Anatomists and the Body Snatchers

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Photo found by my sister, Cynthia Clark Drewek, among those belonging to my father, Dr. William M. Clark (Sam Lillard Clark’s second child).

The following article was written by my grandfather, Dr. Sam Lillard Clark, who was an Associate Professor of Anatomy (1930-1937), and Head of the Anatomy Department (1937 to 1960) at Vanderbilt University. He was on the Tennessee State Anatomical Board, a group charged with the task of ensuring that the medical schools of the State had sufficient cadavers. Dr. Clark called it the “Board Stiff.” —Alan M. Clark




Presented to the Old Oak Club, February 1945

Perhaps this paper should be begun with the comment of Hamlet’s father:

“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porcupine”

And since I am not “Forbid to tell the secrets” of the trade of resurrectionists I should copy the manner of a well-known if not popular radio program, that begins with the statement “We warn you quietly but earnestly to turn off your radio right now!”

So at this time as we hear a few words from the sponsor (this paper comes to you through the courtesy of the Anatomical Board – or as the French might, but do not, put it, The Board Stiff) – If you do not take your hat  and go home I shall assume no further responsibility for the consequences.  I can recommend Dr. Wm. F. Orr, however, as one who can “minister to a mind diseased” and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the “stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs heavy on the heart”.

You might put his telephone down (AL 4-5411) for future reference if you insist on staying.

Instruction in Medicine is no doubt almost as ancient as the race.  Since Chiron the Centaur, the son of Chronos, initiated Aesculapius into the mysteries of the Healing Art, man has through most gradual stages developed it into a science, meanwhile not forgetting the art.  The study of medicine as we know it began its development in connection with the shrines of Aesculatius on the Grecian Island of Cos and of Rhodes, and of Cnidos, lead by the renowned Hippocrates, whose oath, it is popularly believed, every finished doctor is made to take before being given a degree and a license.  Contributions to medicine by the Arabs, the Egyptians, the Chinese and the other civilizations were absorbed until, at about the time of Christ, the knowledge of medicine was fairly well along.  

Near that time Galen set down most of what was known just in time for it to be ensnared by the remarkable influences that froze the knowledge and beliefs of people for 1200-1400 years.  Galen’s description of Human Anatomy was regarded as scriptural, although much of it was on the morphology of animals, learned partly by Galen’s actual investigations and partly by the experience of priests and the altar attendants in the auguries.

With the general awakening in many fields, Vesalius, in the 15th Century at Padua, put aside the writings of Galen, which the Professor of Anatomy had been in the habit of reading from his elevated chair while the barber surgeon demonstrated the Anatomy on the table at a much lower level, to the students who need not even soil their hands.

Vesalius, seeing things no one had tried to see for 1400 years, dragged to the table with him all subsequent generations of medical students.  Material for dissection was first provided by the state in Italy from the bodies of condemned criminals, but with all the young students crowding, as it were, into the amphitheater crying “let me see,” the occasional official execution was too rare. 

Though the church frowned upon dissection of the body, man’s curiosity was too great to be thwarted.  With the rapid growth of medical schools generally, the supplying of anatomical material became quite a problem in some countries.  Italy, Germany, Austria, and France early made legal provision for dissection but in  England there was at first no provision and the anatomical experience of students was restricted.  Students of the continental schools were admittedly better prepared.  Since legal measures providing anatomical material were not enacted in advance of their need, a market developed, the blackness of which would not be denied in any detail.

In this market the customers were the best people, that is, they were members of a learned profession, the Doctors, and if it were becoming of me to distinguish between the best and the better, I might add they were the professors in the medical schools.  The providers of the commodities, while not learned, were of necessity smart, at least smart enough to carry on an illegal traffic which was known by everyone to be in progress and was considered both illegal and necessary at the same time.  The most indifferent participants in this market were the commodities, the “friendless bodies of unburied men,” the prevailing prices 8 to 10 pounds.

“Medical Education from the Ground Up” copyright © 2008 Alan M. Clark. Cover art for The Corpse King by Tim Curran – Cemetery Dance Publications.

