Doc Brown the Grave Robber

Posted by | July 10, 2007

Please welcome guest blogger Bob Sloan.

This is about a man who’s a legend where I live, a man who once walked
the same ground as the rest of us, but left such a track more than seventy years after his death in 1935, people still talk about him.

When I was a boy it was common to be entertained, especially around
Halloween, by tales about “Doc Brown the grave robber.” My grandma could scare the water out of a porch full of kids, describing this mad monster from a time that back then wasn’t all that distant.

Wales Brown, MDShe’d point down the hill to Open Fork Road, and tell us Doc Brown could had sometimes been spotted riding that very trail toward a graveyard, his passage lit by a kerosene lantern bobbing the rhythm of his mule’s gait. Shovel tied to his saddle, sometimes with an anonymous assistant riding behind, everybody knew he was off to dig up some newly buried corpse. And not only did he dig up dead bodies, my grandma said he cut ‘em up, sliced ‘em to pieces right there beside the grave.

With grandchildren gathering closer, Granny’d nod and whisper, “Yes sir, Doc Brown often rode that very road yonder.” My cousins and I would stare at the gravel lane and shiver, seeing personal visions of a grave robber’s lantern jolting along in the dark.

“Doc Brown the Grave Robber” was a wonderful story, especially since I half-believed long shadows under moonlit trees might conceal a scary someone slipping closer. After I grew up, I figured like all our mountain stories, there was at least a grain of truth in the ones about Doc Brown. And not all that long before her own death, Dr. Louise Caudill gave me an entirely different interpretation of the “Doc Brown tales,” a surprisingly different look at the man.

“Wales Brown was a fine physician,” Louise told me over a cup of coffee one afternoon. “As good a doctor as ever worked in these mountains,” she insisted. Then she told me the rest…

Louise said Wales Brown couldn’t abide a meaningless death. In a time when survivors were often content to blame the passing of a loved one on “milk fever” or “bad air,” or simply lay their loss at the feet of a hard, unforgiving God, Doc Brown needed to know the real cause.

But in the 1920’s, autopsies weren’t often performed, and even when asked permission for one, families frequently refused. “Home burial” was general practice, and there was no sterile, distant hospital in which to do perform such procedures. Typically, they were done by lamplight, on a kitchen table around which the survivors would sit on evenings yet to come. Perhaps their frequent refusal wasn’t all that unreasonable…

But in worrisome cases where an autopsy might yield knowledge that could save another life, or warn of a possible outbreak of deadly contagion, for Doc Brown no refusal was acceptable. That’s why, on moonlit evenings, Doc Brown and his confederate rode the dark hills around Rowan County homesteads. Under cover of night they moved aside six feet of earth, opened a box of instruments, and by the soft glow of Doc’s lantern, the body revealed its grisly secrets. Wales Brown learned what killed his patient.

There is at least a kernel of truth in the generations of tales told in these old mountains. “Doc Brown the Grave Robber” is a story with a truth I never imagined when I was a boy.

How often does someone you thought was a monster turn out to be a hero?

Bob Sloan is the author of a short story collection (“Bearskin to Holly Fork”) and “Home Call: A Novel of Kentucky.” His novel “Nobody Knows, Nobody Sees” was published in the Spring of 2006. Bob and his wife Julie live east of Morehead KY, on a small farm that belonged to his grandfather and his father.

Related post: “A curious middle name”

Wales+Brown Doc+Brown grave+robbing Rowan+County+KY appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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