They were called snatches, grabs, body snatchers,
fishermen, resurrection men... They were grave robbers, the professionals that supplied illegally obtained corpses to the thriving medical schools of America and Britain.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, few medical schools had access to significant numbers of legally obtained corpses for dissection. Without a steady supply of fresh bodies, the thriving schools had to turn to unlawful means of procuring "cadaverick materials."
Some schools required their students to provide their own materials for dissection, though most schools turned to professional grave robbers. Students were viewed as unreliable, and medical schools could not afford botched jobs leading angry mobs to their front doors.
There was no shortage of resurrectionists that answered the call. The combination of light penalties for those caught and the high demand for fresh materials started a boom in the body snatching biz. Though profitable, it was a dangerous life. Riots and lynchmobs were continual fears of both the grave robbers and the schools that employed them.
Robbers employed a number of tricks to obscure their trade. Bodies were often shipped out of state after they were procured to reduce the chance of identification or conviction. Potters fields were the easiest places to steal bodies. Prisons, hospitals, and almshouses were all subject to nocturnal prowlings.
With the advent of trains, bodies became much easier to transport to far off locations. They would be loaded into barrels marked "pickles" or "turpentine" to avoid detection. Corpses were often sent states away.
Once it was in their possession, students would burn the corpse's clothes, deface the body, and cut away any scars or identifying marks. Even if caught, anatomists and grave robbers could occasionally count upon some assistance from the local law, even if it only came in the form of a warning of impending vigilante justice. Usually medical students would have time to hide their corpses until the trouble had passed. Some schools kept elaborate systems of pulleys to lift corpses out of view during frequent searches by the populous.
Though the legal penalties for grave robbing were light, vigilantes occasionally handed out suspended sentences at the end of a rope. In 1788 a grave-robbing incident sparked a riot resulting in the sacking of Columbia University by over 5000 of the then total population of 28,000 people.
Eighty-five medical schools operated prior to the Civil War although only 3 states had passed so called "anatomy laws" providing legal corpses for dissection. These states were Connecticut (1824), Massachusetts (1831), and New York (1854). By the time New York passed its law, 600 to 700 bodies were disappearing annually from New York City alone.
Despite a lack of legal materials, as many as 5000 bodies were dissected annually throughout the 1870s. Even Harvard procured unlawful corpses as late as 1883. John Hopkins Medical School, which opened in 1893, could not acquire enough corpses annually to satisfy operating needs until 1898. By 1913, there were still 12 states that provided no legal means of acquiring bodies. It is believed that grave robbing came to an end in the United States by 1940.
Events in American Grave Robbing
1788, Columbia Medical School is sacked after an incident of grave robbing.
1859, students at the Winchester (Virginia) Medical College obtain the body of Owen Brown, son of abolitionist John Brown.
1876, President Lincoln is subjected to grave robbing and tampering for the purpose of ransoming. "Big Jim" Kinealy and his gang are thwarted by the Pinkertons.
Lincoln's coffin is later embedded in concrete to prevent further tampering.
1878, a Columbus, Ohio company begins to sell "torpedo coffins" with built-in pipe bombs set to explode when someone tampers with the grave. The sexton of Dundee sets off a similar device when he throws a shovel full of dirt on the coffin.
1886, Emily Brown, an elderly Baltimore alcoholic and drug addict is murdered by two men for the purpose of selling her body to an anatomist.
1902, a major body-snatching ring is uncovered in Indianapolis. Twenty-five people are indicted in the theft of over 100 bodies.
From the Grave of Ruth Sprague, d 1816. Maple Grove Cemetery, Hoosick Falls, NY:
Ruth Sprague, daughter of Gibson
And Elizabeth Sprague, died
Jan. 11, 1846, aged 9yrs., 4
Mos., and 18 days. She was
Stolen from the grave by
Roderick R. Crow & dissected
At Dr. P.M. Armstrong's office
In Hoosick, N.Y. from
which place her mutilated
remains were Obtained &
Her body dissected by fiendish Men
Her bones anatomized,
Her soul we trust has risen to God
Where few physicians rise.
Drimmer F: The Body Snatchers. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1992.
Isenson KV: Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies. Tuscon, AZ: Galen Press, Ltd, 1994.
Wilkins R: Death: A History of Man's Obsessions and Fears. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.