History of Body Snatching

Body snatching is the secret disinterment of corpses from graveyards. A common purpose of body snatching, especially in the 19th century, was to sell the corpses for dissection or anatomy lectures in medical schools. Those who practised body snatching were often called “resurrectionists” or “resurrection-men.” A related act is grave robbery, uncovering a tomb or crypt to steal artifacts or personal effects rather than corpses.

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who were sentenced to dissection by the courts were often guilty of comparatively harsher crimes. Such sentences did not provide enough subjects for the medical schools and private anatomical schools, which did not require a licence before 1832. While during the 18th century hundreds had been executed for trivial crimes, by the 19th century only about 55 people were being sentenced to capital punishment each year. However, with the expansion of the medical schools, as many as 500 cadavers were needed.

Interfering with a grave was only a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and was therefore only punishable with fine and imprisonment, rather than transportation or execution. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection, particularly as the authorities tended to ignore what they considered a necessary evil.

Body snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being violated. Iron coffins, too, were used frequently, or the graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes, well-preserved examples of which may still be seen in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh.
Visitors to the older Edinburgh graveyards must have noted their strange resemblance to zoological gardens, the rows of iron cages suggesting rather the dens of wild animals than the quiet resting-places of the dead.

One method the body snatchers used was to dig at the head end of a recent burial, digging with a wooden spade (quieter than metal). When they reached the coffin (in London the graves were quite shallow), they broke open the coffin, put a rope around the corpse and dragged it out. They were often careful not to steal anything such as jewellery or clothes as this would cause them to be liable to a felony charge.

The Lancet reported another method. A manhole-sized square of turf was removed 15 to 20 feet (5 to 6 m) away from the head of the grave, and a tunnel dug to intercept the coffin, which would be about 4 feet (1.2 m) down. The end of the coffin would be pulled off, and the corpse pulled up through the tunnel. The turf was then replaced, and any relatives watching the graves would not notice the small, remote disturbance. The article suggests that the number of empty coffins that have been discovered “proves beyond a doubt that at this time body snatching was frequent.”

During 1827 and 1828, Burke and Hare brought a new dimension to the trade of selling corpses “to the doctors” by murdering rather than grave-robbing and supplying their victims’ fresh corpses for medical dissection. Their activities, and those of the London Burkers who imitated them, resulted in the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832. This allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, and required the licensing of anatomy teachers, which essentially ended the body snatching trade. The use of bodies for scientific research in the UK is now governed by the Human Tissue Authority.

Body snatching in the United States of America
In the United States, body snatchers generally worked in small groups, which scouted and pillaged fresh graves. In general, fresh graves were best, since the earth had not yet settled and digging was easy work. The removed earth was often shoveled onto canvas tarp laid by the grave, so the nearby grounds were undisturbed. Digging commenced at the head of the grave, clear to the coffin. The remaining earth on the coffin provided a counterweight which snapped the partially covered coffin lid, which was covered in sacking to muffle noise, as crowbars or hooks pulled the lid free at the head of the coffin. Usually, the body would be disrobed–the garments thrown back into the coffin before the earth was put back into place.

Resurrectionists have also been known to hire women to act the part of grieving relatives and to claim the bodies of dead at poorhouses. Women were also hired to attend funerals as grieving mourners; their purpose was to ascertain any hardships the body snatchers may later encounter during the disinterment. Bribed servants would sometimes offer body snatchers access to their dead master or mistress lying in state; the removed body would be replaced with weights.

Although medical research and education lagged in the United States compared to medical colleges’ European counterparts, the interest in anatomical dissection grew in the United States. Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York were renowned for body snatching activity: all locales provided plenty of cadavers. Finding subjects for dissection proved to be “morally troubling” for students of anatomy. As late as the mid-19th century, John Gorham Coffin, a prominent professor and medical physician wondered how any ethical physician could participate in the traffic of dead bodies.

Dr. Charles Knowlton (1800–1850) was imprisoned for two months in the Worcester (Massachusetts) County Jail for “illegal dissection” in 1824, a couple of months after graduating with distinction from Dartmouth Medical School. His thesis (http://www.danallosso.com/Graverobbing.html) defended dissection on the rationalist basis that “value of any art or science should be determined by the tendency it has to increase the happiness, or to diminish the misery, of mankind.” Knowlton called for doctors to relieve “public prejudice” by donating their own bodies for dissection.

The body of Ohio congressman John Scott Harrison, son of William Henry Harrison, was snatched in 1878 for Ohio Medical College, and discovered by his son Benjamin Harrison.

