Ramblings & ephemera

A brief history of American bodysnatching

From Emily Bazelon’s “Grave Offense” (Legal Affairs: July/August 2002):

In December 1882, hundreds of black Philadelphians gathered at the city morgue. They feared that family members whom they had recently buried were, as a reporter put it, “amongst the staring corpses” that lay inside. Six bodies that had been taken from their graves at Lebanon Cemetery, the burial ground for Philadelphia’s African-Americans, had been brought to the morgue after being discovered on the back of a wagon bound for Jefferson Medical College. The cemetery’s black superintendent had admitted that for many years he let three grave robbers, his brother and two white men, steal as many corpses as they could sell to the college for dissection in anatomy classes.

At the morgue, a man asked others to bare their heads and swear on the bodies before them that they would kill the grave robbers. Another man found the body of his 29-year-old brother and screamed. A weeping elderly woman identified one of the corpses as her dead husband. According to the Philadelphia Press, which broke the story, to pay for her husband’s burial she had begged $22 at the wharves where he had once worked.

Medical science lay behind the body snatchings at Lebanon Cemetery and similar crimes throughout the Northeast and Midwest during the 19th century. By the 1820s, anatomy instruction had become central to medical education, but laws of the time, if they allowed for dissection, let medical schools use corpses only of condemned murderers. In their scramble to find other cadavers for students, doctors who taught anatomy competed for the booty of grave robbers—or sent medical students to rob the graves themselves. …

In the early 19th century, doctors were eager to distinguish themselves from midwives and homeopaths, and embraced anatomy as a critical source of their exclusive knowledge. In the words of a speaker at a New York medical society meeting in 1834, a physician who had not dissected a human body was “a disgrace to himself, a pest in society, and would maintain but a level with steam and red pepper quacks.” …

According to Michael Sappol’s recent book, A Traffic of Dead Bodies, Harvard Medical School moved its campus from Cambridge to Boston (where it remains) expecting to get bodies from an almshouse there. …

“Men seem prompted by their very nature to an earnest desire that their deceased friends be decently interred,” explained the grand jury charged with investigating a 1788 dissection-sparked riot in which 5,000 people stormed New York Hospital.

To protect the graves of their loved ones, 19th-century families who could afford it bought sturdy coffins and plots in a churchyard or cemetery guarded by night watchmen. Bodies buried in black cemeteries and paupers’ burial grounds, which often lacked those safeguards, were more vulnerable. In 1827, a black newspaper called Freedom’s Journal instructed readers that they could cheaply guard against body snatching by packing straw into the graves. In 1820s Philadelphia, several medical schools secretly bribed the superintendent of the public graveyard for 12 to 20 cadavers a week during “dissecting season.” He made sure to keep strict watch “to prevent adventurers from robbing him—not to prevent them from emptying the pits,” Philadelphia doctor John D. Godman wrote in 1829.

When a body snatching was detected, it made for fury and headlines. The 1788 New York riot, in which three people were killed, began when an anatomy instructor shooed some children away from his window with the dismembered arm of a corpse, which (legend has it) belonged to the recently buried mother of one of the boys; her body had been stolen from its coffin. In 1824, the body of a farmer’s daughter was found beneath the floor of the cellar of Yale’s medical school. An assistant suspected of the crime was almost tarred and feathered. In 1852, after a woman’s body was found in a cesspool near Cleveland’s medical school, a mob led by her father set fire to the building, wrecking a laboratory and a museum inside. …

In the morning, news spread that the robbers had been taken into custody. An “immense crowd of people surrounded the magistrate’s office and threatened to kill the resurrectionists,” the Press reported. …

The doctors got what they asked for. A new Pennsylvania law, passed in 1883, required officials at every almshouse, prison, morgue, hospital, and public institution in the state to give medical schools corpses that would otherwise be buried at public expense.

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