Burial has always been a sacred thing, undertaken with utmost reverence and respect for the dead. Graveyards and cemeteries, while yes often creepy, are peaceful, quiet places. The wind rustles the leaves of a tree, a dove coos mournfully, a tearful widow silently places flowers on her late husband’s grave. We typically think of graves as final resting places for the dead - the end of their stories here on Earth. But did you know, that wasn’t always the case? 200 years ago, many newly buried bodies wouldn’t rest for long. Did you know that as our collective medical knowledge and respect for science blossomed, so too did our need for human corpses. And that many of these cadavers were stolen from their graves by “body snatchers” who made a profitable business out of selling our dearly departed? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. And yes I put a weird pause after Shea. It’s recently been brought to my attention by a very dear listener that it sounds like my name is Shayla Fontaine instead of Shea LaFountaine, so just wanted to clarify. Also got me realizing that Shea LaFountaine is truly a weird name. You don’t realize that your own name is weird because it’s just so normal to you but when you step outside of that familiarity and look at it from someone else’s perspective, yeah it’s weird. No one can say it, no one can spell it. It’s a lifelong curse. Oh and Shea isn’t even my first name, just to make it even more complicated. It’s my middle name. My first name is Leah. So nobody knows what in the world to call me. Lee, Leah, Shea, Shee, Shee-ah, Shay-ah - I’ve gotten all of these. I will respond to any of them. I made it through an entire semester-long Spanish class in college as Leah because I was too nervous to tell the professor in Spanish that I went by my middle name. We weren’t allowed to speak any English in that class. So I was just Leah in there… it’s fine.
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Ok, let’s talk about dead bodies now. It should be a surprise to no one that dead bodies are sometimes used for scientific purposes. You know, you can like donate your body to science or whatever. So there’s really 2 different types of body donations. You can be an organ donor, you get that little heart on your license and that means when you die, you’ve given permission for them to try to salvage your organs to use in organ transplants to save someone else’s life. Which is cool. I mean why not, you don’t need kidneys after you die, right? Although I do think it’s weird, now that I’m thinking about it, that they slip that very big decision in there when you’re a 16 year old child getting your driver's license. You’re like, sure, whatever, cool, I just want to be able to drive lady, not really even realizing that you’re giving them permission to desecrate your corpse. But, whatever, I still think it’s good. I still support that super heavy decision I made when I was 16 without really even thinking about it at all, so it’s all good.
So there’s that, there’s an organ donor, and then there’s a whole body donor. And this is a bit more intense. They do not ask you this when you’re 16. That’s when you donate your entire body to science. According to a CBS article I’ll get into later, an estimated 20,000 people donate their whole bodies to science each year. These bodies are mostly used for medical research and education. So if you’re in med school to become a brain surgeon, for example, it kind of helps to have operated on an actual human brain before you start operating on actual human brains. But, of course, they aren’t going to give you a real living patient before you have any idea what you’re doing. I certainly wouldn’t want a student performing my brain surgery. So that’s where the cadavers come in. They’re already dead so it doesn’t really matter if you botch the surgery.
So this is great. Yay science right? But it wasn’t always like this. This is a relatively new thing - this being science - and also studying cadavers. For, ever really it was very very taboo to cut into a dead human body whether you had their permission or not. It was not okay. Many religions dictated certain rites and rituals associated with death - burial, cremation, mummification, whatever - none of them involved dissection or surgery for educational purposes. But this meant that no one really knew how human bodies worked for a very long time. There were a lot of misunderstandings in the medical profession because, I mean how can you diagnose or treat a heart problem, for example, if you’ve never actually seen a heart? People used to dissect apes and pigs to try to understand how a human body hypothetically worked but this led to a lot of misconceptions that became the basis of medicine for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the 1500s that attitudes towards medicine started to change, the scientific revolution, and people started to be more concerned that our knowledge of medicine and human anatomy was actually accurate. And it wasn’t until the late 1700’s, the industrial revolution, that studying cadavers in medical school actually became a common practice.
But it was certainly still taboo. It was kind of icky. This collective public ick about mixing dead bodies and science is seen in Mary Shelley’s 1818 book Frankenstein. Which, side note, I thought about doing a whole episode about Mary Shelley, maybe I’ll do a mini fix. Did you guys know she kept her dead husband’s heart in her desk drawer for 30 years??? Yeah I’m going to have to come back to that.
