Today’s Disinterred Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
In the 19th century, medical students were sometimes expected to help procure the cadavers used for dissection (and one Detroit student paid his way through medical school in the 1870s as a resurrectionist). But in places where the traffic in dead bodies was extensive, professional resurrectionists largely took over. In a well-organized system, informers – undertakers, graveyard caretakers, doctors who had attended a patient during a terminal illness – would tip off the resurrectionists to promising burials. One Nashville resurrectionist who was vigorously active from the 1890s to the 1920s recalled that grave robbing typically required three men, a wagon, and an hour of labor. Under moonlight or shaded lanterns, they would locate the grave, dig open the top half, break the head of the coffin, and pull out the corpse by a hook or a rope around the neck. They stripped the cadaver and threw the clothing that would have been incriminating back into the coffin, stuffed the body into a sack, and refilled the grave. A careful grave robber replaced any stones, sticks, or flowers placed by the family to detect disinterment. Sometimes caretakers of potter’s fields, almshouses, and prisons sold the bodies before they were interred.
In tight markets, grave robbers might promise no more than “the first material that dies in getting distance,” but in more lush times they might take standing orders for a steady supply of “good subjects well-packed.” There was also a brisk export trade, an interstate commerce in stolen bodies packed in barrels of sawdust and alcohol, ranging from small shipments among midwestern states to the instance of a northern school that in 1911 was furnished entirely by black bodies disinterred from southern graves. Whatever the source, it was important that deliveries be shielded from public sight, or else, as one anatomist warned, “there will be an unnecessary exposure to the gaze of the curious, or even to the passer-by of what is naturally revolting to the sight of every one, and at times it may be the cause of more or less public comment, excitement or even assault and riot.”
Morbid Trinket Du Jour!
Speaking of resurrectionists, I picked up a couple most excellent pillows at World Market the other day for $19.99 each. Aren’t they lovely? Of course, this is year-round decor, not “Halloween” decor. 🙂