The Tracy Family History
Gratiot Street Prison


Gratiot Street Prison, 1871

Colonel/Judge Samuel McDowell married Mary McClung (It is said at her wedding she was the prettiest girl in Virginia.)
They had a son...

John McDowell married Sarah McDowell (his first cousin), Lucy Le Grand (2nd wife) who produced...

Joseph Nash(e) McDowell, MD (1805-1886) Col., CSA, who married Amanda V. Drake


Joseph Nash(e) McDowell, famed surgeon


    This is about a cousin who was a rabid, fanatical secessionists and a believer in the Southern cause, especially the institution of slavery.
    Dr. Joseph N. McDowell (“...of Tennessee”) established a Medical College in St. Louis in 1840. He erected his medical building for the college in 1847, at the northwest corner of Eight and Gratiot Streets. Apparently it was a high quality, highly successful medical school. He is a brilliant physician and anatomists, a great orator who could mesmerize his students with powerful lectures.
    Our MD cousin was eccentric and designed his medical college like a fortress. It was three stories high. The building was peculiar, an odd thing to look at. It was the only medical school in the country with cannons sticking out from the portholes of the tower.
    He was strongly involved in politics on the pro-southern, pro-slavery side.
 At the beginning of the Civil War, St. Louis became a Union-controlled town. McDowell shipped all of his weapons in storage in the college building to Memphis and fled to Memphis with his two sons.
    The building was taken over by the military and used as a barracks. Then it is turned into a prison to hold the overflow of Confederate prisoners from the other prisons around the city. It is of the prison that is our story...and another story.
    It would be known as the Gratiot Street Prison, a Union POW prison for the “War in the West.” It held not just prisoners of war but political dissidents and spies as well, Order No 11 prisoners, and anyone who opposed the Union strong enough to draw attention. At one time, 1300 prisoners were crammed into the building. There was even a women’s section.
    There would be a series of major battles for the control of the Mississippi River, which would make General Grant famous. These battles would be called “The War in the West,” and would create a large number of prisoners of war.
    St. Louis was the westernmost location for the Union prison camps, and Gratiot Street Prison, the old McDowell Medical College, was the largest and most important. There were many escapes, and some executions.
    After the war, Dr. McDowell returned to St. Louis and continued his medical college at a different location. Within a few years the original college building was condemned and torn down.
    There is nothing left of this once famous medical school and Civil War prison. All that stands on the site today is the Ralston-Purina World Headquarters Building. (Actually, the parking lot.)

The Other Story:
    In Hannibal, Missouri, there is a famous cave discovered in 1820(?), which was purchased in 1840 by our Dr. McDowell. There he performs secret autopsies and experiments on dead bodies, including the body of his14-year-old daughter. Remember, our cousin is eccentric to an extreme.
    There grows up in the same town a boy who becomes Mark Twain. In 1876, he publishes The Adventurers of Tom Sawyer. Read the book and watch the movie closely and you will see the characters of Dr. Robinson and Injun Joe inspired by our Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell.
    Of course, in the book there is the famous cave. They need to rob graves for dead bodies for medical experiments. Because of the popularity of the book, the cave becomes instantly popular. (Jesse James visited in 1879.) In 1886, guided tours began, which last to this day. (Mark Twain Cave: summer 8am-8pm; April-May, 9-6; Sept.-Oct., 9-6; Nov. 9-4. Admission charged.)


Dr. McDowell was one of the nations finest surgeons and an excellent teacher.

He had an "an erratic temperament that approached insanity." He wore a breastplate of armor to keep his enemies from killing him.

He hated immigrants, Catholics and negroes.

One of his protruding canons was said to be from the pirate ship of the famed Jean LaFitte. He also stocked the school with muskets to hand out to the student in case of attack.           

He treated the poor for free.

The college had a museum with 3,000 birds and animals from North America.  Also on display were minerals, fossils and antiquities. Admission: 25 cents. Clergy and medical men entered for free.

Dr. McDowell introduced the art of grave robbing to St. Louis, body snatching. The bodies were needed for instruction. The doctor with take his student out for night raids on local cemeteries. Some residents were horrified at the rumors of what was going on a the college. Mobs would gather and attack the school. one time our cousin had his bear attack the crowd.

He converted from being a devout Calvinists to being a spiritualists.

Dr. McDowell died in 1868.


 Gratiot Street Prison Photo
   There are a few pages more on this story that can be found in the book, Portals to Hell, Military Prisons of the Civil War, by Lonnie R. Speer.

" are snatched off the streets and hurled into the dark prison cells of St. Louis and Jefferson City and never heard from again. Uncounted more were roused from sleep at night, dragged from their homes by Unionist death squads, and murdered before the eyes of their horrified families."
      --Thomas Goodrich, Black Flag, Indiana University Press

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