Emerging medical schools
The demand for cadavers for human dissection grew as medical schools were established in the United States. Between the years of 1758 and 1788, only 63 of the 3500 physicians in the Colonies had studied abroad, namely at Edinburgh. Study of anatomy legitimized the medical field, setting it apart from homeopathic and botanical studies. Later, in 1847, physicians formed the American Medical Association, in an effort to differentiate between the “true science” of medicine and “the assumptions of ignorance and empiricism” based on an education without the experience of human dissection.

In 1762, Dr. William Shippen, Jr., founded the medical department of University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Shippen put an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette in November 1762 announcing his lectures about the “art of dissecting, injections, etc.” The cost was “five pistoles.” In 1765, his house was attacked by a mob, claiming the doctor had desecrated a church burying ground. The doctor denied this and made known that he only used bodies of “suicides, executed felons, and now and then one from the Potter’s Field”.

In Boston, medical students faced similar issues with procuring subjects for dissection. In his biographical notes, John Collins Warren, Jr. wrote, “No occurrences in the course of my life have given me more trouble and anxiety than the procuring of subjects for dissection.” He continues to tell of the difficulty his father John Warren had finding subjects during the Revolutionary War: many soldiers who had died were without relation. These experiences gave John Warren the experience he needed to begin his lectures on anatomy in 1781. His advertisement in the local paper stated the following: “A Course of lectures will be delivered this Winter upon the several Branches of Physick, for the Improvement of all such as are desirous of obtaining medical Knowledge: Those who propose attending, are requested to make Application as soon as possible, as the Course will commence in a few days. It was dated and signed: Boston 01/01/1781 John Warren, Sec’y, Medical Society.

Ebenezer Hersey, a physician, left Harvard College £1,000 for the creation of a Professorship in Anatomy in 1770. A year earlier, John Warren and his friends had created a secret anatomic society. This society’s purpose was to participate in anatomic dissection, using cadavers that they themselves procured. The group’s name was the “Spunkers”; however, speaking or writing the name was prohibited. Often the group used shovels to obtain fresh corpses for its anatomical study.

Harvard Medical School was established on November 22, 1782; John Warren was elected Professor of Anatomy and Surgery. When his son was in the college in 1796, the peaceful times provided few subjects. John Collins Warren, Jr. wrote: “Having understood that a man without relations was to be buried in the North Burying-Ground, I formed a party … When my father came up in the morning to lecture, and found that I had been engaged in this scrape, he was very much alarmed.”

Dr. John Warren’s quest for subjects led him to consult with his colleague, W.E. Horner, professor of anatomy at University of Pennsylvania, who wrote back: “Since the opening of our lectures, the town has been so uncommonly healthy, that I have not been able to obtain a fourth part of subjects required for our dissecting rooms.”

Warren later enlisted the help of an old family friend, Dr. John Revere (son of Paul Revere) to procure subjects for dissection. Revere called upon John Godman who suggested that Warren employ the services of James Henderson, “a trusty old friend and servant” who could “at any time, and almost to any number, obtain the articles you desire.”

Dr. John Warren attempted to set up a cadaver provision system in Boston, similar to the systems already set up in New York and Philadelphia. Public officials and burial-ground employees were routinely bribed for entrance to Potter’s Field to get bodies. In New York, the bodies were divided into two groupings–one group contained the bodies of those “most entitled to respect, or most likely to be called for by friends”; the other bodies were not exempt from exhumation. In Philadelphia’s two public burying grounds, anatomists claimed bodies regularly, without consideration. “If schools or physicians differed over who should get an allotment of bodies, the dispute was to be settled by the mayor–a high-reaching conspiracy that resulted in a harvest of about 450 bodies per school year.”

Race and body snatching
Public graveyards were not only sanctioned by social and economic standing, but also by race. New York was 15% black in the 1780s. “Bayley’s dissecting tables, as well as those of Columbia College” often took bodies from segregated section of potter’s field, the Negroes Burying Ground. Free blacks as well as slaves were buried there. In February 1787, a group of free blacks petitioned the city’s common council about the medical students, who “under cover of night…dig up the bodies of the deceased, friends and relatives of the petitioners, carry them away without respect to age or sex, mangle their flesh out of wanton curiosity and then expose it to beasts and birds.”

In December 1882, it was discovered that six bodies had been disinterred from Lebanon Cemetery and were en route to Jefferson Medical College for dissection. Philadelphia’s African-Americans were outraged, and a crowd assembled at the city morgue where the discovered bodies were sent. Reportedly, one of the crowd urged the group to swear that they would seek revenge for those who participated in desecration of the graves. Another man screamed when he discovered the body of his 29-year-old brother. The Philadelphia Press broke the story when a teary elderly woman identified her husband’s body, whose burial she had afforded only by begging for the $22 at the wharves where he had been employed. Physician William S. Forbes was indicted, and the case led to passage of various Anatomical acts.