So anyway, still taboo, very ick, so people aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to donate their bodies to science. Where are these bodies coming from? Initially they were the bodies of convicts. In 1751 Great Britain passed the Murder Act to try to dissuade people from committing murder by upping the punishment a bit. I mean, it was already punishable by death, but that wasn’t enough, apparently. They also wanted to punish the murderers after they were dead. The Murder Act said that the bodies of executed murderers could not be buried. Instead, they were to be strung up in chains on display or donated for medical use. So executed murders became the first legit cadavers used by med schools. But it wasn’t even for the sake of science. It was a form of postmortem punishment for these criminals.
However, pretty quickly, the supply of murderer corpses could not keep up with the demand from the medical scholars. Heading into the 1800’s, punishments became a little less extreme and there started to be fewer and fewer executions. Also more and more med schools started popping up as respect for the medical profession grew. So less bodies and more students. Adding to that problem, there was no embalming bodies at this point. So once you got a cadaver to dissect, you had, you know, a day or two to study it before it started to decompose. And yes I googled “how long before a body starts to decompose” for that. The answer is 24 to 72 hours if you’re curious. And now I hope I don’t become a person of interest in a murder case because my Google search history is looking shady.
So we have an increasing demand for dead bodies and no great way to acquire them. Any time that happens, as you should know from episode 21 about Prohibition, black markets tend to pop up. Where there is money to be made, there are always people willing to make that money no matter how unsavory the money making task is. In this case, we see the rise of the body snatchers, also called resurrectionists. In his book “The Devil’s Dictionary,” American writer Ambrose Bierce defined a body snatcher as quote “one who supplies the young physicians with that which the old physicians have supplied the undertaker.”
Body snatchers were paid handsomely to procure fresh human corpses for medical institutions - as much as several months wages per body. The easiest way to do this was to take the bodies of poor people out of mass graves. When someone couldn’t afford a proper burial, they were placed in a cheap wooden coffin and placed in a mass grave with other poor people. These big pits were usually left open for extended periods of time, not filled in with dirt until they were full. So while the grave was still open, it wasn’t that difficult to slip in and steal a body or two.
But when demand outpaced the supply in the mass pauper graves, the body snatchers had to up their game, stealing bodies people actually cared about. They worked in teams to do this. First, they’d send a spy to scout out funerals. This was usually a woman. Cause, let’s face it, a sketchy man hanging around a cemetery during a burial is definitely a body snatcher. The scout would report back, telling the snatchers where to find the freshly buried body. Then, they’d go back at night, under the cover of darkness. They didn’t dig up the whole coffin though. That’s way too much work and way too obvious. Instead, they dug a vertical tunnel down to the head of the coffin, broke the lid, and pulled the body up through the tunnel using a rope and a hook. The body was stripped of clothing and any jewelry which were tossed back into the grave. The tunnel was filled back in and the ground was smoothed over to make it look undisturbed.
Why take the time to remove the clothing? Well that’s because stealing bodies out of graves wasn’t actually illegal until the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed in Britain and even later laws were passed in the United States. A corpse had no legal standing and wasn’t technically owned by anyone so it wasn’t actually stealing. What was illegal was grave robbery - stealing stuff out of a grave including clothing and jewelry. So by leaving that stuff behind, the body snatchers weren’t technically breaking the law. I should note, though, that it was illegal to dissect bodies - desecration of a corpse - so technically the med students were breaking the law but that seems like a gray area. Medical professionals and institutions looked at it as a necessary evil and believed the benefits of improved anatomical study offset the horror of stealing someone from their grave.
But, while not illegal at first, body snatching was considered morally wrong and was highly frowned upon by everyone except, I guess, the scholars who needed the bodies. In places with a lot of medical schools, like Edinburgh, London, and Philadelphia, it wasn’t uncommon for the family of the recently deceased to stand guard after the burial to try to stop any would-be body snatchers from taking their loved one’s body. Sometimes they even hired guards to watch over the grave until enough time passed that the body was no longer fresh enough to be snatched. They also put metal cages on top of the graves called mortsafes, used iron coffins, or placed metal or heavy wooden planks on top of the coffin to make it harder to bust open. High walls were built around graveyards, sometimes with broken glass attached to the top to deter snatchers from attempting to climb over. Grave alarms were a thing as were tripwires attached to guns. Sooo maybe that’s where the stereotype of the spooky graveyard came from? Yeah, don’t go in there.
