"Who Skinned Henry Southerland?"
Dr. William J. McKnight and his brother, attorney Amor A. McKnight were God-fearing sons of a good Presbyterian family but late one night in October 1857, one of them committed a very UNGODLY act.
In 1857 it was against the law in Pennsylvania to study the anatomy of the human body through the use of cadavers. Although Dr. McKnight and the other doctors knew of the serious trouble they could get into by dissecting a corpse, but they felt that they needed to expand their knowledge on the anatomy of the human body.
The cadaver that they selected was that of a laborer who was approximately 30 years old and in excellent shape. Henry Southerland died when he caught a fever. The body was buried at the old Brookville Cemetery on October 30, 1857.
Dr. McKnight and his colleagues conspired to exhume the body and study it as a means of furthering their education. The plan was complicated but the doctors believed that if they all worked together they felt they would succeed in their ghoulish task The exhumation was planed from October 31, 1857.
Each of the doctors knew that if they were caught they could be fined or jailed, or both. In any event, they believed their careers would be ruined.
The plan called for the body to be removed from the cemetery on the top of the hill and hauled to the home of Dr. McKnight's mother. Here the body of was laid out and the doctors began their grisly work. The doctors continued their studies for three days and four nights.
Understandably, Dr. McKnight's mother was unhappy about the UNGODLY activities that were being preformed in her presence. Soon she began to hear rumors about the body from her neighbors. That is when she decided to put an end to the studies. She called her son and the others and ordered them to remove the body. If they did not move Southerland immediately, she would summon the police.
Dr. McKnight and the other doctors made hasty plans to remove the body and have it reburied. The plan was overly complicated with too few people involved to carry it out. The body was to be taken from Mrs. McKnight's home to K.L. Blood's ice house.
Two of the conspirators were to get the key from Blood and open the ice house and leave it unlocked. Later another doctor was to have come with a wagon and take the body to Renoldsville.
At this point the wheels came off the wagons, so to speak. The body was brought to the ice house, as planned, but the door would not lock. So the poor body was taken back to Mrs. McKnight's house until the doctors decided what to do. In the meantime, the man with the wagon arrived only to find the door on the ice house was locked. He left without his passenger.
When the ice house was finally unlocked, the body was put on ice to await the man who was already on his way back to Renoldsville. None of the conspirators were aware that he wouldn't be returning.
Early the next morning, Sunday, Nov. 8, 1857, a 15-year old boy by the name of W.C. Smith made a discovery that would throw the quiet town of Brookville into a panic. Young Smith saw the ice house door was not locked and investigated. Inside he saw the mutilated remains of a human being. The body was lying on a block of ice with a board under the shoulders and head. The legs and arms were spread apart, the intestines removed and a lump of ice in the place of the abdominal cavity.
Worse, the body was quite literally skinned; the cuticle was removed from the crown of the head to the soles of the feet.
Filled with terror, Smith fled from the spot, retelling the news of his grim discovery to whomever he passed on the street. Soon, masses of men, women and even children gathered at the ice house.
At first it was believed the body was the victim of a murder. On closer inspection, it was determined the body was all that remained of Henry Southerland. A little curly hair resembling "Negro wool" was found lying loose, near the remains of Henry Southerland.
A Coroner's inquest was called and confirmed the body was that of Southerland. Following an investigation, Dr. McKnight was brought to trial for body snatching. At the trial Dr. McKnight would not reveal the names of his accomplices. He was fined $25 plus court costs for his crime. It was not until after the deaths of the other doctors involved in the plot that he revealed the whole story in his "History of Jefferson County."
Years later Dr. McKnight served in the Pennsylvania Legislature and wrote the law that became the basis for the study of human cadavers by the medical profession.
Dr. McKnight built the three story brick building on Main St. to serve as his drug and general merchandise store. The lower level contained his doctor's office which could now be entered at the rear of the building. The building is now home to The Meeting Place restaurant and a tavern downstairs known as "The Icehouse."
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