Body snatching is the secret disinterment of corpses from graveyards or other burial sites. 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 practiced 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). During the 18th century hundreds had been executed for trivial crimes, but by the 19th century only about 55 people were being sentenced to capital punishment each year. With the expansion of the medical schools, however, as many as 500 cadavers were needed annually.
Interfering with a grave was a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and therefore only punishable with a 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.
Mort houses, such as the circular Udny Mort House in Aberdeenshire built in 1832, were also used to store bodies until decomposition, rendering the cadavers useless for medical dissection.
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.
In the United States, body snatchers generally worked in small groups, which scouted and pillaged fresh graves. Fresh graves were generally given preference since the earth had not yet settled, thus making digging easier 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.
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 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 John Harrison, brother of President Benjamin Harrison.
Large, gated, centralized cemeteries, which sometimes employed armed guards, emerged as a response to grave-robbing fears. Gated, "high-security" cemeteries were also a response to the discovery that many old urban and rural burying grounds were found to be practically empty of their human contents when downtown areas were re-developed and old pioneer cemeteries moved, as in Indianapolis.
Use in 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 the University of Edinburgh Medical School. 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, William Shippen Jr. founded the medical department of University of Pennsylvania. 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."
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, 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."
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 the 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 each took some for himself. 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.
Graves of whites were also 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 a 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, known as the Doctors' Riot.
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.
In Tasmania, the bodies of William Lanne and Truganini, considered at the time to be the last Aboriginal Tasmanians (Palawa), were both exhumed from their graves. Lanne's head, hands and feet were removed illegally by surgeon William Crowther and members of the Royal Society of Tasmania before he was buried, and the rest of his body was stolen after his burial. Truganini, who outlived Lanne by several years, had wished to avoid his fate and expressly asked to be cremated, but was buried anyway. The Royal Society of Tasmania exhumed her body and put it on display.
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 stolen 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 were 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 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.
For over 200 years, the city of Calcutta, in the north-eastern region of India, has been known to be the center of a network of bone traders who remove skeletons from graveyards in order to sell them to universities and hospitals abroad. In colonial times, British doctors used to hire thieves to dig up bodies from Indian cemeteries. Despite changes in laws, a similar process is going strong today. According to journalist Scott Carney, historically members of the Domar caste, who traditionally performed cremations, were pressed into service processing bones; skeletons were exported from India to be used in anatomy classes worldwide. In the 1850s, Calcutta Medical College processed 900 skeletons a year, but mostly for shipment abroad. A century later, a newly independent India dominated the world market for human bones.
At their height, in the early 1980s, Calcutta's bone factories took in an estimated $1 million a year by digging the graveyards of West Bengal after the mourners had left. In 1985 the Indian government banned the export of human bones after human rights groups raised questions about how the bones were being collected and pointed towards the greater need for institutions to obtain informed consent before remains were used for medical research. However, the human organ trade was only forced underground.
The Indian government banned the export of human remains in the mid-1980s, but body snatching is still thriving, even if secretly, in many parts of the country as a result of ineffective laws and poverty.
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.
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
Rare reports of body snatching continue to occur. One notorious case in the United Kingdom involved the removal of the remains of Gladys Hammond from Yoxall Churchyard near Lichfield in south Staffordshire. Mrs Hammond's remains were taken by animal rights activists 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 removal of Mrs Hammond's remains, which were recovered by police following information given by one of the four.
In February 2006, 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 gained in this way 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 a documentary titled Body Snatcher of New York about this case in 2010.
Though it banned the export of human remains in the mid-1980s, India continues to maintain a robust, if under the table, international trade in human skeletons, as journalist Scott Carney indicates
In 2007, the Indian police discovered a stash of hundreds of human skulls and thigh bones and arrested a gang for allegedly carrying out the practice of body snatching and indulging in bone trade. This gang was arrested after they exhumed dozens of graves from Muslim cemeteries in Burdwan district, and smuggled the skeletons not just to medical institutions in need of cadavers across the world, but more interestingly this time, to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan for use in Buddhist monasteries. Kamal Sah was caught carrying 67 human skulls and 10 bones on a bus in Chhapra, in the state of Bihar, by fellow passengers who had noticed a jagged bone sticking out of a bag beneath his seat. The investigating officer of the incident, Ravinder Nalwa, reported to a Reuters journalist that, "during the interrogation the gang members confessed that the hollow human thigh bones were in great demand in monasteries and were used as blow-horns, and the skulls as vessels to drink from at religious ceremonies."