So body snatching was a lucrative, although dangerous profession. But of course some people took it too far. I mean, I don’t know, I guess pulling a dead body out of the ground with a hook is already too far but they took it even farther than that. Some body snatchers didn’t merely snatch a body after it was dead, they murdered people to produce the dead bodies, and then sold them. An Irish cobbler named William Burke famously killed at least 16 people in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1820s and sold their bodies to an anatomy school. Burke was hanged for this in 1829 and subsequently dissected himself thanks to that old Murder Act of 1751. But, he didn’t actually act alone. He had an accomplice named William Hare, who honestly may have been the mastermind behind the whole operation but got away with it.
Apparently, Hare was the landlord of a lodging house in Edinburgh. When one of his tenants died, Hare was upset that the dead man still owed him 4 pounds in rent which is like almost $700 US dollars today. So, with Burke’s help, he stole the body and sold it to a surgeon named Robert Knox for 7 pounds and 10 shillings. Which, that’s like $1300 bucks. So he got his rent money and then some right? Almost doubled it. But the pair did not stop there. Burke and Hare then lured 15 additional people to the lodging house, got them drunk, and then smothered them to death and sold their bodies to Knox for use in his anatomy school.
In 1828, a neighbor turned them in after realizing that they had murdered a local woman, on Halloween by the way. Happy Spooktober, y’all. Then, Hare turned quote “king’s evidence” and testified against Burke, sooo they just let him go? In his confession, Burke claimed the surgeon Robert Knox had no knowledge of the murders so he was exonerated, although his reputation and career were certainly tarnished. So Burke was the only one who faced any consequences for, what seems to me to be Hare’s master plan. But that did not stop people from referring to murder for this purpose as “Burking.”
Then we have the “London Burkers,” John Bishop, Thomas Williams, and James May, who according to Bishop’s confession dug up and sold up to 1,000 bodies in London before turning to murder in 1831. The trial of the London Burkers was highly publicized and directly led to the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 which made body snatching illegal in Britain. A highly publicized trial means a highly documented trial and we actually have the written confessions of Bishop and May which is pretty cool. According to Bishop’s confession quote “I, John Bishop do hereby declare and confess that the boy supposed to be the Italian boy was a Lincolnshire boy- I and Williams took him to my House about ½ past 10 O’Clock on the Thursday night the 3rd of November from the Bell in Smithfield – He walked home with us – Williams promised him some work.[…] I took him into the House – we lighted a candle and gave the boy some bread and cheese and after he had eaten, we gave him a cup full of rum with about half a small phial of Laundanum in it. I then took him in my arms and let him slide from them headlong into the well in the garden whilst Williams held the cord to prevent his body going altogether too low into the well - he was nearly wholly in the water of the well.
We had something to eat and drink there [at a pub] and after we had been there about half an hour May came in – I knew May, but had not seen him for about a fortnight before – he had some rum with me at the bar.[…]
Leaving May at the Fortune of War – Williams and I went to Mr Tuson’s in Windmill Street where I saw Mr Tuson and offered to sell him a subject – meaning the boy we had left at home – he said he had waited so long for a subject which I had before undertaken to procure that he had been obliged to buy one the day before. We went from there to Mr Capries in Dean Street and offered it to him in the Lecture Room with other Gentlemen. They asked me if it was fresh, I told them yes – they told me to wait – I asked them 10 Guineas and after waiting a little a Gentleman there said they would give 8 Guineas which I agreed to take and engaged to carry it there the next morning at 10 OClock.
