Stealing corpses crossed all racial and ethnic lines
On Saturday night June 22nd Ben Smith, a Black man, was arrested with a corpse in his possession that he just stole from Bethel Burying Ground. The body was probably that of 25-year-old Maria Krumbach who died of Tuberculosis on the 18th and was likely buried on the 20th or 21st. The medical schools required that their dissection specimens be fresh. Smith, the body snatcher, was brought before an alderman (magistrate) and committed to the county prison. I was unable to find any further information on this “resurrectionist.”*
Robbing graves for the bodies of the recently deceased goes back many centuries and started in the United States in the late 18th century to help meet the demand for “hands-on anatomical dissection” for teaching medical students the geography of the human body.** These acts were not only done by men skulking around a cemetery in the dark of night, but also by the men who buried the dead and were responsible for the management of the burying ground. In the early 1800’s it was observed that the superintendent of Philadelphia’s Potter field was so open about his selling of the dead that in the backyard of his home were ” . . . piles of boards and broken coffins. The bodies having been sold, the coffins used for firewood.”*** Shocking examples of this kind of crime was not uncommon in Southwark and Moyamensing where the small police force was unable to protect the cemeteries forcing outraged citizens to organize mobs and attack medical schools and known grave robbers.****
“In December 1882, a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer, acting on a tip, caught grave robbers at work at the Lebanon cemetery, the burial ground for Philadelphia’s African Americans. . . . The robbers claimed that they were hauling bodies to Jefferson Medical College where they were paid for their services by William Forbes, Chief Anatomist. . . . A crowd of angry Philadelphia African Americans gathered at the city morgue and demanded protection of their grave sites from the city.” When winter ended and the snow melted away the city’s cemeteries looked as if “they had been subjected to an aerial bombardment” because of all the open and empty graves. The Lebanon superintendent confessed that for many years he had let grave robbers “steal as many corpses as they could for sale for anatomical dissection.”****
There is no way to tell how many graves were robbed at Bethel Burying Ground. We know that has long as the thieves were robbing the graves of Blacks and poor whites there was no incentive to pass stricter laws. The line was crossed when bodies of prominent white citizens started missing provoking white legislatures to enact laws that made it easier for medical schools to obtain corpses and lengthening terms for the captured “buzzards.” (Halperin)
*Public Ledger, 10/25/1842. The terms “resurrectionist,” “grave robber,” “body snatcher” and occasionally “buzzard” were used to identify these thieves.
** Christine Quigley, The Corpse: a history, p. 290-301.
***John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Times, p. 363. Available online at Google Books.
**** Simon Baatz, “‘A Very Diffused Disposition:’ Dissecting Schools in Philadelphia, 1823-1825,”Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol.108, number 2, April 1, 1984. Available at https://journals.psu.edu/pmhb/article/view/43981.
**** Edward C. Halperin, “The Poor, the Black, and the Marginalized as the Source of Cadavers in United States Anatomical Education,” Clinical Anatomy, 20:489–495 (2007). This journal article is available online at Halperin-2007-Clinical_Anatomy