U-M No Longer Has To Buy - Or Steal Cadavers
By Cal Samra
(News Staff Reporter)
Almost exactly a century ago, Ann Arbor and the University Medical School faced charges of being the center of a vast network of notorious body snatchers.
Doctors at the U-M Medical School no longer have to depend on professional grave robbers for cadavers to dissect. But a hundred years ago, some U-M doctors allegedly did hire grave robbers to secure bodies for the purpose of advancing the medical knowledge of their students.
The going price for a cadaver in those days ranged from $25 to $40.
There was a great public outcry against grave robbing and the dissection of cadavers at that time, and according to Prof. Martin Kaufman and Prof. Leslie L. Hanawalt, writing about “Body Snatching in the Midwest” in “Michigan History,” “neighboring states were especially suspicious of the University of Michigan and her notorious grave robbers.”
In 1875, “The Cleveland Leader” charged that the U-M Medical School was receiving stolen bodies. “If the ghouls are not lynched,” the newspaper declared, “they will get the utmost legal punishment. What revenge an outraged community will take upon Ann Arbor university remains to be seen.”
Times have changed, however, and now “we do not buy bodies,” says Dr. Thomas M. Oelrich, associate professor in the Department of Anatomy who is in charge of anatomical donations.
The medical school doesn't have to buy them or steal them. Every year, says Dr. Oelrich, the Department of Anatomy receives about 5,000 signed statements from individuals declaring their intent to will their bodies for anatomical studies.
The department receives 160 bodies annually, and Oelrich allows that “we don’t have all the bodies we need, and could use some more.” However, the department is not about to purchase them. “Every September, when the students come back to the university, my telephone rings off the wall,” complains Oelrich. “Somehow the idea gets around that we’re buying bodies, and it spreads like wildfire. Many college students call to ask to will their body in advance for money. They figure they can pick up $500 or $3,000.
“Well,” adds Oelrich, “they can’t. People who want to sell their bodies usually get very exercised when they find out we don’t want to buy them.”
In addition to the 5,000 bodies willed annually to the Anatomy Department for the purpose of instructing medical students in anatomy, other departments at the hospital receive body donations for transplants. The hospital maintains an eye bank and a kidney bank.
Dr. Oelrich stresses that few bodies are used for research, as is commonly supposed. “A dead body is not particularly suited for research,” he says. “But it does allow a student to see the results of a disease process.”
Also contrary to popular notions, medical students viewing a cadaver for the first time rarely faint, says Oelrich.
Dr. Oelrich is satisfied that professional grave robbing no longer exists as a profession. He also insists that the Medical Center never gets any flak now from people opposed to dissecting human bodies. “That’s history,” he says, “and I believe people will accept it as such.”
People hereabouts had a hard time accepting it a century ago. According to historians Kaufman and Hanawalt, “dissection was frowned upon everywhere. Experimentation upon human subjects was contrary to the moral and, in many minds, the religious scruples of the age, regardless of the possible benefit to be gained by humanity in the process.”
Physicians repeatedly urged authorities to legalize dissection, but in vain. Thus colleges had to depend upon graverobbing to meet an ever-increasing need for cadavers.
Virtually every state, including Michigan, reacted by passing laws making body snatching a crime.
The public invariably reacted with outraged indignation whenever news of a grave robbery got around. In a number of cases, mobs assaulted medical schools. The houses and offices of medical teachers were searched by both the sheriff and mobs.
In his diary, Dr. A. I. Sawyer, an Ann Arbor physician, described how his house had been searched in 1874 for the body of Charles Willits, which had mysteriously disappeared from its grave.
During the 1870’s, reports of grave robberies multiplied. In 1878, Dr. Henri Le Caron was captured in Toledo as the leader of a gang of body snatchers. “He had financed his medical studies by moonlighting as a body snatcher, finding his wares in a cemetery near Sandwich, Ont., and selling them to the University of Michigan.” In 1878, he was charged with exhuming two bodies in Toledo and shipping them to Ann Arbor.
Another scandal came to light a few months later in North Bend, near Cincinnati. In one cemetery, two graves had been found emptied of their bodies, one of them a young man named Augustus Devlin and the other Congressman John Scott Harrison, the son of President William Henry Harrison. Both had died within a week.
The body of John Scott Harrison was later found at the Medical College of Ohio, and the body of Devlin turned up at the medical school in Ann Arbor.
A janitor and a doctor named “Dr. Morton” were implicated, and at the trial it was brought out that Dr. Morton periodically packed snatched bodies in barrels marked ‘‘pickles’’ and shipped them to “Quimby and Co., Ann Arbor, Michigan.”
Dr. William J. Herdman, the demonstrator of anatomy at the U-M, was reported to have refused to allow Devlin’s family to remove the body until he was reimbursed the $30 he had paid the grave robber. James T. Angell, then U-M president, finally ordered him to release the body.
Kaufman and Hanawalt report that “many cadavers stolen in Ohio found their way to the dissection room at the University of Michigan.”
Dr. Herdman later confessed to a number of illegal acts in procuring cadavers, though he insisted he always exhausted he legal sources of supply before “resorting to any other means.” He said that he always tried to obtain bodies of the “pauper and friendless dead at our county houses and asylums.” The “better people” could then rest comfortably.
Dr. Herdman confessed that a “spy network” had been developed, so that whenever a pauper died, he was immediately informed.
H e complained, however, that many of the robbers he was forced to deal with were of the lowest character and often disregarded his explicit instructions, robbing the grave of a wealthy person instead of that of the poor.
When a respectable person’s grave is disturbed, Herdman lamented, “the University and myself are made the unfortunate victims of their unscrupulous greed.”
Herdman urged the passage of a law that would provide medical schools with a steady supply of bodies, thus putting an end to the necessity of dealing with body snatchers.
In 1873, Dr. Warren B. Curtis, an 1861 graduate of the U-M, was caught rifling a grave in Wayne, but was later acquitted by a hung jury. In 1880, another U-M alumnus, Dr. Charles G. Cruikshank of Howell, was arrested and charged with stealing a body and selling it to his alma mater.
From 1890 to 1902, a gang of black bodysnatchers led by Rufus Cantrell was reported to have stolen several thousand bodies, and some of them were shipped to the U-M Medical School.
Graverobbing died as a profession when the State Legislature finally enacted a law requiring officials in charge of state prisons, hospitals, poorhouses, and other institutions to turn over to medical schools the unclaimed bodies of deceased inmates. Dissection was also legalized.
More recently, according to Dr. Oelrich, the State Legislature enacted a law permitting individuals to donate their bodies to medical schools. And an individual can do so without the consent of his relatives.
For a long time, says Oelrich, “we received most of our bodies from state hospitals,” but now about 80 per cent of them come from individual donations.
The hospital pays the transportation expenses of the body. And after the body is used, says Oelrich, “we cremate it and also provide funeral services and burial in our own cemetery, the United Memorial Garden Cemetery” on Curtis Rd. off Plymouth Rd.
University of Michigan Medical School
University of Michigan - Hospitals
University of Michigan - History
Laws & Legislation
Crime & Criminals
Ann Arbor News
William J. Herdman
William Henry Harrison
Warren B. Curtis
Thomas M. Oelrich
Leslie L. Hanawalt
John Scott Harrison
James T. Angell
Henri Le Caron
Charles G. Cruikshank
A. I. Sawyer