Today’s Clandestine Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
In some states, during the 19th century, there was no legal means to obtain or to dissect a cadaver in medical school. In Georgia, for example, human dissection itself was illegal before 1887, which meant not only that cadavers at the Medical College of Georgia had to be obtained surreptitiously, but that the dissected remains also had to be disposed of in a clandestine fashion. Recent analysis by forensic anthropologists of bone fragments discovered burned in the school’s basement revealed the skeletal remains of some two hundred to four hundred individuals. 79% of them African Americans, roughly double the proportions of blacks in Augusta’s population during the height of this covert practice. In Washington, D.C., until the mid-1890s there was no way other than grave robbing to provide bodies to the city’s four medical schools, all of which required dissection for graduation. In Tennessee, grave robbing for dissection continued through at least the 1920s. Vanderbilt anatomists made informal arrangements with state institutions for the transfer of the unclaimed dead, but legislation giving the bodies of the indigent poor to the state’s medical schools was not passed until 1947.
Public officials and civic leaders were inclined to look the other way so long as resurrectionists kept to what one anatomist in 1896 called the “prudent line of stealing only the bodies of the poor.” What sparked agitation for laws generally were incidents in which resurrectionists exhumed and sold the wrong kind of body. Dissection riots erupted in New York as early as 1788, New Haven in 1924, and nearly two dozen other cities before the end of the century. In each case incited by the discovery of a stolen body whose class, race, family, or social standing made their corpse out of place among the company of the dissected. “Bodies necessary for the instruction of medical students must be stolen,” the New York Times quoted the dean of an Ohio school in 1878, who noted that troubles arose when grave robbers became “unscrupulous… as to [the] cemeteries invaded.”
In 1878, for example, John Harrison discovered his father’s body – suspended by a rope around the neck – in the dissecting room of the Medical College of Ohio. John Scott Harrison, the deceased, was a former congressman and son of President William Henry Harrison, and the theft of his body from its mausoleum in a respectable cemetery was decried by newspapers across the nation. It was, as the minutes of a hastily called meeting of the medical school faculty (faced with grand jury scrutiny) put it, an unfortunate and highly public “excitement”.