A Short Bit: Graverobbing From Who?

Grave robbers, robbed graves and anatomy.

Eighteenth century grave with ornate cast iron cover, St. Mary and St. Chad parish Church , Brewood, Staffordshire, England

All Original Photography by http://vwcampervan-aldridge.tumblr.com

Eighteenth and Nineteenth century grave robbers had several nicknames assigned to them by the public, who was aware of the practice of grave robbing,including “night doctors,” “Sack-em-up men,” and “body-snatchers.” (“From Sacrilege to Privilege: The Tale of Body Procurement for Anatomical Dissection in the United States,” Raphael Hulkower, p. 24). 

However, professors of anatomy referred to grave-robbers as “resurrectionists.” This distinction signifies how the medical community thought about the questionable means of procuring corpses in contrast to the way the public perceived the retrieval of bodies by the medical community. 

The public’s opposition to human dissection was perceived as a major obstacle to improving medicine and the overall quality of care.(“From Sacrilege to Privilege: The Tale of Body Procurement for Anatomical Dissection in the United States,” Raphael Hulkower, p. 24).

The public went to great measures to protect graves from body snatchers: iron bars and fences, locked coffins, cemetery guards and large stones placed upon fresh graves (“From Sacrilege to Privilege: The Tale of Body Procurement for Anatomical Dissection in the United States,” Raphael Hulkower, p. 24).

The sanctity of the grave, however, was only extended to certain groups, mainly the white middle and upper classes and not for the marginalised. In 1827, the African American newspaper Freedom’s Journal suggested an economical defense against grave robbing:

"As soon as the corpse is deposited in the grave let a truss of long wheaten straw be opened and distributed in layers, as equally as may be with every layer of earth until the whole is filled up. By this method the corpse will be effectually secured:...the longest night will not afford time sufficient to empty the grave, though all the common implements of digging be used for that purpose" (Medical Apartheid, Washington, p. 127).

By the 19th century, certain states had passed laws requiring officials at every almshouse, prison, morgue, hospital and public institution to provide corpses to medical schools if the corpses would otherwise be buried at the public’s expense (“The Poor, Black and the Marginalised as the Source of Cadavers in United States Anatomical Education,” Halperin, p. 490) in order to prevent grave robbers from stealing corpses from the more “respected” cemeteries. 

The American public was well aware that graves were being robbed; one New Yorker wrote that besides executed criminals, “the only subjects procured for dissection [were] the productions of Africa...and if those [were] the only subjects for dissection, surely no person can object.” (“The Poor, Black and the Marginalised as the Source of Cadavers in United States Anatomical Education,” Halperin, p.490). 

The use of executed criminals’ bodies had previously fulfilled the needs of the anatomists but the late 18th and early 19th century saw the rise of medical dissections which quickly exceeded the supply of criminals’ bodies (“From Grave Robbing to Gifting: Cadaver Supply in the United States,” Tward & Patterson, p. 1183). 

Grave-robbing from the vulnerable and abandoned cemeteries compensated the discrepancy and from 1745 onward, the practice became rampant. The professors of medical universities would often only accept corpses that had not yet begun to decompose or were only in the early stages of decomposition. 

Grave robbery also provided an easy way to make money for those who were willing to take on the endeavor due to the high demand. The robbers themselves ranged from professional thieves, to tavern owners to medical students who were trying to procure a fresh body for their next lesson (“Body Snatching & Grave Robbing: Bodies for Science,” Highet, p. 419). 

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