In October 2016 I wrote a post about a grave robbery that my great-grandfather was implicated in. The subject fascinated me so much that I did some more digging (pun intended!) to find out more about why grave robberies became so common in the 1800s in the United States. And here’s what I found: it was a simple matter of supply vs. demand.
As the field of medicine in the early 1800s turned more to the study of actual human specimens rather than charts and illustrations, the need grew for fresh cadavers to dissect. But since it was still illegal to donate a body to science, the only way to obtain one was to rob a grave. Some medical colleges even kept a shovel and pick handy for their students to use and would accept fresh bodies, no questions asked, in lieu of tuition payment.
According to John Duffy, Massachusetts was the first state to pass a law in 1830 regarding donation of bodies to medical schools. Other states lagged behind, with similar laws not passed until in the late 1800s.
In his book The Physician, His Relation to the Law, Dr. Blaine noted that by 1883 New York, as well as a number of other states, allowed medical colleges to claim the bodies of those “dying in public hospitals, prisons, alms houses, asylums, morgues, and other public receptacles for deceased persons,” provided no one else claimed the bodies first. By 1894, 24 states declared dissection to be legal and allowed for bodies to be donated to medical schools, generally from the gallows.
Sates that lagged behind in passing similar laws often raised the ire of medical school officials. A report in the Chicago Tribune from March 24, 1890, quoted a school official from the University of Louisville as admitting to a grave robbery at the State Asylum for the Insane in Anchorage, Kentucky. As the official explained, “We must have bodies, and if the State won’t give them to us we must steal them…. You cannot make doctors without them, and the public must understand it” (as quoted in Larson).
The supply was simply not keeping up with the demand. And even though Dr. Blaine admitted in The Physician (obviously recalling his own sobering experience a number of years earlier) that “grave robbery is a revolting offense,” he also tried to make clear that a simple adjustment to the law in many states would entirely eliminate the need for robbing graves.
What Blaine and others failed to appreciate was that laws were only part of the solution. It took many years to shed the moral and social taint surrounding the donation of bodies. After all, weren’t the bodies used in medical colleges those of criminals or paupers or the insane–the scum of society? No upstanding citizen, even in death, would want to be associated with them! And for many, dissecting the body of a loved one after death was unthinkable, even irreligious!
Finally, in response to a variety of social pressures and a slow sea change in society’s perception of the value inherent in the donation of human remains, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) was passed in 1968 and refined in 1987. These acts, according to Raphael Hulkower, “made body donation a right, morally based on free choice and volunteerism.”
With demand being satisfied, the practice of digging up the dead for medical research passed into history.
Blaine, Harry G. The Physician, His Relation to the Law. G. S. Earle & Co., 1897. Reprinted by Kessinger Legacy Reprints.
Duffy, John. From Humors to Medical Science: A History of American Medicine, 2nd ed. U of Illinois P, 1993.
Hulkower, Raphael. “From Sacrilege to Privilege: The Tale of Body Procurement for Anatomical Dissection in the United States.” The Einstein Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2011, pp. 23-26. Einstein.yu.edu/uploadedFiles/EJBM/27.1%20Hulkower.PDF
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage Books, 2004.