After the public hanging of 39 Dakota warriors in the aftermath of the Dakota War of 1862, a group of doctors removed the bodies under cover of darkness from their riverside grave and divided the corpses among themselves. Doctor William Worrall Mayo received the body of a warrior called “Cut Nose” and dissected it in the presence of other doctors. He then cleaned and articulated the skeleton and kept the bones in an iron kettle in his office. His sons received their first lessons in osteology from this skeleton.

Public outcry
Graves of whites also were not safe: On February 21, 1788, a body of a white woman was taken from Trinity Church. A hundred-dollar reward was offered by the rector of the church for information leading to the arrest of grave robbers. In the Daily Advertiser, many editorial letters were written about the incident: one such writer named Humanio warned that “lives may be forfeit … should [the body snatchers] persist.” There was cause for concern: body snatching was perceived to be “a daily occurrence.” To assuage the outraged public, legislation was enacted to thwart the activities of the body snatchers; eventually, anatomy acts, such as Massachusetts Anatomy Act of 1831, allowed for the legalization of anatomy studies.

Prior to these measures allowing for more subjects, many tactics were employed to protect the bodies of relatives. Police were engaged to watch the burying grounds but were often bribed or made drunk. Spring guns were set in the coffins, and poorer families would leave items like a stone or a blade of grass or a shell to show whether the grave was tampered with or not. In his collection of Boston police force details, Edward Savage made notes of a reward offer on April 13, 1814: “The selectmen offer &100 reward for arrest of grave-robbers at South Burying-Ground.” Iron fences were constructed around many burying grounds, as well as deterrent to body snatchers. “Burglar proof grave vaults made of steel” were sold with the promise that loved ones’ remains would not be one of the 40,000 bodies “mutilated every year on dissecting tables in medical colleges in the United States.” The medical appropriation of bodies aroused much popular resentment. Between 1765 and 1884, there were at least 25 documented crowd actions against American medical schools.

Despite these efforts, body snatchers persisted. At City Hospital in New York, on April 13, 1788, a group of boys playing near the dissection room window peered in. Accounts vary, but one of the boys saw what he thought were his mother’s remains or that one of the students shook a dismembered arm at the boys. The boy, whose mother had recently died, told his father of the occurrence; the father, a mason, led a group of laborers in an attack on the hospital.

In order to control the destruction of private property, the authorities participated in searches of local physicians’ houses for medical students, professors, and stolen corpses. The mob was satisfied. Later, the mob reassembled to attack the jail where some of the medical students were being held for their safety. The militia was called, but few showed; this was perhaps due to the militia sharing the public’s outrage. One small troop was harassed and quickly withdrew. Several prominent citizens–including Governor George Clinton; General Baron von Steuben, and John Jay–participated in the ranks of the militia protecting the doctors at the jail. Three rioters were killed when the embattled militia opened fire on the mob, and when militia members from the countryside joined the defense, the mob threat quickly dissipated.

Body snatching in other countries

The practice was also common in other parts of the British Empire, such as Canada, where religious customs, as well as the lack of means of preservation made it hard for medical students to obtain a steady supply of fresh bodies. In many instances the students had to resort to fairly regular body snatching.

In Montreal during the winter of 1875, typhoid fever struck at a convent school. The corpses of the victims were filched by body snatchers before relatives arrived from America, causing an international scandal. Eventually the Anatomy Act of Quebec was amended to prevent a recurrence, effectively ending medical body snatching in Quebec.

In China there has been reports in 2006 of a resurgence in the ancient practice of ghost marriages in the northern coal-mining regions of Shanxi, Hebei and Shandong. Although the practice has long been abandoned in modern China, some superstitious families in isolated rural areas still pay very high prices for the procurement of female corpses for deceased unmarried male relatives. It is speculated that the very high death toll among young male miners in these areas has led more and more entrepreneurial body snatchers to steal female cadavers from graves and then resell them through the black market to families of the deceased. In 2007, a previously convicted grave robber, Song Tiantang, was arrested by Chinese authorities for murdering six women and selling their bodies as “ghost brides.”

In Cyprus, the former President Tassos Papadopoulos’s body was stolen from his grave on 11 December 2009.

In the 1530s while studying in Paris, Vesalius was accustomed to robbing the Paris graveyards with fellow anatomy pupils. Body snatchers in France were called “Les Corbeaux” (the crows). Violation of graves could result in a year’s imprisonment plus a stiff fine.

