by Ann Marie Menting

The group operated clandestinely. Even its name remained unwritten. Correspondence from one member to another would merely contain discreet references to the Sp——rs Club. Nothing else needed to be stated. But the group of young men undoubtedly had a home, a safe haven for the implements so necessary to its gatherings. Perhaps it was simply a room that boasted a table, long but likely lean, as its furnishing. Around this fixture, the club members would gather, intent as one of their number separated skin from fascia, muscle from bone, and organ from cavity. Small animals, even the occasional larger creature, were sacrificed, opened, and studied by the group.
Had the club members restricted their explorations to four-legged species these activities would not, in themselves, have necessitated such discretion. But it was their other endeavor—the anatomical study of the human body—that demanded  their secrecy. During this nation’s formative years, the practice of human dissection struck equal measures of fear, loathing, and curiosity in the hearts of nearly every man and woman. And these attitudes were compounded by the knowledge that the fathers, daughters, grandmothers, and uncles whose bodies graced those cutting boards were most likely resurrected during midnight raids on local graveyards. This fact made the actions of these young men—these young Harvard medical men—daring, dangerous, and possibly, even demonic.

Like Father, Like Son
The group of young anatomists, known without elision as the Spunkers Club, is one such story. Founded in the late 1760s by a group of Harvard students, the club featured several future luminaries, including John Warren, who would be a founder of today ’s Harvard Medical School, and William Eustis, a future governor of Massachusetts, U.S. Congressional representative, and secretary of war for President James Madison. They and their comrades studied general medicine, surgery, and anatomy in the home of John’s brother, Joseph,  a noted physician, teacher, and Revolutionary War hero. It is speculated that Joseph, abetted by John, was the club’s instigator.

The club was a response to the times: In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a knowledge of human anatomy and skills in the surgical dissection of the human body were increasingly considered critical to the education of young men who wished to practice medicine. Coupled with this demand was the burgeoning number of medical colleges in the colonies.

Yet crucial components to such an education—human cadavers—were  nearly nonexistent. Reasonable legal mechanisms for procuring a steady supply of bodies wouldn’t appear until the late 1800s. So any physician, teacher, or student who sought to learn the internal byways of the human body was forced to be inventive. The more daring of students often took it upon themselves to procure a candidate for dissection either by hijacking a body between deathbed and grave or by extracting one from its earthy resting place. This exercise was not unknown to young John Collins Warren, a future founder of Massachusetts General Hospital. He reported that in 1796, while a student at Harvard College, he “began the business of getting subjects” for anatomical study. And quite the business it was, to read one of his accounts.

“We reached the spot at ten o’clock at night . . . [and] proceeded rapidly, uncovering the coffin by breaking it open. We took out the body of a stout young man, put it in a bag, and carried it to the burying-group wall.” The theft was not to be that simple, though, for at the wall, the troop found a man walking along, smoking. The lads were forced to improvise.
“One of the company . . . affected to be intoxicated, while he contrived to get into a quarrel with the stranger,” Warren recalled. “After he succeeded in doing this, another of the party, approaching, pretended to side with the stranger, and ordered the other to go about his business. Taking the stranger by the arm, he led him off in a different direction. . . .” The body was whisked off to Cambridge while the young Warren stayed behind, working until dawn to refill the grave and gather the tools. At the day’s first class, he faced his teacher, John Warren, the School’s first professor of anatomy and surgery, former Spunker—and his father.

“When my father came in the morning to lecture,” the younger Warren wrote, “and found that I had been engaged in this scrape, he was very much alarmed; but when the body was uncovered, and he saw what a fine, healthy subject it was, he seemed to be as much pleased as I ever saw him.” The acorn, it seems, had not fallen far from the oak.

The Company One Keeps
While it was often the responsibility of the students to provide the specimens they would dissect in class, it was more usual for the professor to shoulder the duty of ensuring an adequate supply of cadavers. For centuries in England and its North American colonies, the sole sanctioned source of bodies was criminals, especially those whose crimes were so heinous that the judge added further insult to the death sentence by ordering the body “anatomized.”

In 1784, Massachusetts added duelists convicted of killing an opponent to the list of candidates for the dissection table, and by 1824 the Commonwealth had augmented that supply with the bodies of convicts who died while in prison.

The numbers remained woefully inadequate, however. Estimations of supply and demand in Vermont, for instance, indicated that between 1820 and 1840, nearly 1,600 students attended medical schools in that state, and each student was expected to perform a dissection alone, with a preceptor, or as a member of a small group. Conservative tallies placed the number of bodies needed to serve Vermont’s medical students at about 400. Yet records indicate a mere 40 corpses would have been available legally.

If one extrapolated Vermont’s situation to the nation at that time, supply estimates grew to about 5,000 bodies, again far exceeding the number legally obtainable. Preceptors and physicians were forced to think along lines that usually placed them in league with grisly vendors known variously as resurrectionists, sack ’em up men, exhumators, body snatchers, or grave robbers.

Stock in Trade
Although this form of commerce was not an above-board sort of business, there is a rich record of diaries, epistles, and newspaper accounts of grave robbers’ exploits. These documents reveal the risky and lucrative nature of the business. An 1820 bill to the London surgeon and anatomist Sir Astley Cooper, who kept more than a few resurrectionists busy, parsed one delivery into such costs as transport and the hiring of carriage and coachmen for a total of 13 pounds, 12 shillings. In 2008, in the United States, that sum would have translated to roughly $1,300. Such pricing was not exclusive to England’s commerce; one early-nineteenth-century Ohio-based exhumator charged medical schools $30 per corpse, or approximately $409 in 2008 dollars. His business was said to have been brisk.

