Emily Bazelon on 19th-century medicine's midnight invasion of the body snatchers.
In December 1882, hundreds of black Philadelphians gathered at the city morgue. They feared that family members whom they had recently buried were, as a reporter put it, "amongst the staring corpses" that lay inside. Six bodies that had been taken from their graves at Lebanon Cemetery, the burial ground for Philadelphia's African-Americans, had been brought to the morgue after being discovered on the back of a wagon bound for Jefferson Medical College. The cemetery's black superintendent had admitted that for many years he let three grave robbers, his brother and two white men, steal as many corpses as they could sell to the college for dissection in anatomy classes.
At the morgue, a man asked others to bare their heads and swear on the bodies before them that they would kill the grave robbers. Another man found the body of his 29-year-old brother and screamed. A weeping elderly woman identified one of the corpses as her dead husband. According to the Philadelphia Press, which broke the story, to pay for her husband's burial she had begged $22 at the wharves where he had once worked.
Medical science lay behind the body snatchings at Lebanon Cemetery and similar crimes throughout the Northeast and Midwest during the 19th century. By the 1820s, anatomy instruction had become central to medical education, but laws of the time, if they allowed for dissection, let medical schools use corpses only of condemned murderers. In their scramble to find other cadavers for students, doctors who taught anatomy competed for the booty of grave robbersor sent medical students to rob the graves themselves.
The study of anatomy laid bare an uncomfortable tension in 19th-century medicine. In the eyes of local communities, grave robbing turned doctors into vultures. Burial and respect for the dead mattered deeply to most Americansand still do, as we were reminded by the grief about the strewn corpses found at a Georgia crematory in February. Medical schools courted danger when they threatened the sanctity of burial and death. At the same time, they had an urgent, indisputable need for cadavers. Patients wanted to be treated by doctors who understood the body's inner workings, which could be learned only by studying a human corpse.
In the second half of the 19th century, the tension between tradition and science was eased by changes in the law. At doctors' urging, legislatures gave medical schools the "unclaimed" bodies of people without friends or family to bury them. As a committee studying the problem in England wrote in 1828, "giving up for dissection a certain portion of the whole" was the only way to "preserve the remainder from disturbance."
As often happens, though, the portion sacrificed was mostly black people and the poor. Unclaimed bodies were usually those of paupers, and body snatching
continued at African-American burial grounds like Lebanon Cemetery. The bad feelings churned up in the course of that history linger: To this day, medical schools would rather talk about almost anything than the provenance of the bodies their students dissect.
In the early 19th century, doctors were eager to distinguish themselves from midwives and homeopaths, and embraced anatomy as a critical source of their exclusive knowledge. In the words of a speaker at a New York medical society meeting in 1834, a physician who had not dissected a human body was "a disgrace to himself, a pest in society, and would maintain but a level with steam and red pepper quacks."
In fact, according to the Yale medical historian John Warner, the quality of anatomy instruction varied from school to school, and students didn't often apply the skills learned from dissection until surgery became important in the 1880s. Whether dissection courses were of great use or not, however, would-be doctors signed up for them by the hundreds as a mark of professional distinction. Historians say the demand helped fuel a surge in medical education: In 1810, there were five medical schools in the United States, in 1860 there were 65, and by 1890 that number had doubled.
Slavery gave Southern schools an edge in procuring bodiesmasters could sell themwhich schools used as a recruiting tool. In 1842, the Medical College of Louisiana promised incoming students that "subjects for dissection will be provided in any number free of charge." Meanwhile, schools in the Northeast and Midwest struggled to come up with the number of cadavers they needed. According to Michael Sappol's recent book, A Traffic of Dead Bodies, Harvard Medical School moved its campus from Cambridge to Boston (where it remains) expecting to get bodies from an almshouse there.
State and federal law plagued the efforts of anatomy programs to get cadavers. American statutes were modeled after British law, which since the reign of Henry VIII had allowed dissection only as an additional punishment for "the most heinous kind of criminal homicide." Ordering condemned murderers to be sent from the gallows to anatomy classes heightened the shame and humiliation of a conviction and a hanging. But the law didn't satisfy the demand for bodies: There weren't nearly enough condemned murderers to go around.
Anatomy enthusiasts often dismissed popular opposition as the product of small, superstitious mindsin the words of one medical gazette, a "notion for the times of ignorance and darkness." But the historian Ruth Richardson has pointed out that dissection was regarded as a punishment because it unleashed fears shared by nearly everyone.