In Dublin, Ireland, the medical schools of the 18th and 19th centuries were on a constant hunt for bodies. The Bullys’ Acre or Hospital Fields at Kilmainham was a rich source of anatomical material as it was a communal burial ground and easily accessed. Soldiers attached to the nearby Royal Hospital were always on the alert for grave robbers mainly because many of their comrades were buried there. In November 1825, a sentry captured Thomas Tuite, a known resurrectionist, in possession of five bodies. When searched his pockets were found to be full of teeth–in those days a set of teeth fetched £1 (about £50 in 2011). Many other graveyards were targets of the medical students or those who made robbing graves their profession. The largest cemetery in Ireland, Glasnevin Cemetery, laid out in the 18th century, had a high wall with strategically placed watch-towers as well as blood-hounds to deter body snatchers.

The Netherlands
In The Netherlands, poorhouses were accustomed to receiving a small fee by undertakers who paid a fine for ignoring burial laws and resold the bodies (especially those with no family) to doctors.

Contemporary body snatching
There are also modern-day reports of body snatching, although this is very rare. One notorious case in the United Kingdom involved the theft of the remains of Gladys Hammond from Yoxall Churchyard near Lichfield in south Staffordshire. Mrs Hammond’s remains were taken by animal rights extremists who were campaigning against Darley Oaks Farm, a licensed facility that bred guinea pigs for scientific research. Mrs Hammond was the mother in law of one of the farm’s owners. After a four-year investigation by Staffordshire Police four leaders of the Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs campaign group (three men: Kerry Whitburn of Edgbaston, John Smith of Wolverhampton, John Ablewhite of Manchester; and one woman: Josephine Mayo of Staffordshire) were jailed for conspiracy to blackmail. The men received 12 years each and the woman received four years. The police said the conspiracy included the theft of Mrs Hammond’s remains, which were recovered by police following information given by one of the four.

In February 2006, Dr. Michael Mastromarino, then a 42-year-old former New Jersey-based oral surgeon and CEO and executive director of operations at Biomedical Tissue Services, was convicted along with three employees of illegally harvesting human bones, organs, tissue and other cadaver parts from individuals awaiting cremation, for forging numerous consent forms, and for selling the illegally obtained body parts to medical companies without consent of their families, and then sentenced to long prison terms. BTS sold its products to five companies, including Life Cell Corporation, of New Jersey, and Regeneration Technologies, of Florida.

There is still a demand for corpses for transplantation surgery in the form of allografts. Modern body snatchers feed this demand. Tissue such gained is medically unsafe and unusable. The broadcaster Alistair Cooke’s bones were removed in New York City and replaced with pvc pipe before his cremation. The director Toby Dye made the documentary Body Snatcher of New York about this case in 2010.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Georgian Era, real life tales, Regency era, Scotland, Victorian era and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to History of Body Snatching

  1. Lenora says:

    What a great post, such a lot of research must have gone into it! I was fascinated by the US and Racial angle – I’ve only ever read things about British grave robbers.

    A while back BBC did a History Cold Case episode on the body of a child which had been dissected and preserved. They discovered that the child was probably obtained by the medical school via body snatching as it dated to prior the change in the law in the mid nineteenth century – their reconstruction was quite moving.

    • Oooh, I would have liked to have seen this BBC show. Body snatching plays a major role in The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. It was my March 2013 release.

  2. RO says:

    Lovely article! I’ve been to Edinburgh last week and was told the story of the two Irish brothers William Burke and William Hare who were body snatchers in that city. They stole bodies in order to sell them to the (largely unknowing) University of Edinburgh, for science sake. You could see that some graves at Greyfriers graveyard were still covered with iron gates to prevent bodysnatching!

    • On Tuesday (May 14) I have a post scheduled about the Burke and Hare case. I am on the road promoting The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy and A Touch of Mercy. I have post scheduled through the latter part of June. The Burke and Hare case is fascinating. In America, there were lot of dissections that were taking place in medical colleges and thus a need for a lot of cadavers.

      Between 1865 and 1890 the number of medical schools in the US almost doubled. One of those which grew dramatically was the Cincinnat area. Cincinnati area medical schools competed with each other to offer practical experience to students. But bodies were not easy to come by. The Church objected, and many states only permitted the bodies of executed criminals to be used for dissection. And so really the only avenue for these schools to obtain cadavers was through the black market, in other words by doing business with grave robbers.

      In the 1870’s public concern about body snatching was at a fever pitch in Ohio in particular, because of a notorious incident. The body of John Scott Harrison, father of future President Benjamin Harrison, had gone missing from his grave. His body was discovered, dangling from a rope, down a dark shaft, at the medical college of Ohio provoking enormous outrage. It was particularly bad, because measures had been taken by the Harrison family to prevent this very thing from happening.

      From the Cincinnati daily commercial – written in 1878, just after Harrison’s body was stolen: “If cemented walls carefully and skillfully constructed, and vast weights requiring the strength of many men to lift, and hired prepaid watchman could not save their loved and honored parent’s grave from desecration and dishonor. What could?” Wow.

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