With such an arrangement it is not surprising that there should have been competition for both the raw material and for the markets, and the inevitable conflict resulted.  In 1829 one such focus of conflict resulted in Mr. Wm. Burke receiving legally a dose of his own medicine by being “Publicly anatomized, his carcass thereafter flayed, his hide tanned, and his skeleton by order of the court preserved in the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University.”   One dubious honor not foreseen by the court was the inclusion of Burke’s name in future dictionaries as a transitive verb along with such other notable as Guillotine, Bowie, and Garrot.  Burke and his associate Hare, having found it too troublesome to snatch bodies in the usual manner, supplied Dr. Robert Knox, popular anatomical lecturer in one of the extramural schools, with material which the latter “approved of its being so fresh, but (about which he) did not ask any questions.”  Ten pounds apiece for such material plus a minor amount from the sale of the incidental belongings of the victims was easy money for the pair until some transient boarders (Mr. and Mrs. Gray, whom Burke had no doubt looked upon as “available”) uncovered the habit and reported it to the constabulary.

The horripilating details of this story can be consulted at will in an account by Mr. Wm. Roughead called “The Wolves of West Port.”  For those who wish to see the good in everything the innocent victims of Burke and Hare provided the impetus for an Anatomical Act passed by Parliament in 1832 and the resurrection men retired from business, at least in the British Isles.

From the business side there were details and asides of the trade of the resurrectionists that need not detain us here, such as the extra profit from extracted teeth, the liaisons with gravediggers, the ‘mortsafes’ placed over graves in the cemeteries, the patented coffins designed to assure rest in peace, and the temporary storage house to be used until such time as the worms and their lesser brethren made it safe to bury the dead.

The resurrection men worked in England with relative freedom from the meshes of the law before the passage of the Anatomical Act, since at that time there was no property in a dead body, and a prosecution for felony could not take place unless some portion of the cerements or the coffin could be proven to have been stolen with the body.

Besides, there was perhaps the human element in the police who were probably not too anxious to get in the way of proper medical education, or to throttle a minor source of income.

Perhaps the point of view of the English constabulary in this instance was expressed by those in Messers. Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” as they sing:

When a felon’s not engaged in his employment

his employment

Or maturing his felonious little plans

little plans

His capacity for innocent enjoyment

‘cent enjoyment

Is just as great as any honest man’s

honest man’s

Our feelings we with difficulty smother

‘culty smother

When constabulary duty’s to be done

to be done

Ah, take one consideration with another

with another

A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.

In case you are interested in what the resurrectionist did in his “off” as well as his “on” hours you may consult “The Diary of a Resurrectionist 1811-1812” edited by James Blake Bailey, Librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, published in 1896.  There you will read such entries as this:

“Friday 9th went to look at different places.  At night went to St. Olave’s, got 2 adults M. and F.  M. was opened took them to St. Thomas’s; again met, I got drunk.  Missed going to the party. 

“They separated, part went to Lambeth.  Got 1 adult F., they missed one, took that to the Bore the others (except Ben who was getting drunk) went to Connolly.   Got 1 adult F., took that to Bartholomew, and removed the others same place.   “Saturday 10th met at Bartholomew.  Mr. Stanley took three of the above two F.  8/8/00 one adult M. being opened 3/13/6d, one adult male being opened, left one on hand, came home, in all night.  (p. 170) 

“The back of this is occupied by a table for finding the moon’s age on any given day”- an important part of the knowledge required.

Excerpt from “In the Dark, In the Night” copyright © 2013 Alan M. Clark. Cover art for the double-book, Only the Thunder Knows/East End Girls by Gord Rollo and Rena Mason respectively.

In spite of the English example we were no more forehanded in providing anatomical material for the plethora of medical schools that appeared in this country (the United States), though the main body of their curriculum was Anatomy, emphasized proportionally much more than it is today in the training of medical student.

In Tennessee alone there have been 18 medical schools, though the three today are a good percentage of the 75 in the United States for one of the 48 states to possess.  When Abraham Flexner made his survey in 1909, there were nine medical schools (six white, three colored) in Tennessee with a total of 1,458 students, at least twice as much as there are today.

