American Heritage Book Selection: The Body Snatchers

At about the same time that Humanio’s letter appeared in the Daily Advertiser, the newspapers were also carrying notices about the anatomy lectures being offered by Doctors Bayley and Post. It therefore did not take an unduly suspicious public to link the lectures with the stealing of dead bodies from the city’s graveyards. Despite common agreement that the study of anatomy was absolutely necessary for medical men, the attitude of the Negroes toward grave robbing was shared by the general public. Among rich and poor alike, post-mortem dissection was considered a great indignity. The ironical result was that surgeons were criticized for want of skill and castigated for trying to develop it.

Even if New York had followed the lead of Massachusetts and enacted a law giving the surgeons the bodies of those killed in duels and those executed for killing another in a duel (Massachusetts had passed such an act in 1784, more to discourage dueling than to help the study of anatomy), the supply of bodies would still have been inadequate to the needs of the professors and their students. What doctors needed was a law giving all the city’s unclaimed bodies to Columbia College and other authorized anatomy schools, but this the lawmakers, aware of the temper of the people, refused to pass. The only legal way to dispose of a dead body, therefore, was to bury it. Once buried, it could not be exhumed—except by consent of the relatives—without committing an indictable offense against the common law.

This impasse left the professors with three choices: They could abandon the teaching of anatomy altogether and thereby stunt the growth of American surgery; they could teach theory and send their students out to practice on live patients; or they could obtain bodies surreptitiously. In the British Isles, medical schools were kept supplied with anatomical subjects by professional body snatchers—resurrectionists. These men were usually criminals anyway, and sometimes even murderers, who stole bodies recklessly and often fought skirmishes over them within graveyard walls. In America, in the years immediately following the Revolution, the professors eliminated the middleman by stealing bodies themselves—at first so discreetly that they did not arouse the public’s attention.

The trouble started when anatomy students advanced to the stage when a practical acquaintance with the human body required that they do the dissecting themselves. Were the professors to go out and steal bodies for their students at an increased tuition rate? Or were they, as in England and Scotland, to find resurrectionists to do the stealing for them and defray the cost by raising the laboratory fee? As it worked out in New York in the late 1780s, a do-it-yourself method came into use, as it had in England and Scotland before resurrectionism became a business: each student was expected to obtain his own bodies to dissect, just as he was expected to obtain his own paper and quills and books.

The compactness of the city at the time, the way the graveyards were tucked here and there in nooks and corners all over town, the general lawlessness following the war, and the ineffectiveness of the city watch (forty-odd men with clubs who guarded the city at night) were to the advantage of the students. Potter’s field and the Negro burial ground were adjacent to each other in the upper reaches of the Fields, a triangular plot of ground now the site of City Hall Park. This meant that medical students from both Columbia and the New York Hospital classes were only a few blocks from the city’s two least guarded and least respected burial grounds. Not only that, but since several paupers were often buried in a single grave, more bodies were usually obtained in less time here than in a churchyard, where it was unusual for more than one person to be buried on the same day.

The students naturally carried on their activities after dark, especially on moonless nights when the city’s only illumination came from whale-oil lamps set atop posts in the street. These were few and far between, and so poorly trimmed and cleaned that instead of giving off a full body of light they “barely made the darkness visible.” On moonlit nights, and on nights when the moon was expected to appear, the lamplighters took the evening off and didn’t light the lamps at all. When a cloud obscured the moon, the danger to the students was not so much in being seen as in colliding with one of the posts in the street, falling over a pig or a goat, being attacked by ruffians in an alley, or literally tripping over a bereaved relative or someone hired to guard a grave.

In most cases, because the soil above a fresh grave was loose and the students worked in relays at top speed, it took only about an hour to uncover a coffin, remove the corpse, and restore the earth to its former position. Rocky or pebbly soil had to be removed with wooden shovels to avoid the noisy scraping of metal against stone. If the time of night or the state of the moon made a speedier operation essential, a hole was dug only to the head of the coffin and only enough of the lid was broken off to drag the body out. In either case, the corpse had to be disrobed and the clothes returned to the coffin before the grave could be refilled and an escape made. The clothes and the coffin, if not the body, belonged to the heirs or relatives, and to take them would be stealing.