The trade was also seasonal. Medical colleges held sessions from early September through May. This calendar had olfactory benefits as it avoided the steamy months of June, July, and August when bodies, in this time before embalming, could become quite ripe quite quickly.

Methods for raising and transporting the corpses were as varied as the personalities and talents of the robbers who employed them. For the standard grave robbery, however, a party of three was considered effective—two to dig the body out and one to drive the getaway wagon. Since resurrections were best undertaken at night, daytime reconnaissance was vital, not only to triangulate the grave against easy-to-locate landmarks but also to observe and map any traps the family may have set to thwart the very act the robbers were planning. Some deterrents were simple telltales—cleverly strewn flowers, perhaps, or a patterning of stones or shells—others, such as tripwires attached to loaded, cocked guns, were dangerous and direct. 

For the task, the minimum equipment was a shaded lantern, tarpaulins, an auger for preparing the coffin lid to be pried open, and one or two wooden spades—wood did not ring out as metal would when it hit a rock or other hard surface.

In addition to these tools, the digging duo often had one of two items specially crafted for pulling the body from its crypt. One, a simple harness, could be slipped under the arms of the deceased; an attached rope allowed the robbers to tug the body free. Another device—the hook—may indeed have had its genesis among butchers. This tool, forged from a long iron bar, had one end curled to form a short, blunt hook. By snagging the hook under the corpse’s chin, the diggers could pull the body up and out.
Time from start to finish? Most sack ’em uppers bragged one hour flat.

Amateur Hour
Sometimes anatomists and physicians of the do-it-yourself stripe would attempt to resurrect bodies for their own use. Such endeavors could be perilous, as Thomas Sewall, Class of 1812, learned. Sewall lived in Chebacco, a section of Ipswich, Massachusetts. There he married and set up practice. And it was there, in the fall of 1819, that Sewall was found guilty of possession of disinterred bodies.

The events that led to this outcome  began on a wintry night a year earlier when residents near the town’s graveyard noticed glimmers of light coming from its grounds. Worries were kindled and within days townspeople were in the graveyard with picks and shovels. One family found a distinctive hair clip next to  the recent grave of their daughter—yet her body, and the hair once moored by the clip, no longer lay in the grave. Others excavated the graves of their departed. A total of eight graves, some dating back to 1811, were found to be unoccupied. Suspicion quickly centered on Sewall—he was known to teach dissection to students in his home—and when identifiable parts of three different bodies were found on his premises, he was indicted for what newspapers of the time called a “most daring and sacrilegious robbery.”

In November, Sewall, and his attorney, Daniel Webster, were handed the guilty verdict. Sewall was fined $800, possibly the largest fee assessed for possession of an unsanctioned corpse—a body other than that of a criminal’s—in the country. No longer comfortable as a member of the Chebacco community, Sewall accepted Webster’s invitation to move to Washington, DC. There, Sewall was professionally reborn, helping to found and lead the Medical Department of The Columbian College, which is today the medical school for George Washington University.

By the Book
The Sewall affair highlights some of the confounding legal aspects of grave robbing. By and large, the taking of bodies from graves was not illegal—a dead body was not considered property in English, and therefore in early colonial, law. Yet the clothing and ornaments buried with the dead were protected; their theft was actionable. To honor this fine line, most grave robbers stripped the bodies they appropriated of all physical goods; their only worry then became the ire of townsfolk who might catch them at their labors. Physicians and medical schools were not exempt from the public’s anger, for the anatomists’ patronage of the body snatchers fueled an industry that preyed upon their departed neighbors, friends, and families.

In Massachusetts, an effort to clear the legal ambiguity over the procurement  of bodies began in earnest in 1815 when the Commonwealth passed a law—the one that led to Sewall’s disgrace and fine—making it a felony to disturb a grave or to receive a body obtained in such a fashion. Punishments included a one-year imprisonment or a fine of up to $1,000. Within two decades, the issue driving the trade—the meager supply of bodies for study—was taken up by Abel Lawrence Peirson, Class of 1816, a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Like many of his colleagues, Peirson, a Salem surgeon, was mortified by surgery’s association with the grave-robbing industry. In February 1829, he formed a committee to petition the legislature to “modify the existing laws which operate to forbid the procuring of subjects for anatomical dissection.” By January 1830, a bill had been introduced, but it went nowhere. So Peirson’s committee began the nineteenth-century version of a media campaign—complete with pamphlets, op-ed pieces, and public debates—that aimed to educate the public on the proposal’s merits.

Their tactics worked. In early February 1831, the legislature requested that a member of the society address the proposal at a joint session; John Collins Warren, who since his grave-robbing days had become a widely respected surgeon—and the first dean of Harvard Medical School—was tapped to tackle the task. By the end of that month, an act protecting the “sepulchres of the dead” and legalizing the study of anatomy, the first to do so in the United States, had been passed. The rule permitted civil officials to surrender any corpse that would have otherwise been slated for burial at public expense, thereby increasing the supply of bodies for study and undermining the resurrectionist trade.

The law also helped sever the link between dissection and crime that existed in the public mind. Gone was the centuries-old judicial fiat for treating dissection and anatomical study as insults to be added to the execution sentences of those guilty of such major crimes as murder. And for families that for generations had associated the actions of anatomists with the theft and desecration of their loved ones, gone was their need to pattern the ground above their departed.

Ann Marie Menting is the associate editor of the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin.