'Resurrectionists' stealing a corpse from a cemetery to be sold for anatomical study and dissection, circa 1840. Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Image Source: Roots Unearthed Wiki.
It's hard to find a creepier overlap between science and superstition than Resurrectionists. When medical science needs human bodies for research and study, sometimes the demand was - and is still! - met through grave robbing and body snatching. That reality is unsettling enough. But Resurrection Men, as organ thieves, body snatchers and grave robbers are called, have also inspired superstitions and urban legends. This is an example where scientists, rather than being the voices of reason to counter the credulous, created the bogeymen.
It's an ugly history. The popular fear that doctors walked the line between medicine and violent crime is very much alive in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1882), which you can read online here. The story focuses on Jekyll's split personality. But in the film adapation of a novel that retells the story from the point of view of Jekyll's servants, Mary Reilly (1996), Hyde is engaged in procuring bodies and body parts for medical study.
In 18th and early 19th century Britain, the only legal supply of bodies for med schools were the corpses of executed murderers. But the number of executions declined as punishments became less extreme. As a result, doctors and their students turned to criminals. Because body-snatching was not a felony and punished only with fines and imprisonment, it grew rampant around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Wiki: "Body snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being violated. Iron coffins, too, were used frequently, or the graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes."
The most famous story concerns the Burke and Hare serial murders of 17 people in Scotland in 1828; these people were killed to supply cadavers for dissection at Edinburgh's Medical College. Burke and Hare entered the popular imagination not only because their method of killing enered the English language - 'to burke' means to murder without leaving any traces, usually by smothering the victim. They also terrified people because grave robbing for medical purposes had evolved into 'anatomy murders.'
Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief
Knox, the man who buys the beef.
Image Source: Kate Jonez.In the United States, women were hired to pretend to be grieving relatives, who could claim bodies at hospitals, or pose at funerals to assess the ease of later robbing the burial site. There are plenty of records of eminent physicians at America's top medical schools who had a great deal of trouble and anxiety about the problem of procuring specimens for anatomical study. They were almost always drawn into the underworld - literally and figuratively! - to meet their needs. Harvard Medical School, established in 1782, had as its first Professor of Anatomy and Surgery Dr. John Collins Warren. He wrote to colleagues about his difficulties in attaining bodies. His correspondents concurred, complaining of the uncommon health of the people in the town, and the lack of deaths. Finally, word came through the friend of a friend that the issue could be solved. But these solutions were always on the shady side. Wiki: "Warren later enlisted the help of an old family friend, Dr. John Revere (son of Paul Revere) to procure subjects for dissection. Revere called upon John Godman who suggested that Warren employ the services of James Henderson, 'a trusty old friend and servant' who could 'at any time, and almost to any number, obtain the articles you desire.'" Body snatching for medical purposes continued throughout the 19th century.
In the American South, grave robbing and body snatching became entangled with legends of 'Night Doctors.' Stealing bodies for medical study in the late 18th century was outlawed in Southern states, and thus robbers targeted slaves, who were not protected by the law. The medical schools in the South bragged about their superior anatomical knowledge, and only practised new surgical methods on African-American patients.
Night Doctors became associated with Night Riders, which were part of several superstitions, mingled with the real threat of violence and intimidation, spread by whites among the African-American population to control them. Wiki: "One of the most popular rumors concerned doctors who would roam the northern streets at night and kill African Americans to use for dissections. Sometimes southern whites would also dress in white gowns to spread the fear." After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan took up night riding in white sheets to terrorize the African American population.
In New Orleans, the legend incorporated word of 'Needle Men' and 'Black Bottle Men' - referring to medical students using injections or medicines - feared as poisons - on unsuspecting pedestrians, as one interviewee confirmed (Lyle Saxon, Edward Dreyer, Robert Tallant, Gumbo Ya-Ya, Houghton-Mifflan: Boston, 1945; via Wiki.):
'I sure don't go out much at this time of year. You takes a chance just walkin' on the streets. Them Needle Mens is everywhere. They always comes 'round in the fall, and they's 'round to about March. You see, them Needle Mens is medical students from the Charity Hospital tryin' to git your body to work on. That's 'cause stiffs is very scarce at this time of the year.'Since the 19th century, body snatching has dropped off due to public outcry and laws passed to prevent it. Even so, it continues in China, where superstitions, rather than science, drive the practice. There, an unmarried man is often buried next to the secretly stolen body of an unmarried woman, in order to prevent him from becoming lonely in the afterlife.
Mütter Museum exhibit. Image Source: G. Widman via Destination 360.
Elsewhere, the superstitions around body snatching arise as much from a morbid fear of grave robbers as they do from uneasiness about members of the medical profession. There's a little line in the first, original Hellraiser movie (1987), in which one character exclaims, "Doctors!" as though nothing more needs to be said. One institution that showcases this period of the medical profession and provides grisly evidence that doctors uneasily stand at the crossroads between life, death and research is the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. The College was founded in 1787, and the doctors there have seen some strange things in their times. Some of those things are preserved on display (take the virtual tour here). This past summer, the Museum commissioned an exhibition of apocalyptic pop art responses to their medical collections under the name of a local artist's collective, TODT: Still Life. Considering this is an institution devoted to the health and well-being of patients, it's an interesting angle.
Body snatching is well established in the lore of urban legends, and has developed these days into fears of organ theft and organ harvesting. These fears are not ungrounded: "In February 2006, Dr. Michael Mastromarino, then a 42-year-old former New Jersey-based oral surgeon and CEO and executive director of operations at Biomedical Tissue Services, was convicted along with three employees of illegally harvesting human bones, organs, tissue and other cadaver parts from individuals awaiting cremation, for forging numerous consent forms, and for selling the illegally obtained body parts to medical companies without consent of their families, and then sentenced to long prison terms. BTS sold its products to five companies, including Life Cell Corporation, of New Jersey, and Regeneration Technologies, of Florida." In 2004, the same company, BTS, caused a stir by being linked to bone theft after the death of the British-American broadcaster, Alistair Cooke.
The films Coma (1978), Death Warrant (1990), Turistas (2006; see the trailer here) and Crank: High Voltage (2009) reflected fears of the dark side of the health sciences. Selling children for medical experiments, as well as murderous organ harvesting, were running gags in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983).
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