Grave robbers were not the only hired help: students of the University also partook in the business of body snatching. Due to the difficulty in obtaining cadavers at UVA, sometimes students were required to obtain their own bodies.1 Students were at just as much risk as the grave robbers were to the dangers of the job. In December of 1834, A.F.E. Robertson, a medical student, was shot in the back, while digging up a body for an anatomical lesson.2 In a letter written by Archibald Cary, another medical student, he wrote, “Your acquaintance, A.F.E. Robertson (the young man you saw at Davis and thought so handsome) was shot in the back by an old fellow whilst endeavoring to take a dead Negro for our anatomical dissections. He is recovering and the old [coot?] will be sent to the Penitentiary.”3

 Research from the Albemarle County Commonwealth Causes confirms this incidence. A.F.E. Robertson and four other students did go to a cemetery on the plantation of a man named James Oldham, one of the original contractors who built the University, to dig up a body for their dissection lesson. Oldham found the boys digging in his cemetery and he told them to leave his property. After trying to have a word with Oldham, the students left, but Oldham still fired his gun, shooting Robertson in the back. Eventually, in 1835, the case was closed by the Grand Jury after finding that the evidence against Oldham was, what they deemed, not “true”.4 Not only does this story demonstrate the dangers of grave robbing, it also demonstrates that students were also stealing African American bodies from local cemeteries. Eventually, UVA partnered with the medical school in Richmond to share the cadavers of that region. This most likely diminished the pressure on students to find local cemeteries to rob in order to partake in their anatomical lessons.


Usually, enslaved individuals were targeted by the students though occasionally white subjects would be brought in from the surrounding area.5 It was not a particularly secret activity, either. In 1830, one student’s excuse for not dressing properly for a formal occasion was “that his coat had been spattered with mud and torn by briars in an ‘anatomical expedition.’”6 The reason why a student found it appropriate to wear his proper school uniform7 while robbing graves has been lost to time. An ‘anatomical expedition’ is recorded going as far away as Prince George County to procure a body in 1831, which seems to be a trip sanctioned by the University.8 The distance travelled may be explained by the periodic difficulty of finding suitable subjects either from lack of deaths or uncooperative weather.9 These expeditions hit far closer to the University as well, as Charles Christian Wertenbaker describes. The area to the north of the University Cemetery wall was where enslaved people were buried though “ it was then said that many of the bodies were only logs of wood or stones, for fear of having their dead taken up by the medical class.”10


Both images: Photo, University of Virginia Cemetery, date unknown,

University of Virginia Office of Public Affairs, UVA.

Photo, Suchak, Sanjay. Image of the Candlelight Ceremony at the University of Virginia Cemetery

Commemorating the Burial Sites of the Remains of Enslaved and post-Emancipation African Americans. 2014.

Accessed May 2016. 


1UVA, “The University of Virginia School of Medicine and the Pursuit of Anatomical Subjects,” University Cemetery Expansion ‘H’ Project: 25.

2. Ibid, 26.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Philip Alexander Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919, v.2, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920), 111.

6. Ibid, 256.

7.“What was the character of the uniform? It consisted of a coat, waistcoat, and pantaloons, manufactured from cloth of a dark mixture. The coat was cut high in the/neck, with a braided standing collar, and skirts of moderate length, with pocket flaps; the waistcoat was single-breasted, and the pantaloons were marked by a conspicuous stripe. The buttons were flat in shape and covered with cloth of the same dye as the suit. One of the students of this period, in recalling the uniform in after-life, said that it was the color popularly known as pepper and salt, while another speaks of it as having been of an invisible gray tint.” Ibid, 249-250.

8. Ibid, 111.

9. Ibid, 112.

10. Christian Wertenbacker, “The Early days of the University,” in Alumni Bulletin IV, no. 1 (May 1897), 112.