Grave Robbers and Dissection Labs: The Nightmares of 19th Century America.

January 26, 2016

Fearful of grave robbers, some families installed steel fences around the family graves.

We have all identified with “things that go bump in the night.” Generations of Americans have shared similar nightmares, mostly about fictional creatures, ghouls and monsters. Our nightmares are especially chilling when the ghouls show up in graveyards. Much of our pop culture has centered around the dark side of myths or legends: the vampires, ghosts, and the headless horsemen. The body snatchers, those shadowy figures lurking about in graveyards at night, have become entwined with these myths and legends. In the 19th century a generation of Americans were nervous, even anxious, when the topic of discussion was about grave robbing, some even saying they were “afraid to die,” because of what might happen to them afterwards. The creatures of the night, these body snatchers, were not mythical creatures. They were the subject of many nightmares and became The Boogeyman to an entire nation – – and they were real.

It was 1889, and one of the coldest of winters on record in the Washington, DC area. The Reverend John Leesdale, pastor of Queenstown Baptist Church, was distraught; more to the point, he was close to a nervous breakdown. His beloved wife had passed away, and then someone had done the unspeakable – and stolen her body from its grave. The news article about Mrs. Leesdale mentioned that a number of other graves had also been robbed recently in the area, and their remains had been traced back by the cemeteries to various medical colleges in the area. Mrs. Leesdale’s body was found by family members at Columbia College, as it was being “worked on” by four female doctors who were studying anatomy. The corpse had lain in the pickling vat for several days, before it was placed on the marble slab for dissection. No charges were filed with the police on any of the grave robberies, and their mutilated remains were re-interred.

Dissecting room at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, Pa. 1890
Dissecting room at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, Pa. 1890

This bizarre and disturbing series of events was a frequent occurrence at that time. The robbing of graves for medical research had been going on in Europe for nearly a century or more, before this nation began its own quest for modernization.
There were strong religious influences that prevented the use of donated corpses for dissection purposes. Mutilating a body, even a deceased one, was viewed as an affront to Christianity. There were exceptions, such as the corpses of executed killers, and the unclaimed bodies of the poor. For some unanswered reason, religious concerns did not extend to them.

Medical colleges needed more than the limited handful of cadavers delivered through these means. Medicine turned to the unsanctioned practices of body snatching, including the corpses of newly delivered babies. Fresh bodies, however, had a limited shelf life, so the demand and the competition amongst the gangs of body snatchers sometimes became fierce. In the year 1850 it is estimated that between 600 and 700 graves were opened and bodies stolen from the cemeteries of New York City.

First year medical students, University of Pennsylvania
First year medical students,
University of Pennsylvania

The demand for cadavers was so intense that in some cases “burking” occurred. Burking is the murder of an individual, usually by suffocating. If professionally done, the victim showed no obvious signs of death. The term was coined after an Englishman, William Burke, who was hanged in 1829 for suffocating an individual. The victim’s corpse was sold to a medical college.
Like the grave robbers, medical colleges had little to fear from the authorities, because stealing a corpse was not a chargeable felony. The law protected the stealing of the clothes and jewelry of the departed, but not the body. The corpse was viewed in the same way as the removal of the earth, leaves, or branches from a tree – and had no legal value or ownership. As long as the thief, or thieves, removed the deceased’s clothing and left it in the casket, and nothing else was taken, there was little to lose, and as much as $100.00 to gain. Using today’s currency rates that comes to approximately $3,000.00 per corpse. Medical colleges would pay on delivery, and ask no questons. The business of robbing graves was a lucrative one.

It was reported in a January 1880 edition of the “Richmond Times Dispatch” that over 40 corpses had been removed from Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. The article went on to describe the ghoulish scene: “the bodies had been dragged down the hill and a path had been worn.” The bodies had been placed in coal-oil barrels and transported by train “up north” to medical schools. The writer fell short in explaining the sources for the article, or if the bodies were recovered. What is known suggests a more sophiscated network of robbers, rather than a gang of thugs. It is also likely that a few of the cadavers were dropped off at the dissecting room of the Medical College of Virginia, located just down the street from the cemetery. The removal and disposal of 40 bodies clearly required planning, and it is doubtful if the corpses, or the grave robbers, were ever found.

The workplace of Body Snatchers.
The workplace of Body Snatchers.

A strong back, shovel, lantern, and a bottle of whisky to steady the nerves were the basic tools needed by the grave robber. New graves were preferred since the earth had not hardened, and made digging easier. A considerate body snatcher would even bring a canvas tarp with him on which to place the dirt, and so as to not disturb other nearby graves. The digging would begin at the head of the grave and go directly down and touch the coffin. There was no reason to uncover the entire casket since the lid opened from the head area. That was all that was necessary to free the lid up and then using their shovel, or a hook, the lid would easily snap open. The weight on the remainder of the casket held it in place while the body was pulled out.

It was not unusual for women to be part of the robber gangs. They sometimes played the part of a sympathetic relative and claimed the bodies of the dead at poorhouses. On other occasions, they attended funerals and pretended to be a friend of the deceased. Their ploy was simply to listen for any information that could present a problem for the grave robbing gang. Men were the body snatchers, but women were also known to act as lookouts, or to hold lanterns, while the men did their work.

Grave robbing has been around since the beginning of time. The thieves in the past were more interested in the valuables on the body, rather than the corpse itself. Advances in medicine parallel the rise in corpse stealing, but there is little doubt that a robber would pass up a chance to grab a jewel off a dead body, if possible. Driven to find the answers to questions that have challenged medicine for centuries, researchers, anatomists, and general physicians wanted only the body, and the fresher the better.

Here are several literary classics from the era that have portions of their work relating to body snatchers:

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – 1876, by Mark Twain. Injun Joe and Muff Porter are hired to murder Dr. Robinson and sell his body to a medical college.

The Tale of Two Cities – 1859, by Charles Dickens. The character Jerry Cruncher is a grave robber. He also works as a messenger and a porter.

“The Body Snatcher,” a short story written in 1884 ,by Robert Louis Stevenson. A surgeon employs several men to become grave robbers and supply him with their corpses for research. Later this short story was made into a motion picture (1945) starring Boris Karloff.

Frankenstein, 1818, by Mary Shelly. A character named Igor plays the part of a body snatcher.

Resources:

Washington Times. February 14, 1889
Death and Dying in America, by Andrea Fontana, Jennifer Reid Keene, pg 76.
Death and Dying in America, pg 77.
The Orangeburg Democrat, January 23, 1880

Additional readings:

Body Snatching: The Robbing of Graves for the Education of Physicians in 19th Century America , by Suzanne M. Shultz , 2005

Seeking the Cure: A History of Medicine in America, by ira Rutkow, 2010