Body snatching was big business in the late 1700s and all through the 1800s, when medical schools couldn’t obtain enough bodies legally to dissect in anatomy labs. So along came body snatchers. Grave robbers. Sack ’em up men. The more elegant name for these ruffians was “resurrectionist.” They were crafty fellows, that’s for sure.
How Did They Do It?
They would enter a cemetery at night, dig up a freshly buried body, wrap it up, load it on a carriage of some sort, and haul it to an anatomy lab or the home of a physician. They would be paid for their product, and then disappear into the darkness.
Body snatching was not for the weak of heart. First, the ground above the body’s head and shoulders would be dug out. The coffin itself wasn’t dug up; snatchers were interested in leaving the ground as undisturbed as possible.
So they dug down to the head end of the coffin and broke open just that end of the coffin lid so that the head and shoulders were uncovered. Then they would loop a rope or, sometimes, a hook around the head or shoulders, and drag the body out.
They would then try to return the gravesite to its original condition, to avoid suspicion.
If anyone discovered a missing body, trouble could ensue, depending on whether the deceased was White and considered a respectable member of society. The bodies of homeless, poor, indigent, or Black people were pretty much fair game. Said one New Yorker of the time, “The only subjects procured for dissection are the productions of Africa …” and executed criminals, “and if those characters are the only subjects of dissection, surely no person can object.”
Let a “respectable” White body be stolen, though, as happened in April 1788 at New York Hospital, and all hell could break loose. A three-day riot arose that year when medical students dissected the body of a woman recently buried in a church cemetery. Ten or more people were killed in what came to be known as the Doctor’s Riot of 1788. Baltimore experienced a similar uprising in in 1807, though no deaths were reported.
Relatives of presidents were not immune from having their body snatched. In 1878 the body of William Henry Harrison’s son John, a congressman himself, turned up in a pickling tank at Cleveland Homeopathic Medical College. His body had been stolen from its grave and then dissected by medical students.
I’ll have more about body snatching, medical dissection, anatomy laws, and the Doctor’s Riot of 1788 in the weeks and months to come.