A Grave Offense

in Features

Just past midnight over 180 years ago, the grave of 17 year-old Bathsheba Smith, the daughter of a West Haven farmer, was found dug up, the coffin broken into, and the body missing. Horrified, the citizens of West Haven immediately pointed angry fingers at nearby Yale Medical College. The next morning, on January 12, 1824, public outrage forced New Haven’s constable, Erastus Osborn, to lead a surprise search party into the medical school, then located on the corner of Grove and College Street where SSS now stands. The team searched the building from top to bottom to no avail. They were on the verge of quitting when they decided to peer into an unexplored subterranean room. Osborn related what followed in a letter to his father written later that same day:

“At length in a small low Cellar, we came to a place in the pavement (the Cellar being paved with large flat stones) which lookd generally like the bottom of the Cellar throughout, but appeard to have a trifle of fresh dirt lying scatterd about, hardly however discernable. I scratchd with the end of my walking stick and the more I examind the more suspicion was created. We soon found the earth appeard fresher between the stones & finally took up a large flat stone where we discovered a white bundle, apparently a bundle of cloathes. We examind & found a human body doubled up in a heap entirely coverd up with the grave cloathes. We took it out and it was immediately known to be the body of the young Woman we was searching for.”

Jonathan Knight, a Yale anatomy professor, denied any knowledge of the business and arranged for the body to be wrapped discreetly in a cap and sheet and loaded into a wagon bound for West Haven. But word of the discovery spread quickly. Crowds of fuming citizens thronged the wagon as it moved down College and Chapel Streets. Osborn’s letter tells of several bells pealing at once, whipping the mass into a “great pitch” as the town filled with rumors. Yalies armed themselves and took shelter behind the campus gates, waiting for an attack. Osborn wrote, “A Drum has beat & the Streets are crowded with the besieging army preparing for the assault.” At nightfall, a mob of about six hundred men armed with pistols, clubs, and daggers hurled stones and burning coal at the medical building. They shouted “Tear down the college” and “Death to the students,” drowning out the officers who tried to restore order by reading the state’s Riot Act. Meanwhile, the medical students responsible for the body-snatching stole off amidst the chaos, never to be apprehended. The siege continued for two nights, and the state militia had to be called in to quell the riot. Despite a lack of evidence, the townspeople eventually found a scapegoat in Ephraim Colborn, a medical assistant. He was sentenced to nine months imprisonment, fined $300 dollars, and just barely escaped being tarred and feathered outside the courthouse.

Yale was not the first institution to come under siege following the discovery of a disinterred body in its possession, and it would not be the last. Similar uprisings erupted in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and, most famously, New York—the 1788 “Doctor’s Riots.” But by the end of the nineteenth century, legislation, combined with shifting attitudes towards dissection, finally provided physicians with enough legal cadavers to keep the doctors out of graveyards. By then, the image of “resurrectionists,” as professional grave robbers were called, had already been fixed in the popular imagination. Portraits of these grim characters, creeping through midnight graveyards wielding pickaxes, shovels, and hooded lamps, as well as horrific portrayals of the cadavers’ fates popped up in much of the literature of the time, from the grave-robbing Dr. Robinson in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to the creation of a grisly living cadaver in Frankenstein.

Though the New Haven riot fueled sensational headlines in 1824, grave robbing by medical schools was old news to New Haven locals. By 1830, nine medical schools had been founded in New England alone, and more were added to the roster each year. Like Yale, all agreed that anatomy was a foundational course, and that dissection of a real human body was indispensable.

But where would all these dead bodies come from? At the time, the only legal means of obtaining cadavers was from the bodies of executed murderers, a practice inherited from English Common Law. But in Massachusetts, for instance, only forty criminals were executed between 1800 and 1830. Most medical schools legally received only one or two cadavers per year—a trickle that couldn’t satisfy the swelling number of aspiring physicians. Thus, like its English counterparts, Yale medical students took to scouring the fresh graves of nearby cemeteries, often employing teams of experienced “resurrectionists” for the job.

