Body Snatchers: When Is Evil Good and When Is Good Evil?
Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.
In 1536, Andreas Vesalius, a twenty-two-year-old medical student, began stealing bodies from local cemeteries in Paris. Vesalius would take the bodies back to his home and boil the skin and flesh off until the only bones remained. His goal was to develop more knowledge of skeletal structure. At that time, the only book available for Vesalius was an ancient text written 1300 years earlier by Claudius Galen. With his new knowledge he made over 200 corrections to Galen’s book and brought the study of the human skeleton up to date.
While this is a very early account of a practice called body snatching, it reached its zenith in the nineteenth century. Medical schools desirous of cadavers would secretly pay clandestine body snatchers to bring bodies to their schools to educate and experiment. Those performing the task of body snatching were, ironically, called resurrectionists. They differed from another group of marauding night people called grave robbers. The difference was that the resurrectionists or body snatchers did not steal personal property, they took only the body. Stealing the body was a misdemeanor, while grave robbers took personal belongings from the grave which was a felony.
In England, the practice became so prevalent that ingenious methods were created to protect the grave. Today’s image is that of a graveyard watchtower in Edinburgh, in which a person would stand guard over the cemetery overnight. Relatives also installed iron fences around the cemetery plot or grave to prevent the removal of bodies. Night watchmen were hired as well.
As medicine became more interested in the workings and structure of the human body in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the need for cadavers rose significantly, especially in England and throughout Europe.
In some cases, people would show up at local morgues claiming to be relatives of the deceased and take their bodies. Another common source was the local Potter’s field, where it was unlikely that a relative would notice a tampered-with grave site.
In England, medical schools needed 500 bodies a year. Some came by way of the execution of hardened criminals. At the time, if you were convicted of a major crime and sentenced to death, your body was made available for dissection in a medical school. However, by the nineteenth century, only fifty or so people a year received a death sentence.
Thus, the medical schools turned to resurrectionists.
In the United States, where medical researched lagged behind the European schools, the phenomenon didn’t start until later in the nineteenth century. In fact, President Benjamin Harrison’s brother, John Scott Harrison, was one of the bodies stolen, which led to universal outrage in the United States.
The resurrectionists would look for fresh graves to make the digging easier and often used wooden shovels to prevent clanging. They became very skilled in where to look and find bodies. Of particular note, African American gravesites were especially attractive, as the relatives of the deceased might complain, they were frequently dismissed.
Dr. John Gorham Coffin
Late in the mid-nineteenth century, Dr. John Gorham Coffin—a prominent and aptly named professor and medical physician—asked a question that best sums up the ethics of body snatching: “how could any ethical physician participate in the trafficking of dead bodies, just for the sake of gaining scientific knowledge.”
If future patients might be healed from the research, are the means justified by the end results? At first, some may say yes. But to others, thinking about the stolen bodies of their relatives, it would be horrifying. But was it also right for those that were destitute or of color and with little legal protection to be the primary victims of removal?
Thorny questions, further complicated when you read Jesus’s words. Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. (Luke [9:60]) Perhaps Jesus is telling us to focus on the living and not the dead by supporting the practice which benefitted those in need in the here and now.
Or, perhaps Jesus is referring to the spiritually dead.
Since I researched this article, I have waffled back and forth. I can make arguments both for and against. I feel compassion for the relatives of those who were taken. And I’m certainly opposed to the use of clandestine means to gather the bodies. On the other hand, what if one life was made better through the research of these dead men and women? What if a significant breakthrough in medicine occurred because of this practice? In the end, I side with Dr. Coffin—progress obtained through the use of questionable means seems an inadequate answer. However, I am sure others would see this differently.
While body snatching is, by itself, a horrific practice, it is a subject that naturally leads to the question of what Christians should do when evil produces good. It is a worthy debate on medical ethics, but also in other matters of our lives. Does the end justify the means? Is it fair to put progress ahead of using questionable practices?
I follow the idea of removing evil in all that we do, not necessarily through just my intellect but through my instincts to try to avoid evil. Whether you agree or disagree, it is still a worthy debate.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.