I called May out to the outside of the House and asked was the best price giving for “things” – He said he had sold two the day before for 10 Guineas each (I think) – I told him I had a subject – He asked what sort of one – I said a boy about 14 years old and that I had been offered 8 Guineas for it – He said if it was his he would not take it – he could sell it where he sold his for more – I told him that all he could get above 9 Guineas he might have for himself – we agreed to go presently and get a coach.[…]
[we] crossed the water in a Boar to the Kings College where we inquired of Mr Hill the Porter if he wanted a subject – he said he was not particularly in want but would speak to Mr Partridge, the Demonstrator ; – Mr Partridge came and asked what the subject was, May said a male subject Mr Partridge asked the price May said ‘12 Guineas’ – Mr Partridge said he could not give so much and went away – Mr Hill asked us to stay a few minutes whilst he went after Mr Partridge to speak to him again – Hill returned and said Mr Partridge would give 9 Guineas – May said he would be damned if it should go under 10 Guineas – He was in liquor and on his moving a little way off I took the opportunity of saying to Hill that it should come in at 9 Guineas – I told May directly after that I had sold it for 9 Guineas and that I would out of it pay him what I had had of him and give him something besides.
I declare that this statement is all true and that it contains all the facts as far as I can recollect May knew nothing of the murder and I do not believe he suspected that I had got the body except in the usual way and after the death of it – I always told him that I got it from the ground and he never knew to the contrary until I confessed to Mr Williams since the Trial – I have known May as a Body Snatcher 4 or 5 years but I do not believe he ever obtained a body except in the common way of men in that calling by stealing from the graves –[…]
Until the transactions before set forth I never was concerned in obtaining a subject by destruction of the living – I have followed the cause of obtaining a livelihood as a Body Snatcher for 12 years and I have obtained and sold I think from 500 to 1000 bodies but I declare before God that they were all obtained after death and that with the above exceptions I am ignorant of any murder for that or any other purpose.” And that’s the end of the confession. I have a photo of the actual handwritten confession on my Instagram if you want to see. Bishop’s handwriting is gorgeous - a lost art for sure - but also, shame on him.
So once this sort of mess started happening, they had to tighten up the laws a bit. New laws, like the Anatomy Act, made body snatching illegal and also provided additional ways for med schools to acquire bodies legally. They could legally acquire unclaimed bodies of the poor or sick and use bodies with permission from the families. By the 1880’s embalming became a common practice for preserving dead bodies which meant med schools could keep bodies for months instead of days and, therefore, needed fewer fresh corpses. So supply increased and demand decreased. But body snatching is still sort of a thing. We’ll get into that in a minute.
First, let’s talk about what happens when you donate your whole body to science today. Or, what’s supposed to happen at least. According to a Healthline article called “What Happens to Your Body When It’s Donated to Science?,” an accredited organization or nonprofit like a university donation program screens potential donors while they're still alive. They ask questions about past illnesses and surgeries, any communicable diseases. HIV and hepatitis usually exclude people from being able to donate their bodies. They also don’t want people who are severely underweight or overweight. But they do take all ages. When the person dies, another assessment is done to make sure they still meet the criteria and then they are discreetly carted away to a facility where they super preserve the bodies to last two to three years.
According to the article, quote “if the donation is made through a for-profit program, it’s matched with requests from medical research teams and educators who may have shorter-term needs.” It goes on to list some of these needs “For instance, a donor could be used to advance robotic or arthroscopic surgery, perfect heart valve transplants, test laser treatments for acne, teach surgeons to administer local anesthetic blocks, and give first responders a chance to learn life-saving techniques. The Department of Defense also uses donors to test the impact of new technology.” And I know they’re also used for forensic purposes at body farms where bodies are observed to see how long it takes them to decompose in different conditions, stuff like that. But what struck me about the article was the phrase “If the donation is made through a for-profit program.” They don’t go into much detail on that but it seems there are non-profit and for-profit body donation programs. And, I’m gonna be real honest, I don’t know how I feel about the for-profit option. Who is making the profit? The families? That doesn’t seem right. Some middleman, that doesn’t seem right either. The med schools? They can’t be profiting. They are the one’s purchasing the bodies, right? I feel like any time there’s a profit involved in the dealing of dead bodies, some super sketchy motives are inevitably going to crop up.
According to a CBS article I stumbled upon called “Inside the largely unregulated market for bodies donated to science: ‘It’s harder to sell hotdogs on a cart,’” by Justin Sherman, some really whack stuff is still happening in the medical cadaver industry. In this article, Sherman interviews Special Agent Paul Micah Johnson, a Detroit based FBI agent who has spent the last decade looking into the shady goings on of the US body market. According to Johnson, medical research and education are not clearly defined terms by current legislation and are often used to intentionally mislead the families of the deceased.
