THE BLOG

Medical Knowledge Used to Depend on Grave Robbing

08/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Kate Kelly Author, 'Election Day: An American Holiday, an American History'

Last week's chilling discovery that bodies within Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois were routinely being dug up and moved so that the burial plots could be sold again offers an opportunity to remind Americans that it was only two hundred years ago that "resurrectionists" would routinely raid cemeteries in order to provide cadavers for dissection classes in medical schools.

Those who made their living procuring bodies usually started at the poorhouse. Sometimes they would send young women as mourners who would arrive at the almshouse and claim the body of their newly deceased "relatives." Bribes to staff members--no fake mourner involved--were also successful at gaining access to unclaimed bodies not yet been put in the ground. If these methods did not provide enough cadavers to fill local needs, then resurrectionists paid off public officials or burial ground employees so that they could gain access to potters' fields and other cemeteries.

In any of the burial grounds, stealth was necessary in order to avoid getting caught by family members and cemetery employees who had not been bribed. The men dug quickly and used wooden spades to prevent the clanging sound of a metal one. The grave robbers mastered the art of unearthing just one end of the coffin and then they used a crowbar to pry open the top half of the lid (the weight of the earth on the other end of the coffin lid helped them snap the lid off). A rope was then put around the body so it could be dragged out. Resurrectionists prided themselves on leaving clothing and jewelry behind. Body snatching was only a misdemeanor; thievery of the belongings upgraded the crime to a felony.

Body snatching presented a terrible problem for the families of the deceased. They commonly set up watch over the body until burial, and later, relatives would take turns watching over the grave for a few days to be certain it was not dug up afterward. However, watching the grave was not foolproof. Some of the body snatchers were quite artful, and they devised a way to tunnel in to a recent grave after digging a hole a distance 15-20 feet away. The end of the coffin was then removed and the corpse was pulled out through the tunnel.

Medical students were often responsible for procuring their own bodies, and documents left by the students indicate that the procurement of bodies was actually quite stressful. One fellow wrote: "No occurrences in the course of my life have given me more trouble and anxiety than the procuring of subjects for dissection." With his friends at Harvard, this fellow, John Collins Warren Jr., created a secret anatomic society in 1771 called Spunkers, whose purpose was to conduct anatomic dissections.

In England the first law that was somewhat helpful in delivering bodies for use by medical students was the Murder Act of 1751, and it stipulated that the corpses of executed murderers could be used for dissection. By the 1820s the United States was beginning to legislate that unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives could be used for study of anatomy. These changes began to reduce the practice of body-snatching.

The situation in Illinois today is totally regrettable, and while family members will likely have the satisfaction of knowing the criminals were caught, they will never know what happened to their loved ones. And this time, it didn't aid medical progress.