The fifth chapter transports readers to a medical school in Boston, where Aloysius Stevens works at night as a grave robber to pay for his medical school expenses. At midnight, the other body snatchers, Carpenter and Cobb, come to get him. Cobb is not a fan of Stevens’, even though Stevens was not a rich student, unlike those from well-off Massachusetts families who were the majority at the school. It is risky work, though: the city has begun sending grave robbers to the gallows as punishment. The act of stealing bodies has also made the men closer. Cobb begins to warm to Stevens, even offering him a drink of liquor.
Anatomy was a relatively new field of study, and it had created a fierce demand for bodies. Rich medical schools outbid the poor ones for bodies, and there was a limited supply of legal ones. These “morbid paradoxes” (137) are simply part of Stevens’s life: he has to pay for his own cadavers as part of medical school. Placed in the expensive city, far from his mother’s home cooking back in Maine, Stevens needs the money from body snatching.
His boss, Carpenter, is an imposing figure: a huge Irish man with six children. His gang are mostly recruits from the saloon, and their competition for bodies is a scramble. Carpenter employed as many tricks as he could to increase the number of bodies he could sell. But eventually, these brazen ploys caught up with him. An outcry ensued, and law enforcement cracked down. So Carpenter turned to the theft and sale of black bodies, which no one looked after. Stevens himself doesn’t agree with racial prejudice, but he is an outlier. Both Carpenter, an uneducated Irishman, and his well-to-do fellow students, are racist. But death is an equalizer; the students dissected black bodies for the pursuit of science just the same.
The men arrive at their destination: a cemetery in Concord. The custodian lets them in for a fee and they begin to dig for bodies: four adults and three infants.
As Stevens digs, he is a body snatcher. In the morning, he will go back to his role as a medical school student.
Throughout The Underground Railroad, Whitehead alternates chapters from Cora’s perspective with brief flashbacks that tell the backstories of other characters. Readers have already come across the structure of the novel in the first and third chapters, telling the stories of Ajarry and Ridgeway respectively. Both those chapters bear directly on Cora’s life. Dr. Stevens’s story, however, appears disconnected from Cora. In the previous chapter, he appeared as the medical face of the government eugenics program, encouraging Cora to choose birth control. This chapter, however, tells the story of his work as a grave robber during medical school in Boston.
Whitehead chooses to include this seemingly disparate episode in the novel because it provides broader context to Cora’s story. First, the North is revealed to be a place just as racist as the South, disrupting the fantasy of escape to true freedom. Stevens’s classmates are virulently prejudiced, adherents of racist tropes related to the relative intelligence and characteristics of black people. In a cruel twist, black people’s bodies are simultaneously prized, as they are easier to steal from their graves and sell on the black market for anatomical studies and dissection. It seems Cora would not truly find freedom in the North after all. Thus this backstory alludes to a larger theme in the novel: the uncertainty or ambiguity of true freedom.
This chapter also provides further evidence of white complicity. This idea is in the third chapter, when Ridgeway’s father is described as being an instrument of the same slave system as a blacksmith that Ridgeway supports as a slave catcher. This chapter portrays Stevens as disapproving of racial prejudice, finding more similarities between poor, uneducated white and black men than between white men of different economic classes. Readers, however, just witnessed Stevens’s role as an authority figure in the South Carolina system of racist birth control measures. The views expressed in this chapter stand in sharp juxtaposition to his later role as a doctor. Thus the character of Stevens provides a chilling example of a white person who may not believe he is racist himself, but still is a direct participant in and enforcer of a racist society.
Stevens’s story also provides an example of yet another moral paradox faced by characters in The Underground Railroad. Cora has already faced difficult situations and taken clear action: she protects Chester from Terrance’s beating at her own risk, for example, and violently defends herself against a white boy’s attack. Ridgeway too is guided by his own twisted moral calculus in his work as a slave catcher. Now Stevens, too, faces “morbid paradoxes” every day, as he trains to save lives as a doctor while simultaneously stealing dead bodies to pay for tuition (136).