Buddhist monks in India likewise admitted that human thigh bones and skulls were used by followers of a Tibetan school of Buddhism. Another report in the newspaper, The National,reported in 2009 how the alleged bone smuggler, Kamal Sah, was caught with two bags of human skulls and bones in Bihar state, who was identified by the civilians and handed over to the police. When questioned on the subject, the police refused to acknowledge the authorities failure to stamp out the practice and simply claimed that the police lacked "equipment, manpower and expertise to stop this practice". The criminal lawyer, Majid Menon, acknowledges that the dire economic conditions for vast numbers of people living in such states as Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and some parts of Uttar Pradesh, have favored the practice of body snatching till date and given room for bone smugglers to flourish.
According to estimates, 20,000-25,000 human skeletons are smuggled out of India every year through Nepal, China, and Bangladesh. The skeletons reach markets in the US, Japan, Europe and the Middle East, mostly for medical institutions. The price for a complete the skeleton in these markets ranges from $700 to $1500 depending on the quality and size. In India, a full skeleton costs around $350 in the open market.Young Brothers, a Calcutta-based bone dealer, sells a human skeleton for $300. While the complete skeletons mostly find their way to medical laboratories mostly in the West, the assorted bones and skulls are used for religious rituals mostly in Hindu and Buddhist-dominated areas. As part of their tantric rituals, many tantrics drink wine in human skulls in places such as Nepal and the state of Assam in India.
And even though till date police have been unable to unearth any irregularity in the skeleton trade, the exporter-turned-moralist, Sanker Narayan Sen, maintains that the people from the Domar caste are often responsible for body snatching and later process the procured cadavers for export.The Government of India had twice earlier banned exports, only to revoke its decision on each occasion. According to the Exporters Association, the CBI, in 2014 had once again recently concluded its investigations and submitted a report exonerating such body snatchers and exporters.
In popular culture
- A famous short story by Robert Louis Stevenson is "The Body Snatcher", adapted into a film starring Boris Karloff.
- H. P. Lovecraft wrote of body snatchers in his novels The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and Herbert West–Reanimator.
- In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe takes the opportunity to murder Dr. Robinson when he and Muff Potter are hired by him for body snatching.
- In Jonathan L. Howards novel Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, the eponymous protagonist practices body snatching.
- In Charles Dickens's novel, "Tale of Two Cities", Jerry Cruncher works as a "resurrection man" in addition to his work as a porter and messenger at Tellson's Bank.
- The Pet Shop Boys' song "The Resurrectionist" appeared as a bonus track on "I'm with Stupid", the first single from their 2006 album Fundamental. The track is inspired by the book The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London by Sarah Wise. (See London Burkers.)
- The second track on Radiohead's 2007 album In Rainbows is titled "Bodysnatchers".
- In the film The Doctor and the Devils, Timothy Dalton plays an anatomist who runs Edinburgh's School of Anatomy in the 19th century.
- In the film I Sell the Dead, Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden play two men who make a living stealing and selling corpses.
- In the 1985 novel "The City of Joy" written by French Author and Fulbright Scholar, Dominique Lapierre, one sees how in order to pay for his daughter’s wedding, the dying rickshaw driver sells his bones for science. Hours after demise and before properly mourned, bone traders come to collect his bones.
- The 9th track of leATHERMØUTH's album XØ is titled "Bodysnatchers 4 Ever", and it talks about a man and his lover taking fresh bodies and somehow using them to live forever.
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- Richardson, Ruth (2001). Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Contains excellent information regarding the Anatomy Act and the Resurrectionist's influence upon the urban poor.
- Roach, Mary (2003). "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers". Contains humorous information regarding the study of anatomy before the Anatomy Act.
- Rosner, Lisa (2010). The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh's Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-4191-6.
- Sappol, Michael (2002). "A traffic of dead bodies": Anatomy and embodied social identity in 19th-century America. Discusses death practices, role of dissection in medical professionalization and science, changes in the law concerning the disposition of bodies, riots against medical schools, popular anatomical texts, popular anatomical museums. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-11875-8.
- Wise, Sarah (2004). The Italian boy: a tale of murder and body snatching in 1830s London. New York: Metropolitan Books. ISBN 0-8050-7537-2.
- In the collection of the Wellcome Library: Thomas Williams, John Bishop and James May, murderers: miscellaneous papers relating to murder of persons in Smithfield area and sale of corpses for dissection. 1831. (MS.7058).
Media related to Body snatchers at Wikimedia Commons
- Injunction: Stolen body burial blocked by executor of will, March 6, 2008, New Zealand Herald
- Echoes of the Scottish Resurrection Men
- Richmond, Virginia's Resurrection Man at Virginia Memory