Medical Student Driven Insane by the Cold Hand of a Corpse (1886)

Charles Richards may have had his eyes on the prize for best dissection in his anatomy class, but he wasn’t prepared for the frosty reception he received from his entry. 
A Brilliant Young Medical Student Has a Horrible Experience in a Dissecting Room.
His Subject Lays an Icy Hand Upon His Head, and the Horror Drives Him Mad.
An Unsuccessful Attempt at Suicide Strangely Restores Him Both to Health and Reason.
[Line omitted that doesn’t pertain to this story]
A Medical Student’s Experience.

Special to the Globe.
     NEW YORK, July 18.-The cause and cure of the insanity of Charles Richards, lately a patient at the insane asylum at Blackwell’s Island, where he has been for many months under the special care of a specialist noted for his cleverness in the treatment of the insane, present one of the strange freaks which nature so peculiarly deals out once in awhile with no apparent reason or determination. It as in the winter of 1885, just after the beginning of the season’s course of lectures at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Twenty-third street, that Richards was admitted as a second year student from the medical university.

St. Paul Daily Globe 19 July 1886

He had just passed his 21st birthday, and was in many respects a remarkable student. It was along in October that he determined to make a strenuous effort to carry off the prize for the best dissection of the head, neck and right arm. For several days he kept a close watch at the dead-houses and morgue for the right kind of a subject. He wanted a body which indicated strength and delicacy. He found one at last. It was the corpse of a girl who had been found frozen in a lumber yard. Her age was about 20. No one came to claim her body, and the city was $20 richer when the bargain was made with the morgue keepers. On the records she went to the Potter’s field. As a matter of fact she was carted in a zinc-lined basket to the college of physicians and surgeons. The weather was intensely cold. The body had been frozen in a sitting posture, and retained this shape. The face of the dead girl wore a sort of idiotic smile. Her left hand was cramped over the abdomen. The right hand was raised behind her head and held firmly there by the cold. The keepers carried the body to the dissecting room in the roof and placed it on a marble slab. It was nearly 11 o’clock when Richards started through the dimly-lighted dissecting room, where, upon the twenty-four slabs were as many grinning, distorted bodies in every stage of dissection. It was not a pleasant place for a nervous man, and the sight was not in keeping with feelings of merriment and Richards moved quickly to slab No. 14. There was the girl, with her frozen smile, sitting upright. The body was naked. It was slightly thawed, but was still too hard for the knife to run easily. The hard flesh made the work tedious and the student advanced slowly. He was bending low over the abdomen, engrossed in his work. Above his head there was a change. The upper part of the corpse had thawed the most. The muscles in the right arm, the hand of which was behind the head, relaxed, and the weight caused the hand to slip from behind the head and slowly descend. Richards did not know of the change. He had discovered a rare form of tumor and bent over to examine it. Downward came the hand, moving a little quicker all the while, until, suddenly, the body gave a little jerk and the icy hand fell flat upon the young man’s neck. The shock was something terrible. He couldn’t stir. His blood seemed to freeze in his veins. He clutched the frozen leg to keep from falling, and then he slowly drew his head away and looked at the corpse. The same idiotic smile was there, but, to his excited imagination, the lips seemed to move in silent mockery. He felt as if suffocating. He could not stand the atmosphere of the room any longer and rushed [mrdly] into the open air in his black dissecting gown. He hurried home and aroused his uncle. He told him the story in every detail and said that he could not get the woman’s hand off his neck. His uncle laughed at the idea, and tried to dispel the illusion. But in a week Richards became insane and had to be sent to the island. The main manifestation of his dementia was in the exhibition of the most abject fear. His condition became gradually worse, and the case was looked upon as hopeless. He had to be carefully watched to keep him from committing suicide. The patient during one night got up from his cot, tore up a sheet and hung himself to the door of his cell. He was found soon afterwards by the keeper, unconscious and nearly dead. He was at once cut down, and efforts were made to resuscitate him. Finally they succeeded. When the effect of the great shock had worn off and the young man recognized his uncle who had been sent for and talked with him. He seemed to be dazed, but spoke in a natural manner. He was watched closely, but it was evident that his mind was slowly improving, and hopes were entertained of his cure.There was no trace of the former dread which possess him, and he gradually grew bright and cheerful. In a month he seemed as well as ever, talked freely about himself and his feelings, and professed that his mind was a blank about the events of the months that he had been confined. It was deemed safe to discharge from the asylum, and about a week ago he was set free. Two days after he got home he appeared well and happy, though at times slightly dazed. A change being advised, he started for Europe. It is believed he will return perfectly sound in mind.”