In 2014, the FBI raided the warehouse of Stephen Gore, founder of Biological Resource Center which accepts donated bodies and then sells them to medical institutions and the Department of Defense to test explosives and whatnot. Apparently the conditions of the donor’s remains stored in this warehouse were so horrific, that the FBI agents who did the raid quote “required trauma therapy due to the disturbing, graphic scene they encountered.” Gore pleaded guilty to Illegal Control of an Enterprise for violating donor consent agreements and was given a year in jail and 4 years probation but there are no laws in place to charge him specifically for the horrifying warehouse conditions they found.
Johnson also investigated a Detroit body broker named Arthur Rathburn and reported quote “He cut up bodies with a chainsaw. He cut up bodies with a bandsaw. He had a bucket filled with brown liquid that had fetuses and human brains floating in it. He had trash cans filled with human heads.”
Just like with Gore, there weren’t any laws in place to charge Rathburn with anything other than fraud. In 2018, he was sentenced to 9 years in prison for falsifying donor medical information to sell bodies infected with HIV and hepatitis. Nothing about the bucket of fetuses. That wasn’t technically illegal.
According to Sherman’s article, in 2009, Philip Guyett Jr. who was the owner of a company called Donor Referral Services pleaded guilty to fraud for falsifying medical information in order to quote “offload tissue designated for transplant with infectious or communicable diseases” and “He was sentenced to eight years in prison.” Whaaat?? Y’all I pray I never need a freaking organ transplant, holy cow.
Guyett is actually quoted in the article saying quote "As I told the judge, I had no business being in this business. A person with no medical experience, no funeral director's license, was able to open up a whole body donation program, take possession of a human body, dismember it, send it throughout the nation without any type of licensing oversight. It's harder to sell hot dogs on a cart than it is to get into this business." end quote.
What the actual heck. This is happening today, you guys, right now, not 18 whatever. In 2022 a body broker bill was introduced in the US Senate which would require that the process of body donations be federally regulated but no vote has been scheduled as of yet… yet being over a year later. So yeah, some regulation would be nice.
But even Special Agent Johnson, who discovered trash cans full of human heads, thinks that the body donation industry is necessary to advance science. And, I agree. I do think they should be using actual human bodies to learn about actual human bodies. But, you know, just do it right. Maybe let’s not with the house of horrors style warehouses. Nobody signed up for that. But it got me thinking what it’s like, you know. What’s it like to study an actual human body - a person. This was somebody and now they’re an assignment for your class. It’s really wild. I had to know more so I reached out to Dr. Jeff Sankoff, an emergency physician in Denver, Colorado. Here’s what he had to say.
[Interview with Dr. Jeff Sankoff]
Huge thanks to Dr. Jeff Sankoff for being willing to share his knowledge on what is an incredibly niche topic. Which, by the way guys, he didn’t mention this but in addition to being an MD who saves lives on the reg, he’s also a ironman triathlete and a certified coach. He has his own podcast called The Tri Doc podcast where he talks about health and fitness and I’ll link that in the description if you want to check it out.
I’m left believing whole heartedly that actual human bodies are, in fact necessary for science and medicine and education but I think it could and should be done in a way that removes the all too human propensity for greed. Is it possible to remove financial motive all together? Make it purely a donation through a non-profit organization in the name of science? I think so. I’m very curious to see what happens with the US body broker bill. I hope it gets the attention it deserves. I can’t stop coming back to the fetuses floating around in that bucket of brown liquid. I have a friend who has suffered multiple heart wrenching miscarriages and most recently her daughter’s body was donated to science, to try to better understand what causes recurring miscarriages. And I can’t even imagine having to make that decision or any decision at all, really, about what to do with your child’s body. And to think that it’s even remotely possible that they could end up in that bucket… it’s unthinkable. So, schedule the vote please, Senate. Let’s regulate this mess. It should definitely not be harder to sell hot dogs on a cart than the body of a loved one.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from Encyclopedia Britannica, PBS, the UK National Archives, CBS News, healthline.com, and of course Dr. Jeff Sankoff, emergency physician and host of the Tri Doc podcast. As always, links to these sources can be found in the show notes.