Sunday, August 25, 2013

Henry Wirz body parts on display

Henry Wirz was the commander of the Confederate Prison in Andersonville, Georgia from April 1864 till the end of the war almost a year later.He was tried, convicted and executed by the federal government for war crimes during the War between the states.

Today Wirz’s arm and the first tow neck vertebrae are on display at the National Museum of Medicine and Health located in Silver Spring, MD approx. 8 miles from Washington DC. According to  Anatomical Collections Manager, Brian Spatola “the arm was kept as proof that it was not injured to the degree that he professed and the vertebrae were kept to demonstrate that they did not fracture when he was hung.”

From the museum’s web-siteThe National Museum of Health and Medicine was established during the Civil War as the Army Medical Museum, a center for the collection of specimens for research in military medicine and surgery. In 1862, Surgeon General William Hammond directed medical officers in the field to collect "specimens of morbid anatomy together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed" and to forward them to the newly founded museum for study.”

Click this link for the museum's web site.

The trial of Wirz lasted from  August 23, 1865 to October 18, 1865. In early November 1865 he was found guilty.

An autopsy was deemed appropriate for the convicted man for legal reasons and on November 9, 1865 the following orders were sent from JH Taylor AAS to surgeons W. Thompson and RO Abbott for them to attend the hanging.

Head Quarters Dept of Washington.
Washington, November 9, 1865

Surgeon R.O. Abbott
Medical Director, Dept of Washington.
Sir, The major general commanding directs that Astt. Surgeons W Thomson and H Allen attend the execution of Henry Wirz at the Old Capital prison, November 10, 1865 between the hours of 10:30 and 11:30 A.M. and make such examination etc. as will be necessary. This will be authority for the admission of surgeons Thomson and Allen to the Old Capital prison.

Very respectfully Sir, I am your Obedt Servt.
JH Taylor AAG (Assitant Agentent General)

Wirz was hung the next day on November 10,1865 at 10:32 am. At the Old Capital prison in Washington DC.

The complete letter containing the orders for the surgeon's to attend the hanging is shown below. After the hanging the following was written at the top.


Douglas US General Hospital
Washington, DC 
November 12, 1865

Report of the final examination of the body of Henry Wirz executed by hanging on November 10, 1865

On the bottom of the letter the following


In accordance with the foregoing order we have the honor to respectfully submit the following report of the autopsy made upon the body of Henry Wirz, executed the 10th instant by hanging.


According to the autopsy report Wirz’s arm showed no fracture and that he suffocated to death rather than having his neck broken.

The surgeon’s report dated November 12, 1865 starts by discussing the rope used in the execution and which a portion was included. “The rope used a portion of which will be found herewithin, was half an inch in diameter” The use of the rope was adjusted “ the knot was adjusted under the left ear.”

Wirz’s death was described “After the fall of the drop, several slight shrugs of the shoulders, lasting for a few seconds were noticed: after which the body remained quiet until fifteen minutes had elapsed when it was lowered; life was pronounced extinct and it was removed to the hospital, when these observation were made.”

Witz’s External Appearances were described as “The body was that of a man about forty year old, well developed, muscular , from emaciation and would weight about 160 pounds. There was no rigor mortis. No involuntary execration of feces, urine or semen had taken place.”

The examination showed that Witz’s skull was removed. His Thorax (chest cavity), Abdomen and right forearm was described in detail.

The conclusion of the autopsy stated “it would appear that death resulted from afixia alone, due to the mechanical closure of the airpassages”.

A list of items sent to the Surgeon General’s office included a portion the neck bone , voice box, part of a muscle, and wirz’s right arm.

The autopsy report is below


In a note in the file Dated November 14, 1865

Dr. I have the honor to forward to museum a section of the rope used in executing Herny Wiz on the 10th. Very Respectfully A. Allen.


The medical museum referred to was located at the Ford’s theater Between 1866 and 1887, the theatre was taken over by the U.S. military and served as a facility for the War Department with records kept on the first floor, the Library of the Surgeon General's Office on the second floor, and the Army Medical Museum on the third. In 1887, the building exclusively became a clerk's office for the War Department, when the medical departments moved out.

Wirz was subsequently buried naked at the grounds of the arsenal of the Old Capital Prison. His skull had been removed and a union soldier had it on display.  The wife and family of Wirz attempted to get his body for proper Christian burial but the War department refused. Wirz was buried with the remains of the Conspirators who shot Lincoln. Mrs. Surrat, Payne, Harold, Atzerodt and Booth.

Subsequently around 4 years later what was left of Wirz was reburied at Mount Olivet cemetery In DC. Mary Surrat was reburied there also.

 The following news article from the Cleveland, Ohio Leader news paper dated March 4, 1869 gave account of the facts of the reburial and pointed out that the Wirz family attorney Mr. Schade  stated that “President Grant gave him an order for the whole, and not a dismembered trunk.”

It would seem that approx. 150 years later that the remains of a veteran of the Confederate States of America should be properly buried. The need to keep Wirz's body parts as part of the autopsy report as evidence in his hanging has long since past especially because President Grant gave permission for the whole body to be reburied.

Recent news stories dealing with the bones of deceased soldiers and the desire to rebury their remains lends credence that Wirz's body parts be buried. A Fitting tribute would be for this to occur on the 150th anniversary of his hanging November 10, 2015.


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