American Heritage Book Selection: The Body Snatchers


Since bodies were of no use for dissection purposes after advanced putrefaction had set in, the thefts had to be made when it was most dangerous to make them, that is to say, when the relatives of the deceased might still be on watch or making frequent graveside visits. Friends or relatives who could not watch a grave themselves or afford grave watchers, or whose loved ones were not buried in protected churchyards, would often place an object on or just below the surface of a freshly made grave, so that they could tell whether the earth had been disturbed. The medical students and their professors, therefore, took note of such objects and carefully replaced them so that relatives, who were naturally reluctant to have graves reopened anyway, would assume all was well and never learn of the theft.

Some of the wealthier students used a trick designed to avoid entirely the trouble and danger of an exhumation. They would hire a seasoned sailor from one of the ships in the harbor, pair him off with one of the older harridans from the red-light district between Columbia and St. Paul’s, and dress them both in mourning clothes. The sailor and the woman would then call at the almshouse where some unknown had just died and, with an appropriate show of grief, claim the body of their dear departed relative. If they succeeded in convincing the almshouse custodian (who might have been paid beforehand to be convinced), the trip from the almshouse to either Columbia or the hospital was only a matter of blocks.

An even easier method was to bribe one of the undertakers who served the poor or those buried at the public’s expense. The coffin would be interred with nothing in it but weights, and the body hidden. That night, or preferably the next morning, a heavy sack, packing crate, or barrel would be carted through the streets to a certain destination. And there were also gravediggers who, for a reasonable sum, would remove the body from a coffin and put it in a sack after the mourners had departed. They would then bury the sack close to the surface of the grave, ready for a quick removal by the students that night.

Unlike the professors, who found it distressing to have to resort to grave robbing and therefore did so as discreetly as possible, the students (or at least a few of them) did not take enough pains to cover their tracks—with the result that more and more bodies were discovered to be missing.

And Humanio’s letter in the Daily Advertiser seemed only to make them more daring in their escapades and more contemptuous of the public’s attitude.

Wrote one young “Student of Physic” to Mr. Childs in defense of himself and his colleagues:

Great offence, it seems, has been given to some very tender and well meaning souls by gentlemen of the medical department, for taking out of the common burying ground of this city bodies that had been interred there; one in particular, whose philanthropy is truly laudable, has obtained a place for his moving lamentations in your useful paper.

He then went on at great length to justify the robbing of graves (“Whence is skill in surgery to be derived?”) and then to abuse the writer of the letter (“Kind and generous Humanio … your head is too empty, and your heart too full … And to whom would Humanio call for assistance, should he snap his leg, or burst a blood vessel? Run, run [he would say] to that barbarous man who has dissected most flesh and anatomized most bones”).

Doctors Bayley, Post, and McKnight must have winced to see this unnecessarily abusive letter printed in the Daily Advertiser—and on the same day as an announcement which read:

100 Dollars REWARD
Whereas one night last week, the grave of a person recently interred in Trinity Churchyard was opened, and the Corpse, with part of the clothes, were carried off.—Any person who will discover the offenders, so that they may be convicted and brought to justice, will receive the above reward from the Corporation of the Trinity Church
—By Order of the Vestry Robert C. Livingston, Treasurer New York Feb. 21, 1788

With this theft from Trinity churchyard, the Negroes and poor whites found powerful allies, for the city’s most respected and influential families buried their dead there. Reaction against the students therefore spread, and since neither public petitions nor private pressure could move the Common Council to action, letters to the Daily Advertiser increased, along with its circulation.