About them Mr. Flexner remarked “the state of Tennessee protects at this date more low-grade medical schools than any other Southern state.  Perhaps the worst of these (K.M.C) had as total resources the annual fees amounting to an estimated $1,020.00.  It occupied the floor above an undertakers’ establishment and had no clinical facilities and no dispensary”.  Mr. Flexner’s summary:  “The catalogue of this school is a tissue of misrepresentation from cover to cover.”

“Autopsy” copyright © 1999 Alan M. Clark. Interior Illustration for The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale – Subterranean Press.

Legal provision for anatomical material for such schools must not have appealed to intelligent legislative bodies.  There had always been considerable prejudice against dissection throughout the country, and its participants in that fine art were identified more or less justifiably with “grave robbers.”

In fact, the “students were expected to cooperate with their teachers in securing anatomical specimens” in the Cincinnati school established by Drake and Rogers in 1819-1820.  

Occasionally the people gave public vent to their feeling.  The most serious disturbance of the sort was the “Doctor’s Riot” in New York City in 1788.

The students of Columbia, it was suspected, were indulging in the practice of resurrectionism.  On April 13, 1788, a Sunday, some boys near New York Hospital saw a limb dangling from a window.  They spread the news, a mob gathered and invaded the hospital.  Much damage to property was done and several doctors were mauled before they were taken to jail for protection.

The next morning the mob reassembled and started to search the homes of the suspected physicians.  The Governor, the Chancellor, and the Mayor mingled with the rioters and persuaded them to disperse, but in the afternoon some came together and demanded the imprisoned doctors.  Finally the militia was called out and a free-for-all fight ensued.  Seven rioters were killed and many wounded when the militia opened fire.

In Baltimore in 1807 the “Anatomy Hall” erected at the expense of the professor (Dr. John Davidge) was demolished at the time of the first dissection.  At Yale, in 1824, and St. Louis in 1844, there were less serious disturbances though there was an old Colonial law in Mass. dating 1649 making bodies of criminals available for “Anatomie”.  The first law in this country recognizing the scientific importance of dissection was not passed until 1784.  Also in Mass., its aim was oblique as it granted the bodies of those killed in dueling and those executed for killing in a duel to teachers of anatomy for dissecting purposes.  New York passed a similar law in 1789, and in 1790, Congress gave Federal judges the right to add dissection when imposing the death penalty for murder.  New Jersey followed in 1796.

Massachusetts liberalized the legal provision for dissection in that state in 1831 by passing a law turning over all unclaimed bodies to recognized medical institutions.  In the South the white people seemed not to object to the dissection of negroes (a state of mind still prevalent) and Missouri in 1835 passed a legislative act permitting dissection of the bodies of slaves with the consent of their masters.

The Anatomical Act in Tennessee is dated 1899.  It was stated by Bailey that the English act retired the resurrection men, but in Nashville, with an inadequate act, and some 300 new medical students annually about the turn of the century, it only lightened their responsibility.  One of the most active of the recent ones and certainly the fittest one, if we can judge by his ability to survive a long period (at least 35 years) of activity in this field – and his willingness to take it up again at the flick of my eyebrow, reports that he and the others not only had to provide beyond the legal limit enough to make 125 to 150 cadavers to the four medical schools (Vanderbilt, Meharry, Tennessee, and Nashville), but also shipped out, by express, around a hundred bodies per year packed in unlabeled barrels in sawdust and alcohol – mostly to Iowa City.  No paperwork was done on these, the expressman and dealers handling the money personally.

The general method employed here was like that of England.  It was the natural development of the situation.  The details of the procedure are as given to me by a participant whose character has always been above reproach and whose loyalty to the institution for which he worked rather than the monetary reward was his stimulus.  I do not suppose one could discount, however, the excitement and the satisfaction of outwitting the law as it were.  In order not to reveal too definitely his identity, I shall refer to him merely as “Bill.”

