Medical History in Virginia & the Role of Body Snatching:

 The narratives that accompany the history of medicine and of grave robbing are gruesome and disturbing. Particularly for the history of medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries here in Virginia, it is a topic that is racially charged. As medical schools were being established through the United States in the 18th century, the demand for bodies to dissect increased. The dissection of cadavers was a prevalent component to medical curriculum, but it was highly controversial. People viewed dissection of cadavers as “immoral, irreligious, and a posthumous disgrace.”1 Due to the overwhelming disapproval of dissection, and therefore the limited resources of bodies, many medical schools resorted to grave robbing.

 Grave robbing was outlawed in Virginia in 1848 and it was not the only state to outlaw this practice. Many of these laws called for fines or the imprisonment of those found guilty of grave robbing. This all changed in 1884 when a law was passed that allowed for medical schools to dissect the unclaimed bodies of jails and poorhouses. Up until 1884 however, many anatomical and medical professors relied on grave robbers, also known as “body snatchers,” or “resurrectionists” in the medical field, to obtain the bodies for their anatomical classes. This was the case here at the University of Virginia.

 Due to the ostracized nature of the profession, grave robbers were forced to practice at night as well as in remote gravesites. Grave robbers would typically dig a hole at the head of the grave, pry the coffin lid off, and then lift the body out; sometimes this process would take about an hour. Any personal belongings of the body were placed back in the grave. Grave robbing had a seasonal timeline; bodies were robbed from the months of November to March because the cold weather acted as a natural means in which to preserve the body. The process had to be quick and done in total secrecy.

 In order to prevent family members’ bodies from becoming the victims of body snatching, some families purchased iron coffins to protect them after death or hired a guard to watch over the gravesite until the body had decomposed enough to render it useless by the medical field. The prevention of grave robbing came with a price and therefore the poor and marginalized of society became the targets of body snatching. In fact, it seems that many in American society did not object to the dissection of African Americans and the poor; their dissection was preferable to the dissection of the elite, white members of society. Even slave owners sold dead slave bodies to medical schools for dissection: as the property of a slave owner, even after death they were able to decide what they wanted to do with the body.

 Such was the environment in which the University of Virginia’s Anatomical Theatre operated within. Grave robbing was the main means through which many bodies were obtained for the anatomical lessons and more often than not, those bodies were the bodies of African Americans.

1. James O. Breeden, "Body Snatchers and Anatomy Professors: Medical Education in Nineteenth-Century Virginia." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 83, no. 3 (1975): 321.