It’s spook time, and I don't mean the election. A candy store near my building features witches in orange and black in its window, and a pharmacy offers a host of eerie items: skulls, bones, skeletons, a severed arm (fake, of course; there are limits), a bat, huge spiders and their webs, a black cat, and a vulture that looks hungry. (Not the best display for an outfit dispensing medicines meant to help and heal, but they like to be seasonal.) So Halloween must be in the offing.
was strong popular feeling against the practice. Fueling this feeling was the medical schools’ constant need for fresh bodies, which led them to snatch freshly buried
bodies from graveyards. During the Revolution, battlefields provided a good supply of unclaimed bodies, but with the coming of peace the need for more bodies intensified. In New York the students at the city’s only medical school, Columbia College, raided the Negroes Burial Ground, where both slaves and freedmen were buried, but also the graves of paupers in Potters’ Field, while usually – but not always – respecting the graves of those “most entitled to respect.” So great was the demand for bodies that a new occupation appeared, the professional body snatcher, or resurrectionist, whom the medical schools could hire. Aware of the risks, grieving families often hired guards to watch over the grave of a loved one at night for two weeks following burial, since after that the bodies would be too decomposed for purposes of dissection. The authorities were certainly aware of the activities of body snatchers, whether professional or amateur, but probably chose to look the other way, as long as it was all done discreetly and confined to the graves of the lowly, but by the late 1780s trouble was brewing.
Of course body snatching is now a thing of the past, is it not? Wrong! In 2005 an ex-dentist in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was arrested for obtaining bodies from funeral homes in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania with forged consent documents, and then selling bones, organs, skin, and other body parts to legitimate medical companies and tissue banks for resale to hospitals, which needed them for transplants. They did six or seven extractions a day, a male nurse involved in the operation later confessed; it took 45 minutes for the bones, and another 15 for skin, arms, thighs, and belly. But why get involved in such a gruesome business? Because, the nurse explained, he went from earning $50,000 a year as a nurse to $185,000 as a "cutter." Yes, this illegal business is flourishing throughout our fair land, as a quick search for "body snatching" on the Internet will quickly demonstrate. I myself plan to be cremated, but this doesn't guarantee a thing; so did the people whose bodies were stolen by the dentist and his fellow ghouls.