On that night in 1824, the perpetrators (no one knows for certain whether resurrectionists or the students themselves committed the crime) took a wagon to the West Haven cemetery. Carrying a hooded lamp to avoid catching the eye of anybody still awake, they would have spread a tarpaulin around the fresh grave to catch the dirt they unearthed. To save time and minimize disturbance, they would have only dug a hole at the head of the grave, then sawed through the top end of the coffin. Through the passageway they had created, they would have used a hook, made of an iron bar about five feet long, to extract the body headfirst. Back at the medical school, they may have first put Bathsheba’s body inside one of the oblong niches cut into the walls of the cellar to store cadavers before concealing her beneath the stone floor. As far as hiding places went, Yale’s were less sophisticated than those at its peer institutions; other medical schools often stored cadavers inside their domed roofs or fashioned pulleys to hoist bodies into the chimneys of large fireplaces.

It is unknown just how many bodies were stolen throughout the nineteenth century. (One historian places the number at several thousand.) However, the extent to which lawmakers and the public perceived the problem to be widespread is well-established. By 1818, every New England state had passed laws against grave robbing, though only a handful of perpetrators were ever brought to court. The fear of being snatched away from one’s final resting place was so great that measures to protect the dead often surpassed those to protect the living. The most basic method of keeping bodies underground was to pack the grave with bundles of straw, sticks, and large slabs of stone to slow down potential diggers. A more sophisticated variation was to place thick planks lengthwise across the coffin, forcing resurrectionists to exhume the entire grave. Other, usually more affluent New Englanders, preferred to hire a night-watch to sit beside a grave with a shotgun. The most grotesque tactic was to simply leave the body in a vault for several weeks, allowing the tissue to decompose past recognition—and educational usefulness—before burying it in a cemetery.

New Haveners’ paranoia was no doubt stoked by similar events in Britain, where the threat of body snatching was so great that macabre ads selling iron coffins ran in the papers:

“Many hundred bodies will be dragged from their wooden coffins this winter, for the anatomical lectures… The violation of the sanctity of the grave is said to be needful, for the instruction of the medical pupil, but let each one about to inter a mother, child, or friend, say shall I devote this object of my affection to such a purpose; if not, the only safe coffin is Bridgman’s Patent wrought-iron one, charged the same price as a wooden one, and is a superior substitute for lead.”

Not surprisingly, most of these preventative measures were financially unattainable for the poor, leaving them vulnerable to the late-night raids of nearby medical schools. Well aware of this, in 1788 blacks living in New York City petitioned the Common Council to provide some degree of protection from resurrectionists. Their pleas were ignored. Most affluent whites took a cynical view, claiming that as long as “the only subjects procured for dissections are the productions of Africa” then “surely no person can object.” But resurrectionists were often willing to plunder the graves of poor whites as well; many medical schools targeted graveyards near almshouses. In an 1878 interview, a grave-robber, when asked whether he had ever been shot at, replied “Oh no, we let private cemeteries alone.”

Ironically, the one legal channel for obtaining cadavers was largely to blame for much of the stigma attached to dissection. Donating the cadavers of executed murderers to science was not just an act of efficiency. The prospect of having one’s body splayed open and taken apart was meant to act as a deterrent, a punishment reserved for the most abhorrent of murderers—creating a cultural association between dissection and criminality. Thus, the discovery of Bathsheba Smith’s body concealed in the bowels of the Yale Medical College would have been cause for a particularly sharp sense of outrage. The daughter of a respectable, landed family, Bathsheba was certainly no criminal. So why should she share the fate normally doled out to the lowest individuals in society?

And yet when the townspeople of New Haven picked up their pistols and clubs, they were expressing something deeper than the everpresent concerns of race, class, and criminality. Already by the turn of the nineteenth century, the legacy of Puritanism had lost its firm hold on New Englanders. Puritanism’s emphasis on the physical tortures of hell was actually a kind of preparation for the threat of the anatomist’s knife. Steeped in the orthodox Calvinist preoccupation with mankind’s corruptibility, Puritans viewed the decay of a corpse after death as indicative of human sin, making dissection less of a sacrilegious concept, though by no means an acceptable one. The growing demand for cadavers hit New England at the same time that attitudes towards death—and familiarity with the threat of posthumous physical destruction—had begun to shift.