While Christian theology teaches that the soul may be resurrected whether or not the body has been buried, it also calls for rituals designed to show respect for the bodies of the dead. People spent money on their own funeralssometimes all of their savingsbecause to be buried as a pauper symbolized "a failure of your life," Richardson writes. "Men seem prompted by their very nature to an earnest desire that their deceased friends be decently interred," explained the grand jury charged with investigating a 1788 dissection-sparked riot in which 5,000 people stormed New York Hospital.
To protect the graves of their loved ones, 19th-century families who could afford it bought sturdy coffins and plots in a churchyard or cemetery guarded by night watchmen. Bodies buried in black cemeteries and paupers' burial grounds, which often lacked those safeguards, were more vulnerable. In 1827, a black newspaper called Freedom's Journal instructed readers that they could cheaply guard against body snatching by packing straw into the graves. In 1820s Philadelphia, several medical schools secretly bribed the superintendent of the public graveyard for 12 to 20 cadavers a week during "dissecting season." He made sure to keep strict watch "to prevent adventurers from robbing himnot to prevent them from emptying the pits," Philadelphia doctor John D. Godman wrote in 1829.
When a body snatching was detected, it made for fury and headlines. The 1788 New York riot, in which three people were killed, began when an anatomy instructor shooed some children away from his window with the dismembered arm of a corpse, which (legend has it) belonged to the recently buried mother of one of the boys; her body had been stolen from its coffin. In 1824, the body of a farmer's daughter was found beneath the floor of the cellar of Yale's medical school. An assistant suspected of the crime was almost tarred and feathered. In 1852, after a woman's body was found in a cesspool near Cleveland's medical school, a mob led by her father set fire to the building, wrecking a laboratory and a museum inside.
Some states reacted to body snatchings by imposing prison sentences or heavy fines for grave robbing. But the laws left unaddressed the problem of supply and demand, and doctors began a campaign for the right to bodies that went unclaimed and so would otherwise be left for the state to bury. Their argument followed the utilitarian principles of the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who argued that sentiment about death and burial was misguided because a corpse's central meaning lay in its potential to aid the living. To Bentham, who willed his own body to the University of London, it was perfectly just to put the bodies of paupers to scientific use as a means of repaying their public debt. And if the threat of dissection induced the poor to struggle harder to support themselves, so much the better.
At first, the campaign for "anatomy acts" didn't achieve much. Three of the five new laws passed by states before 1860 were repealed soon afterward. But in 1854, New York's Bone Bill and, in 1867, Pennsylvania's Ghastly Act gave medical schools the cadavers they wanted. Over the next 50 years, many states followed suit. The exceptions were states without medical schools or those in the South, where the bodies of blacks who died in prison replaced slaves as a steady supply of cadavers.
Anatomy supporters like to end the story there, on a note of harmony between science and society. "That sounds good as a progressive story of historical change," historian John Warner says. "But it's nonsense." The 1882 body snatchings at Lebanon Cemetery illustrate why: The new laws sometimes didn't supply enough bodies, which sent doctors running back to the body snatchers.
Following up on a tip, Philadelphia Press reporters caught the Lebanon grave robbers driving their wagon out of the cemetery at 11:00 on the December night before the outcry at the morgue. The two white men, Frank McNamee and Henry Pillet, sat on the front seat. The black man, Levi Chew, rode in back on the oilcloth that covered the wagon's load.
Levi's brother, Robert Chew, confessed that the robbers had been stealing bodies for nine of the 11 years that he'd been Lebanon's superintendent. Chew said graves were opened at the head, coffins broken into, and corpses dragged out by a rope tied around the neck.
In the morning, news spread that the robbers had been taken into custody. An "immense crowd of people surrounded the magistrate's office and threatened to kill the resurrectionists," the Press reported. The mob moved to the courthouse with razors and pistols. The police held it back. The next afternoon, hundreds of African-Americans gathered for an "indignation meeting." The crowd raged at the Chew brothers, the other robbers, the trustees of the cemetery, and the "men of science" from Jefferson Medical College. "They set the plot [a]foot and used the men under arrest as pliant tools!" one minister shouted.
A week later, Frank McNamee confessed to having hauled bodies to Jefferson. He implicated Dr. William Forbes, the chief anatomist at the college. McNamee said that he had worked with Forbes for three years, and that the doctor had given him keys to the college so that he could easily make deliveries there. And he testified that Forbes knew that the bodies, for which he paid $8 each, came from Lebanon Cemetery.
Before a crowded courtroom, a jury of 11 white men and one black man convicted McNamee, Pillet, and Levi and Robert Chew. The men were later sentenced to ten years in prison. On the day of their convictions, Dr. Forbes was arrested.
At his own trial, Forbes denied the accusations against him. He told the jury that, while he had paid McNamee to haul between 110 and 150 bodies a year, he never asked where the corpses came from. Friends and colleagues testified to the doctor's good character. The jury acquitted him.