The procedure was standardized and the organization simple.  The professors at the Medical Schools had employees who worked about the school and were usually the active part of the market.  Bill was one of these.  Those men had acquaintances who were the informers and at times the actual resurrectionists.  The informer would learn of a burial in a small cemetery (the larger ones had permanent watchmen and alarm systems) and perhaps attended the funeral.  These informers varied in occupation, some being merely hangers on, some were the caretakers of an institutions’ ground, one was the custodian of the Potter’s Field.  Some were undertakers, some the doctors who had waited on the patient in his last illness and at least one in this vicinity a minister who spoke with authority on the place of burial after preaching at the funeral.  The medical school representatives preferred not to do the excavating and frequently would call for the body at a stated point and time of night, pay for it, and haul it back to the school.  Likewise, the medical school representative varied, and might be the colored janitor, one or more medical students, the business representative or the professor himself.

The vehicle used might be privately owned, a livery stable rig or the doctor’s buggy, on the back of which, with top pushed back, two bodies could safely be carried if well tied on.  

My resurrectionist spoke with a glint in his eye of the times when he and the professor of the Tennessee Medical School would both learn of a body at the Poor Farm and have a kind of race for it.  The caretaker would let the first one that came have the body he had been storing since its disinterment, in the potato cellar of the institution, and if Bill got there first, he would turn up a side lane or hide in the weeds near the Hydes Ferry Bridge until the professor drove by with his white horse and red wheeled buggy to hear some alibi from the man at the other end (or who might merely fail to show up).

According to Bill (and I shall lapse into his vernacular for the most part for a while):

“They used to bury ‘em at the State Prison and the doctors there would have the trustees go and dig’em up for us.  At the Central Hospital they buried ‘em down in the far end, and me ‘n old Julius got several down there with the help of a senior student who was ‘er intern.  But they got to watching that place and one night when we was pretty near through, we had to cover it and come on back to town by a back lane.

“At the Potter’s Field the caretaker was a lady.  She was a gruff one and had a half-witted son.  They buried ‘em there only two feet deep, but the lady she had to have the money first and maybe a quart of whiskey.  There was one mail carrier on Fessler’s Lane.  He lived near the cemetery and had an arrangement with the sexton.  He brought ‘em in at night in the buggy he delivered mail in during the day time.

“Some folks got into trouble now and then.  There was the time when Police Bennett’s father was stolen from the cemetery at Eagleville by Dr. Highmark, a prominent doctor there.  They sold the body to the Nashville School and the men who worked there shipped it to Iowa.  The folks at Eagleville found out about it through careless handling and then sued the Nashville School but didn’t get anything.  One of the men involved was a playmate of mine, and he had a brother who is now a deputy sheriff.  He came to me and I told him to go back and cuss and raise sand and make like he wanted to find the man who stole the body.  Doctor Highmark got four years in prison, but the Governor pardoned him after a few months.  But he didn’t do no good afterwards.  He moved away from Eagleville and Dr. Owens took his place.  

“There were tricks in the trade.  Little Harry worked for the Medical School at the University of Nashville and he got a body out of a house by signing up with the Justice of the Peace that he was a relative.  He sold the body to the University.  At another time one of the fellows that worked with the University went with Little Harry and they didn’t let two other fellows, Little John and Big John that worked at the school, know they were going.  When Little Harry and his friend got back they put the two bodies in the back door of the school but they didn’t shut the door tight.  The other two had been hid and were spying on them.  So they came out and put the two bodies in a wheel barrow and broke the lock on the door so it would look like the bodies were stolen.  They come and woke me up in the middle of the night (said Bill) and brought the bodies through the street in a wheel barrow the block and a half over to Vanderbilt.  No one saw them.  We took ‘em and the next day when they asked if Vanderbilt had gotten any bodies we said yes but didn’t know who brought ‘em.  We just took them in and told the men to come back next day to get their money.  Meantime Little John and Big John were tipped off not to come.  Dr. Ewing, who was head of the Nashville School, offered $500.00 reward for the ones that did it.  Sidebottom and Turner were the detectives then, and they offered me a hundred dollars to tell ‘em about the bodies.  But no detectives ever outwitted Vanderbilt.