As Puritanism faded from view, Victorian primness began to take hold. Increasingly, people in the Northeast sentimentalized the bodies of the dead. It became common around this time to hold on to keepsakes, typically a lock of hair, from the deceased. In the latter half of the century, postmortem pictures also spread in popularity, taken in the hopes of clinging to an imperishable image of loved ones.

This idealized vision of the body as a memorial unfortunately coincided with the growing pains of modern medicine. Nineteenth century America needed more doctors, and some of the dozens of medical colleges that suddenly opened their doors for business were of dubious quality. The result was often cavalier attitudes towards education, and particularly towards dissection. After forcing his way into a medical school during the New York Doctors Riot, Colonel William Heth recorded his shock at being confronted with the “wanton and inhuman complexion of the room,” where body parts had been strung up in “a most brutal position.” At the same time that the general public began to collect postmortem photographs, medical students began their own underground genre, trading amongst each other gruesome snapshots taken inside the hallowed dissecting room. When Erastus Osborn uncovered Bathsheba’s body in the cellar, the townspeople were forced to hold these two opposing concepts of death in contradistinction.

Today at Yale Medical School, the approach couldn’t be more different. For one, bodies are now voluntarily donated rather than taken from open graves. Before ever stepping into the anatomy lab, first-year students hear a talk by second-years who stress the sacrifice that “donors”—as the bodies are called—have made in giving their bodies to the medical school and the respect they should be accorded. Justin Chen, a second- year, said that the first time his class saw the cadavers, they were told, “Now you are going to meet your donor.”

But despite Yale’s best efforts, the dissection table still confronts students with the impersonal nature of practicing medicine. “When we see patients we generally don’t ask them what they do, what they’re like,” Chen reflected. “The way we see people in hospitals is completely different from who they are. [Anatomy class] brought this home because [the donor] is there so we can take them apart.” Both Chen and his 1824 predecessors hit on one of the fundamental conflicts of medicine: Doctors must look at the body both as a person to be healed and a specimen to be examined. Julia Bess Frank, a doctor at the Yale Medical School in the 1970s once explained, “Medicine, as a serving profession, is accorded great license, permission to inflict all sorts of pain and indignity on patients, doing bad in order to prevent worse, in hopes of curing disease.”

Meanwhile, outside the medical school walls, the rose-washed Victorian view of death persists. At the Beecher and Bennett Funeral Home in Hamden, CT, trained staff members work to meet the expectations of grieving families. According to Erin Hastings, a funeral director and embalmer at Beecher and Bennett, many family members care most about “the way the deceased looks.” Most of the time, she says, “they’ve seen their loved ones… go through a lot of pain, so when they can come in and see them looking peaceful, that’s a last image they’re going to have in their head.” When preparing the body for burial, she says, “We take a lot of time when we’re doing our job as embalmers and cosmeticians: getting their hair right, making sure that everything is neat and orderly.”

Though the students in 1824 robbed a West Haven cemetery instead of the more conveniently located cemetery across the street, it seems fitting that the medical school and the Grove Street Cemetery now stand at opposite ends of Yale’s campus. Dissection has shaken off most of its stigma, so much so that those who give their bodies to science are lauded for their contribution.

At the end of each year, the Yale anatomy students prepare a remembrance for their donors. In the Medical Historical Library, nestled amidst the collected knowledge of generations of doctors before them, they read poetry, perform music, and present photo exhibitions in the donor’s honor. But when the donors leave the medical school, they are not put back together. They are not given a funeral service, their family members are not afforded one last gaze, and they are not buried. Instead, they are cremated and their ashes placed with those of other donors. Though the practice of anatomy has come a long way, the destination of those who give their bodies to medicine is still a far cry from what most prefer to imagine as our final resting place.

Ivy Wang is a Senior in Ezra Stiles College. She is on the staff of TNJ.