Have you ever heard of the “body snatchers” of New York City? These were individuals who stole corpses from graves and sold them to medical schools for dissection and study in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The practice of body snatching, or grave robbing, had been going on for centuries, but it reached new heights in the 19th century with the demand for cadavers for medical education. The supply of legal cadavers (those donated for the purpose of dissection) couldn’t keep up with the demand, so some individuals turned to illicit means to obtain bodies.
In New York City, body snatching was particularly rampant due to the high number of medical schools and the crowded, poorly-maintained burial grounds. The city’s cemeteries were overcrowded, and bodies were often buried just a few feet below the surface, making them easy targets for body snatchers.
The body snatchers, or “resurrectionists” as they were sometimes called, worked in the dead of night, digging up freshly-buried corpses and transporting them to medical schools or anatomy labs. They were often paid handsomely for their efforts, and the practice became a lucrative business.
But it wasn’t just the body snatchers who profited from this trade. Medical schools and anatomy professors also turned a blind eye to the illicit nature of the bodies they were using for dissection.
The body snatching trade eventually came to an end in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thanks in part to the development of legal means for obtaining cadavers and the passage of laws that made it more difficult to steal bodies. But the legacy of the body snatchers lives on in the history of New York City and the field of medicine.