Skip to content

Additional Organization Links

Search and Explore

Primary Menu

Updates regarding the review process of our content.

Education Blog

Black Cemeteries and Grave Robbing


Mütter EDU Staff

June 8, 2021

Hello, fellow historic-medico aficionados, and welcome to the latest installment of , our semi-regular series on unusual and interesting aspects of medical history. This month's article comes from regular contributor Amanda McCall. Amanda has put together several pieces examining the history of medical exploitation. Past works include examining , whose cells were extracted without her consent and used in countless medical advances, and , a pioneer in gynecology whose advances came at the expense of enslaved women.

This time around, she is addressing bodysnatching in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the ways medical education often came about by exploiting marginalized communities.

Over the centuries, medicine has walked many shadowy paths in the pursuit of knowledge and experience, and the acquiring of cadavers for dissection remains one of the darkest. The ability to study human cadavers is a vital part of any medical student’s training, and the knowledge gained from dissection would be impossible to get elsewhere. Unfortunately, throughout history acquiring the necessary remains has presented a sizeable challenge. Often people have been reluctant to part with the bodies of their loved ones for what might be argued the good of science. How, then, did medical schools provide cadavers for their students? For many schools, accepting bodies obtained illegally and without familial consent presented itself as the best option. Frequently cemeteries and graveyards of poor and Black communities were the ones pillaged to provide cadavers.

In the UK, where many of the first medical schools were started, there was also a struggle to obtain enough bodies for students to dissect. By the late 1700’s, English Parliament had passed a law allowing judges to sentence people convicted of murder to dissection as well as death. It was thought this action might deter possible future murderers, but even so there were still not enough cadavers to go around. Teaching physicians recognized it was only a matter of time before they needed to do something else to keep their students, and this involved accepting recently dead community members who had been unwillingly pulled from their graves for dissection.

At the same time in the US, medical schools were just beginning to find their footing in certain cities. They were having an even harder time supplying enough bodies for every year’s incoming students. It seems like the path to grave robbing was even shorter in the US. In the 1780s in New York City, most of the bodies that ended up on dissection tables were Black despite comprising only 15% of the city’s population. Graverobbers targeted Black graveyards at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. The Black community tended to be poorer and lacked the social and moral protection that the white community was afforded. Moreover, Black graveyards tended to be geographically isolated and further out of the city. The community noticed how often the graves of their loved ones were being disturbed and pled with the New York City Council to do something about it. They were denied any help. It was not until a white body was accidentally stolen out of the Trinity Church cemetery that there was any public outcry, and a move toward change occurred. In 1789, New York made graverobbing illegal and allowed judges to add dissection to sentences of murder. However, this did little to help curb the problem and graverobbing continued.

During the nineteenth century, the need for medical schools soared in the US, expanding from four schools in 1800 to over 160 by 1900, and the need for cadavers soared along with them. Families and loved ones were increasingly aware of the crimes executed after dark in their cemeteries and graveyards, and they were becoming angry and frustrated. These groups sought justice for their loved ones who had been stolen from their graves. There are at least 20 accounts of “Anatomical Riots" between 1788 to 1857 in the US. The most memorable of these occurred in April 1788 in New York City. One account says that a group of young boys was playing in a field near the Columbia College medical school when one of them noticed something hanging out of a second story window. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a severed arm from one of the school’s cadavers. The arm might have belonged to a deceased mother of one of the boys. Understandably alarmed, the boys told one their fathers who gathered a small group of fellow citizens and stormed Columbia College. They ransacked the medical school and forced the physicians and medical students to flee to safety. The group of citizens found enough evidence that they felt it necessary to return the next morning with even greater numbers. The Governor of New York felt compelled to call in the state militia due to the reported hundreds of concerned citizens roaming the streets near Columbia looking for guilty medical students. Six people died over the course of this conflict.

Philadelphia, home to prominent medical schools such as Jefferson Medical College and Pennsylvania Hospital, was not exempt from the graverobbing controversies during this time. In late 1882, Philadelphia suffered through its own graverobbing crisis. On the night of December 4, 1882, the superintendent of Lebanon Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia and three accomplices were found digging up a corpse. Reporters from The Philadelphia Press had been tracking the occurrences at the cemetery for months (according to them) and performed a citizen's arrest that night. Lebanon Cemetery was an African American cemetery located on the outskirts of the city. At that time, there were very few buildings and houses surrounding it, making it a logical choice for possible graverobbers. After interrogation, the men admitted they were obtaining bodies for dissection on behalf of Jefferson Medical College, specifically, a prominent anatomist that taught there named William S. Forbes, who was also a Fellow at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. When The Philadelphia Press article broke, there was a significant amount of community outrage, and a large mob even threatened to lynch the guilty parties. They were convicted within two weeks which many believe might have helped to alleviate much of the anger. Forbes was arrested on December 15th and charged for his involvement. However, he argued he had never had direct dealings with the accused men and was only there to receive the bodies. He claimed had no idea where they were actually coming from. Forbes was acquitted for these reasons, and then went on to author the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act of 1883 which allowed unclaimed bodies from jails, hospitals, and poorhouses to be distributed to the area medical schools.

By the mid-1800s a few states had passed laws to allow medical schools access to unclaimed bodies or bodies that would be buried at the public’s expense. The states felt this was a suitable way to reassure “respectable” people that their graves would be safe, but it also succeeded in making the less privileged feel even more targeted. They probably felt they were being punished for being poor, and the stigma attached to having your body dissected added insult to injury. After all, up to that point, only criminals had their bodies taken for use in the medical schools. By the beginning of the 20th century, most medical school cadavers came from the unclaimed dead. The scandals surrounding anatomical dissection continued into the mid 20th century when regulated body donation programs became more common.

Few can argue against the importance of dissection in the education of physicians and the progress of medicine. The ability to study the inner workings of the human body has proven indispensable. In order to best treat their patients, a physician needs to have a solid grasp on what is happening inside us, but it is easy to see how medicine’s desire for knowledge has outweighed its sensitivity to the concerns of the community. Agency and understanding were as important then as they are now. Science and medicine cannot ignore the concerns and needs of their community in pursuit of progress.

Thanks, again, Amanda! If you want to read more by her, check out her look at eating mummies for medicinal reasons and the , a 15th century guide to hunting witches. If you want to read more about bodysnatching, check out our works on whether , a , and the relative of two U.S. Presidents .

Until next time, catch you on the strange side.


Ghosh, Sanjib Kumar.  Anatomy and Cell Biology 48. No. 3 (September 2015): 153-169.

Halperin, Edward C.  Clinical Anatomy 20. No. 5 (July 2007): 489-495.

Lovejoy, Bess.  National Museum of Civil War Medicine (February 12, 2017). Accessed June 8, 2021.

             Smithsonian Magazine (June 17, 2014). Accessed June 8, 2021.

Mathis, Rachel H., Jill H. Watras, and Jonathan M. Dort. American College of Surgeons CC2016 Poster Competition. Accessed June 8, 2021.

McLeary, Erin.  Hidden City (April 13, 2015). Accessed June 8, 2021.

Pietila, Antero.  Smithsonian Magazine (October 25, 2018). Accessed June 8, 2021.