Guarding Confederates in the Old McDowell Medical College

At the corner of 8th and Gratiot, the McDowell Medical College was transformed into St. Louis’ most notorious prisons for Confederate soldiers and secessionist civilians.


Two wartime images of Gratiot Street Prison (formerly the McDowell Medical College) flanking Dr. Joseph McDowell. Courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis and the Missouri Historical Society)

Just prior to the outbreak of war, the college was owned and operated by the macabre Dr. Joseph McDowell, who gained a reputation for digging out corpses from local cemeteries for cadaver experiments. Nonetheless, he proved himself to be one of the most respected and knowledgeable medical professionals in the country. Being a secessionist, McDowell left St. Louis and was named Surgeon General for the western Confederate armies. Like many others, though, his property was confiscated by Union authorities in and utilized for the Union war effort there.

McDowell could never have imagined what his former school would have been though. In December 1861, the former college was turned into the Gratiot Street Prison to be used as overflow for the nearby Myrtle Street Prison. Like Myrtle Street, Gratiot Street held prisoners temporarily until they could be transferred to larger prisons, like Camp Douglas and Alton.

In this letter from Sgt. Minos Miller in the 36th Iowa Infantry, McDowell’s former school was transformed into the infamous Gratiot Street Prison. In December 1862, Miller and several comrades took up guard duty at the prison and explored the macabre place.

There is 7.00 Sesesh prisners down where we went to guard they are in McDowels Colledge [McDowell’s College, another name for Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis, MO] likely you have heard of it McDowel [Joseph N. McDowell] is in the sesesh Army and this property was confiscated the officers was in an apartment to their selves I asked one of them if he was studdying Medicine he laughed and pulled out a deck of cards if any of them puts their heads out of the window they shoot them they have only shot one the rest keeps their heds in They cleared out one of the cellars yesterday and had the rubbish piled out side so I went up and examined it among the rest was two cannons one morter several balls and shells and one ball and chane fixed to put on a mans leg there was several human bones and a negros skull I guess it had been an old skeleton

A pre-war photograph of Lynch’s Slave Pen, which would become the Myrtle Street Prison in September 1861. Gratiot Street would accept its first prisoners in December 1861 to be used as overflow for Myrtle Street. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

The letter certainly speak for itself, but we can see the rather morbid discoveries the Iowan troops made in the former medical college. The “apartment” Miller speaks of was located on the second floor of the main college building, specifically used for confinement for Confederate officers. The skulls and skeletons were found in the notorious dungeon of Gratiot Street Prison. Sadly, the dungeon was reportedly used for punishments, but it is unclear why the skeletons were there. Were they used as cadavers by McDowell before the war, and later used by Federal authorities as a scare tactic? The fact that many of St. Louis’ prisons failed inspections throughout the war, it is not surprising.

But, through documents like this, we historians can learn about the nature of the Civil War, particularly for those here in Missouri. Particularly for St. Louis, prisons in the Gateway City were infamous for their pitiful conditions and lack of sanitation. Unfortunately, because the old prison was demolished in the 1880s, it is through documents and photographs like these that we can remember what happened.


Letter from Minos Miller to Martha V. Hornaday, December 18, 1862, MS M58. Minos Miller Letters, 1860-1866 Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries (Fayetteville, AR).

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