“There was John Prim.  He went out to Providence for the funeral.  That night he hired a buggy from Waldorf Livery Stables and went out there to steal the body with a light suit and a Panama hat on, which was the wrong thing to do.  The men were laying for him and shot him in the hip.  He came back and told me what happened, and I took him in the buggy over to Dr. Wilson’s infirmary, and Dr. Wilson picked most of the shot out and dressed his wounds.  Then I paid Dr. Wilson so it would be kept quiet and there wouldn’t be no scandal.  After that I brought John over to Vanderbilt there on Ellum [Elm] Street and hid him in a little cubby hole under the floor where the steam pipes were.  At night, I’d let him out and I’d dress his wounds and pick out a few more shot.  I could do that as well as anybody.  I’d helped Dr. Eve and all of ‘em and knew how to sterilize the instruments and all like that.  Well, one night it was raining and John was about all right.  I took all the money I had, about 13 dollars, and give it to John.  I had Henry Red go and pack up John’s grip and took him in a buggy down that alley back of the Old Medical school ‘till we come to the fish house on Demonbreun, then on down to First Avenue and up along the side of the river and across the bridge to Gallatin Pike and to Edgefield Junction.  That’s where he caught the Chicago train.  He stayed away for years and years and came back here sick.  He was a policeman in Chicago.

“One man got killed by his own brother.  One brother was watching the grave and the other come to dig the body up and the one watching rose up and shot him.  The men with him got away but they lost their brace and bit.  This was on the Van Leer Kirkman place around 1899 or 1900.

“Lugro, an Italian that ran a Negro joint in Black Bottom, was another body that caused some trouble.  He was a big fellow, weighed about 300 lbs.  Norvell and Wallace had bought one of the buildings at the Centennial and were tearing it down.  Lugro went out to buy some lumber and a piece of scantling fell on him and killed him.  He was dug up and the body taken to Vanderbilt and the people who brought him told to come back and get their money.  He had been buried in Calvary and somebody saw men putting his body in a buggy that night and called the officers.  They found an overshoe that the grave robbers had lost.  When they got suspicious, the body was slipped out of Vanderbilt from the back in the alley and put in a wagon in the daytime and carried over to 8th Avenue and put in the coal house of one of the folks that worked for Vanderbilt.  Hanifer and Hanifer were the detectives.  After dark the body was moved from the coal house and carried out on Ridley Blvd. and dropped right at the door of Norvell and Wallace’s lumber yard (here there was a pause and kind of chuckle at the poetic justice).

“The two men that got Lugro got to be big contractors.  They were in the ice business then.  Both men are dead now.  I went over to their yard not long before they died and tried to buy something and they give it to me.  They said my money wouldn’t spend.

“Then there was the Lee girl that was stole from the Mill Creek graveyard about 1895.  They got the body and were careless.  They suspicioned Vanderbilt and searched the Medical School on Peabody Street.   When the sheriff come up I was standing near the door and the sheriff said “Don’t ask that boy, he’s too young.”  No one knew where that body went, but I heard they were pushed so hard the body was dumped in the river at the Hyde’s Ferry Bridge.”

Bill’s memory seems to grow dim when the names of people yet alive are involved.  He gives broad hints so that one familiar with the city medical directory can find his way around.  As for actual technique, there were usually two or three men who would go after a body.  They would carry no lanterns and this was one crop which could not be harvested unless the planting was done in the dark of the moon.  The horse and wagon would be hitched some distance away and a watch posted.  Only half of the grave was opened and if the coffin was glass topped a sack was put over it to smother the sound of the break.  The usual wooden one was drilled, with a line of holes across it, with a brace and then the sack put over to damp the sound and the cover broken.  The body was then pulled out arms first, put in a sack, and the hole filled.

If anyone came along everyone had to lie low and the man with the wagon or buggy would begin to fiddle with the harness as if something were the matter with it and he had stopped to fix it.