With the exception of the Press, Philadelphia papers celebrated his release. "The result of the trial of Dr. Forbes is precisely that which was expected by all fair and intelligent men," The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote. Forbes might have acted "ignorantly or unthinkingly," the North American said, but he did not deserve to be punished.
The press agreed that the real problem was the scope of the law. The 1867 Ghastly Act limited medical schools' right to collect bodies to corpses from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. During the 1881-82 school year, only 400 bodies had been supplied for 1,493 students. That was not nearly enough, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin said, because one body was needed for every two students. The Bulletin and other papers urged legislators to extend the law's coverage statewide.
A call by African-Americans for guards at Lebanon Cemetery had received no response"I haven't got the men," Philadelphia Mayor Samuel George King said. But doctors' calls for more cadavers gained strength. In a lobbying effort led by Dr. Forbes after his acquittal, doctors told lawmakers that they could not properly train their students without more bodies. And the "only proper method to supply this knowledge," a petition by the Philadelphia County Medical Society argued, was to use "the bodies of those who have not friends or relatives whose feelings could be wounded by their dissection."
The doctors got what they asked for. A new Pennsylvania law, passed in 1883, required officials at every almshouse, prison, morgue, hospital, and public institution in the state to give medical schools corpses that would otherwise be buried at public expense. Exceptions were made for bodies claimed by kin and those of travelers who died suddenly. But gone was a provision in the 1867 act requiring burial for poor people who had made the request before they died.
Today, most cadavers dissected at medical schools aren't unclaimed bodies. In the early 20th century, some of the biggest, best-known medical schools in the Northeast began to sign up people to donate their bodies to science. By 1950, donation programs had caught on at other schools. A shift in attitudes about religion and burial may have contributed to the success of these programs. Dr. Todd R. Olson, an anatomy professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, also points out that sick people started dying in hospitals more often than at home at about the same time that donations increased. In the hospital, patients were more likely to hear about "willed body" programs, he speculates, and perhaps felt more inclined to contribute to the training of future doctors.
This is another place for a happy ending: noble donors helping to turn grateful medical students into expert physicians. Body donation, proponents of anatomy class point out, benefits everyone. As a donor, you give something to your community"The Most Precious Gift," a current recruitment video calls it. You also save thousands of dollars on funeral expenses. Most schools will pick up your corpse for free if you live nearby and return your remains to your family or friends, cremated or in a box, after the dissection is over. And students can study your body confident in the knowledge that you, or at least your next of kin, agreed to let them.
But this ending also is too pat. Anatomy programs still don't like to say where they get their bodiesif you ask, they offer to send a brochure about willing your body and hang up the phone. Most have nothing to hide; abuses are now rare. But those that make news scare away potential donors. In March, a Miami funeral home was sued for selling a body to Lynn University, where students in mortuary science embalmed it in violation of the dead woman's Jewish faith.
Some anatomy programs may not want to talk because their cadavers still include unclaimed bodies. New York City, for example, has one of the highest concentrations of medical students in the world. Four schools located upstate ship extra bodies, when they have them, to the city's many anatomy programs. But those contributions usually don't make up the shortfall, so programs that need more cadavers take advantage of today's version of the 1854 Bone Bill. Of the 1,200 or so bodies used in New York State during the 1999-2000 academic year, almost 10 percent were unclaimed corpses from city morgues.
New York State allows medical, dental, and chiropractic schools to take cadavers 48 to 72 hours after death. But Dr. Olson, who chairs the Anatomical Committee of the Associated Medical Schools of New York, says the schools have learned that "exercising the law to the letter is not in anyone's interest." Bodies generally stay in the morgue for a week to give the police more time to find relatives. Even after they are taken to schools and embalmed, they are held for at least three months. "Four years ago, on the first day of anatomy class, a family appearedsix months after their relative had died," Dr. Olson says. "We didn't tell them 'Grandma Betty is on the dissecting table,' but we explained" what the body was doing there. "They wanted her back. We gave her back."
Doctors have rarely donated their bodies for dissection. Previous generations of anatomy teachers pushed students to prove their professionalism by suppressing the emotion they felt when confronting a cadaver. But feelings would often leak out in macabre jokes or pranks, like getting drunk and playing cards with a propped-up cadavernot the fate you'd wish for your own body.
Dr. Olson hopes that anatomy instruction is changing. He encourages his classes to think of their cadavers as their first patients, and to gather for a memorial service at the semester's end. The body snatchings at Lebanon Cemetery were not about that kind of humility: They marked the intersection of doctors' earnest pursuit of science and their arrogance.