In the 18th and 19th centuries, if a person was killed who had previously been in sound health, or if they had been executed as a criminal, it was often feared by their families that body snatchers would try to secure the body for a medical college. This was due to a requirement at most medical schools, that each student had to prove familiarity with human dissection. The schools, however did not provide a cadaver to practice on.
Relatives of the recently buried in locations near medical colleges were known to have “cemetery sitters”–friends and family members who would kept watch at the cemetery day and night to prevent their family member from being dug up (at least until they felt the body was beyond the point of being usable for dissection). One family in Massachusetts even went to the extent to bury their loved one “under the wood pile” for a while.
In New Hampshire, one Charles Knowlton “resurrected” a cadaver for dissection at the New Hampshire Medical Institute (now Dartmouth Medical School) for which he spent sixty days in jail and was fined two hundred dollars. Reportedly his father paid his grave-robbing and illegal dissection fine.
That same Charles Knowlton obtained his M.D. Degree from the Medical Department of Dartmouth College in 1824. He went on to become a specialist in reproductive physiology and birth control. He wrote the first American medical handbook on contraception. In May 1896, the infamous serial killer from New Hampshire, Herman Mudgett, requested that his casket be filled with cement to protect his body from grave robbers.
Sometimes the dead had the last say. A cryptic “letter to the editor” appears in the newspaper, New-Hampshire Statesman, Concord, New Hampshire, on Monday, November 17, 1823, as follows:
Title: Communicated Hanover, NH, Oct 8, 1823–A warning to resurrection men, alias quacks. “Among a collection of various kinds of bones, many of which are human, deposited in chests in the cellar of the Medical building in this village, for several nights past, there has been a strange and unusual commotion, accompanied with the most doleful and appalling groans; the chests were overturned and the bones scattered to the four quarters of the cellar. Upon immediately visiting the cellar, no vestige of any person or living being whatever, could be seen, there being moreover no observable access to the cellar, but what was carefully secured. At first a general panic pervaded those who inhabited the building, some fled affrighted from the haunted spot; at midnight, having their daily habiliments behind, and one is said to have fainted and become apparently lifeless. Large numbers, to the amount of a hundred or more, collected on one night, to witness the unaccountable affair, and if possible, to detect the cause. Diligent investigation was made, by same, whose patriotic and manly feelings surmounted their fears, but their efforts proved unsuccessful. We can only say, it is an unaccountable mystery, and hope that the deed may rest in their graves hereafter. — A Subscriber.” Is this a spook or spoof? Its your call.
And honestly, we can’t really say that the body snatching is over, can we?
P.S.: My friend Terry Thornton from Hill Country of Monroe County Mississippi, graciously passed along this “ghastly” story of “resurrectionist” grave robbers from Illinois in 1847 and 1848.