Other equipment considered necessary was a “44” and a Winchester, which Bill says he never went without.  Bill had no trouble with the law.  Once or twice the police bothered him on his way back, but afterwards were warned by the Mayor or the Chief of Police to leave him alone.

Bill did get shot once.  Working with a companion, Old Sam Crockett, at Mt. Ararat, a fellow who decided he’d operate by himself hid behind a cedar tree and, as Bill said, “He didn’t act right.  He rose up from behind the tree and shot me.  Poor Old Sam, he run and left me there with the stiff.”  The shot still show in x-ray and there are a few pains now and then.

There was pride in the trade and a sense of responsibility.  Bill reports that he had driven up to Wilson County and back for a body and got only $1.50 for his part.

On one occasion, since the new school was opened, he drove out on the Murfreesboro Pike near Fessler’s Lane and parked his car in the grass, then he climbed over behind a rock wall and lay down with his Winchester and “44” to wait for a body that was to be brought to him.  Instead of his business partner, another car drove up and stopped right in front of him.  A man and woman got out and the man began to swear and berate the woman for her infidelity and extravagance.  Then he told her he was going to kill her there and then.  He had Bill convinced of sincerity and Bill could see himself as a witness in a murder trial which wouldn’t help his other business any.  So he gripped his guns and cleared his throat a time or two.  The man overheard, put his woman in his car and drove on to town.  Bill said he searched the papers for several days but there was no evidence the man had carried out his intentions.

At one time I had an office in the old red building on 2nd and Elm.  It was just off the dissecting room and on the top floor.  In its ceiling was a small trap door leading to a little attic.  Bill says, though I didn’t know it until recently, that the mummified bodies of two notorious bandits of the last century, Knox Martin and John A. Murrell, were stored in this attic with their names attached. 

John A. Murrell, according to Herbert Asbury in “The French Quarter” (1936), was “the most spectacular of the bandits who prowled the Natchez Trace and probably the most extraordinary criminal America has yet produced.  As a wholesale murderer, his exploits have never been equaled even among modern gangsters.  The exact number of men who met their death at his hands has never been determined, but it has been estimated to be from 300 to 500…one of the most lucrative activities was stealing slaves and reselling them…For some fifteen years Murrell operated along the Trace, sometimes traveling in the guise of a Methodist preacher, and again as an elegantly attired gentleman…He planned a rebellion among the slaves, and the sacking of New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, and Natchez while the respectable citizens were trying to quell the uprising.”

(Virgil Stewart joined his gang and heard all – 1834 had him arrested – advanced the date to July 4, 1935.)  Murrell’s mind gave way under confinement and when released he was an imbecile.  He was last heard of (according to Asbury) in the Butt, the red-light district of Memphis.  The secretary of the Tennessee Historical Society says that Murrell died at Pikeville and was buried there, but that his grave was robbed.  Mr. Robert Quarles, the state archivist, says that there is in the museum the thumb of Murrell in a bag and a certificate from the doctor who presented it, a former professor at Tennessee Medical School.

When the new school opened in 1926, the bodies of Murrell and Martin were left in the old school, Bill being the only one who knew of them.  Later, when a search was made there was no trace of them.  No doubt some side show is still collecting ten cents a look.

If I could sketch a picture to illustrate this paper, it would be in charcoal on black paper.  If the details could be seen in the starlight there would be a stream in the middle thinly covered with ice and on the hill to the left a small cemetery.  On the hill to the right would be a rail fence bordering a road in which a horse and spring wagon stood quietly.  Crossing the stream would be two dark-skinned characters, the whites of whose eyes might form the only possible highlight, with a rail laid across their shoulders and a heavily loaded sack suspended from it.  The first man would be on solid ground across the creek, but the second would be just in the act of breaking through the ice into the stream.  It was just such an incident that precipitated a case of pneumonia in Bill from which he slowly recovered.

“But,” says Bill, “that was the grandest pneumonia there ever was.  It was got in the interests of the Medical School.”

Transcribed by Alice Clark Merritt, daughter of Dr. Sam Lillard Clark

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