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The History of Body Snatching

© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved

body snatcher at work
Grave robbers, also known as body snatchers and "resurrectionists," were a bold bunch.

Though dating back to the time of the ancient Egyptians, dissection as a form of medical study was not common practice in the U.S. until the 1740s. It was during this decade that the University of Pennsylvania taught America's first formal anatomy course. While this ushered in the era of modern medical education, it also created a grim reality: the suddenly expanding need for cadavers outpaced the supply source.

A 1790 federal law allowed judges of murder trials to include dissection after execution as part of the sentencing. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) there weren't enough executed killers to meet medical colleges' needs.

New York broadened federal parameters to allow bodies of those hung for burglary and arson to be dissected. In the 1830s, Massachusetts became the first state to allow scientific use of unclaimed bodies of those dying in hospitals, poorhouses and prisons. By 1958, 44 states enacted laws allowing institutions teaching health sciences to receive and dissect unclaimed corpses. During the period between the mid-1740s and late 1800s, however, the fear of grave robbing was both widespread and justified.

In many cases, body snatching for purposes of scientific study was met with a wink and a nod by law enforcement. Most of the "resurrected" bodies were those of poor people whose families lacked influence or stature. But British writer Ben Johnson reminds the readers of his book, Digging in the Dark: A History of Yorkshire Resurrectionists, that grave robbing is not a victimless crime.

Each time a burial site was desecrated, Johnson points out, loved ones' fond memories of the deceased were destroyed. The pain was particularly sharp when corpses of children were removed from their graves - a hideous act that happened more frequently than most wish to imagine. In one case Johnson explores, not only was a father fractured by the death of his four-year-old-son, he lost his wife almost immediately thereafter. Learning that his precious child was stolen by resurrectionists shortly after burial surely only added incalculable misery.

Like their British counterparts, American college faculty were well-acquainted with professional resurrectionists whom they paid, at the turn of the 20th century, an average of $15 per body. Large cities with more than one medical college had a particularly high need for dissection corpses.

It was not unusual for medical students themselves to rob freshly dug graves. In 1896, two Dartmouth students pleaded guilty to charges of body snatching. One was fined $1,500; the other $2,000.

Like notorious English murderers/resurrectionists Burke and Hare (whom Johnson discusses in detail), some enterprising American body snatchers also took proactive measures to increase their inventory. In Cincinnati in the late 1880s, a husband, wife and daughter were killed for the specific purpose of selling their bodies for dissection.

John Scott Harrison
John Scott Harrison, shown with his distinctive long beard.

The most bold and disturbing American case of body snatching occurred in the spring of 1878. On May 25th, J. Scott Harrison, former Congressman and son of ninth president William Henry Harrison, died at his home in North Bend, Ohio. Recognizing the threat of grave robbery, the family buried him with utmost care. The grave itself was brick lined. A box was next inserted, into which the secured coffin was placed. A large slab was then laid over the top two-thirds of the grave, while a smaller slab covered the lower end of the coffin. Precautions even included the hiring of someone to stand guard for several days after the burial.

The family's fears, it turns out, were justified. During Harrison's interment, they discovered that the body of a relative, buried just days before, had been stolen from the family plot. The day after J. Scott Harrison's funeral, his son and grandson went to the Ohio Medical School looking for their cousin Augustus Devin, certain that this is where they would find his body.

A search of the school's fourth-floor dissecting room yielded nothing, but Harrison's son noticed an open shaft and within it hung a taut rope. Together the two men hoisted up the load only to make a shocking and gut-wrenching discovery: dangling by the neck was the corpse of the Honorable J. Scott Harrison, buried less than 24 hours earlier. He was naked and the long beard for which he was known had been hastily hacked away, but still easily recognizable.

The janitor of the Ohio Medical College was arrested, but the school faculty rapidly raised and posted his $5,000 bail. Shortly thereafter, the body of Augustus Devin (and 39 other corpses) was found in a vat of preservative at Ann Arbor, Michigan's medical school.

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The Harrison family filed suit against both colleges but, in June 1878, a grand jury failed to indict the schools on charges of complicity in the grave robbings. Regardless of the legal finding, the public was outraged.

Acknowledging the need for medical research, in 1881 the Ohio legislature passed the landmark Ohio Anatomy Law. This made it legal for medical schools to receive and utilize all unclaimed bodies for dissection and medical study. It marked the beginning of the end of the professional resurrectionists whose horrifying services were gradually replaced by legitimate means of supply. Yet while these new laws helped diminish the fear of grave robbing, it did little to spur acceptance of dissection.

Many, even in the 20th century, considered dissection (and cremation) synonymous with desecration of human remains. But, in the 1970s, a series of exposés of the funeral industry helped make the act of donating one's body to science far more acceptable. An FTC investigation revealed such troubling practices as price fixing, pre-burial swapping of expensive coffins for much cheaper ones, and funeral directors who retrieved and sometimes embalmed corpses before hospitals even notified families of the deaths of their loved ones. For many Americans, this presented a clear choice: either pay exorbitant fees and perhaps become the victim of a whole new breed of body snatcher, or let licensed medical colleges make use of loved ones' remains to create a better future for us all.

Today, it is no longer just the criminal element or financially disadvantaged whose bodies serve to advance medical science. And those who make this most unselfish donation are buried with the honor they deserve.