the LVA as well as other sources. So far revealed is that from sometime after the Civil War until just after World War I, Baker worked as a janitor in MCV’s Egyptian Building. However, his duties went far beyond the tidying of the dissection room. With the tacit approval of the college, Baker and his cohorts (often including young medical … read more »