Acquiring Cadavers:

Since bodies were required for medical education, they would be found and used whether legal or not. As mentioned earlier, grave robbing was illegal, and dissection was not legalized until 1884. Still, the demand for bodies created a black market for grave robbing that grew quite advanced. Aided by the railroad connecting Charlottesville and Richmond, (built in 1852) a network sprung up with a resurrectionist working in Richmond and shipping the bodies via train. The potential of Richmond as a site for procuring dead bodies was recognized as early as 1934 when Dr. Magill suggested moving the Medical School to the state capital for that very reason.1 Even the eventual system of body delivery was predicted by the suggestion at the same time that bodies could be brought to the school “by the appointment of an agent in Richmond who could forward weekly by wagon four or five cadavers.”2 There was some concern over the image that this business would have if it were common knowledge. L.W. Minor in a letter to John Staige Davis implores Davis to destroy the letters due to their unsavory nature.3 In terms of their positions as professors at an esteemed institution, there was evidently also some concern in political maneuvering.4 Once a body was taken from its resting space it would be packed in a barrel, preferably with bran, and sent away.5 Since the mail train was not deemed to be proper space to ship the barrels, it seems that a specific freight car for their transport was needed.6 To further demystify the system between Richmond and Charlottesville, it was suggested that the date of burial and the date of shipment would be included on the barrel.7

Though the system of procuring bodies was well organized, it did not always go as planned. Small mishaps like a body packed in sawdust instead of bran, or being overcharged were minor annoyances. In January 1852 the resurrectionist, known in the letters only as ‘W,’ was arrested in Richmond.8 Not only did the flow of bodies stop, but his arrest led to an added awareness of graverobbing Guards were placed near graves that prevented the resurrectionist from exercising “his talent”.9

Another interesting example from the mid-nineteenth century is the university's involvement in trying to acqire bodies from those who were executed after the John Brown insurrection of Harper's Ferry. From October 16th through the 19th of 1859, John Brown initiated a slave revolt in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Unfortunately the revolt was unsuccessful. Brown and his associates were caught and executed in December of 1859. Various medical universities wanted these bodies for cadaver use.10 The University of Virginia was one of these universities. John Staige Davis worked in the same area the revolters were executed, and his letters show how he felt his medical school was deserving of the bodies because of his connection to the town.11 His letters also show how much work was put into getting cadavers, with references to when the trains run and how much money the cadavers were worth. Even more revealing, is that the white bodies were shipped elsewhere for proper burials, while the African American conspirators were given away to medical schools as cadavers.12 The university did not end up getting these bodies, but their involvement shows how important cadavers were for teaching anatomy and how controversial, political, and contested the obtaining of cadavers were at the medical school.


This letter from January 26, 1852, from A.E. Peticolas to J.S. Davis describes how the resurrectionist was arrested after Christmas and could no longer "exercise his talent." 


This letter from July 23, 1851 is from J.L. Cabell to J.S. Davis. Cabell references problems between Richmond's medical school and UVA's medical school in relation to obtaining cadavers. 


This letter from November 27, 1850 from L.W. Minor to J.S. Davis discusses L.W. Minor's preferences for the packing conditions of his cadavers. The two men also write about how much money the cadavers are worth for children and adults. Minor also asked Davis to make sure the barrels that hold the cadavers include a stamp with the date of burial and the date of shipment. 


This letter from November 30, 1850 is also from L.W. Minor to J.S. Davis. Minor writes about a "prime subject to be buried tomorrow." The subject was a "colored woman." He also writes how he wanted a newborn child who was "found dead at a door," but would be "too decomposed by Friday next." In this same letter, Minor asked Davis to "destroy them, for truley they have not even a respectable appearance." 


This letter from January 1, 1857 is from E.F. Fontaine to Messieurs Davis, Rogers, Howard and discussed how the baggage car is no longer an appropriate transportation method for moving the medical school's cadavers and suggests using a mail train instead. 


This letter from J.S. Davis to an unknown source was written December 8, 1859 and discusses "procuring one or more of the bodies" of the "convicts awaiting execution" from Charlestown "for dissection in my department."

(All letters courtesy of Special Collections, UVA)

1. Philip Alexander Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919 v. 2, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920), 112.

2. Ibid., 113.

3. L.W. Minor to J.S. Davis, 30 November 1850.

4. J.L. Cabell to J.S. Davis, 23 July 1851.

5. L.W. Minor to J.S. Davis, 27 November 1850.

6. E.F. Fontaine to Davis, Rogers, Howard & Cabell, 1 January 1857.

7. L.W. Minor to J.S. Davis, 27 November 1850.

8. A.E. Peticolas to J.S. Davis, 26 Jauary 1852.

9. Ibid.

10. Thomas Featherstonhaugh, "The Final Burial of the Followers of John Brown," The New England Magazine 24 (August 1901): 133.

11. J.S. Davis to A.E. Peticolas, 22 November 1859.

12. Franny Nudelman, John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 52.