Grave-robbing medical students

Six first-year medical students dissecting a cadaver at the University of Pennsylvania, circa 1890. University of Pennsylvania, University Archives Digital Collection, UARC 20050613004.


No more $15 bodies shipped in pork barrels from New York. The end of the four-year U.S. Civil War, in April, 1865, robbed the medical students at Montreal’s McGill University of a source of cadavers for their anatomical studies. During at least the later part of the war, bodies were reportedly purchased in New York for $15 each, and shipped to Montreal in pork barrels. The end of the war marked a revival in body snatching, a practice that had not been entirely stamped out during at least the first years of the war.

The Ottawa Times reports a post-war incident of body snatching, while the Montreal Herald reports an aborted graveyard theft more than two years earlier. The first item, a dispatch from Montreal, is from the Ottawa Times, January 27, 1866.

Two cases, marked glass-ware and containing the bodies of two men and five women, packed in snow, were sized by the police on a freight train from Point Levi. They were intended for the McGill College dissecting room, and taken from the cemetery in the vicinity of Quebec [City], the authorities of which city telegraphed to our [Montreal] police about them. They were re-packed in the cases and will go back again to-night. The students have much difficulty in obtaining subjects just now, and can no longer obtain them from New York as formerly, owing to the close of the war.

The acclaimed heroics of a couple of rural young men in thwarting an attempted snatch of a woman’s body from a secluded country grave was reported by the Montreal Herald, November 7, 1863.

In the night of Sunday the 1st inst., a party of young men, some of whom at least are said to be known, were interrupted in carrying off the dead and buried body of a married woman from the Cemetery of Grace church, Mascouche. This is a very retired and secluded spot, some five or six miles behind Terrebonne, having a place of worship, with a parsonage and burying ground, in connection with the United Church of England and Ireland; and here had been interred, the same Sabbath morning, the remains just mentioned. As the relations of the deceased lived ten miles away, no watch (as had been usual) had been instituted over the grave. Under cover, therefore, of a dark night, the moon not yet being up, a party of at least five hardy adventurers had completed their appalling enterprise, so far as to have got the body into a cart, which they had in readiness, on the side of the cemetery adjoining the bush.


But the northern lights were playing, and there was an eye or two upon the marauders, at this juncture, which eventually disconcerted the whole proceeding. A youth — and we have only to put ourselves into the place of the widower or the children of the deceased, to say, a noble youth — Richard Robinson, one of the numerous family of a most worthy and respectable farmer at Mascouche, was seeing a friend part of the way home — it was now approaching 9 o’clock — when suspicion was aroused by the continual barking of the dog at the parsonage and there seeing two figures glide away from, as it seemed, points of lookout on either side of the road. Young Robinson followed these men into the bush, at a discrete distance, accompanied by his friend; and was soon convinced by, besides other signs, the apparition of the aforesaid cart in which, as he believed — horrible vision — he discerned the limbs of a corpse, while he was unperceived by those daring lifters of the dead, though he had now crept up so near that he could have touched the cart, it being dark among the trees, and the party on the start in front.

His first object now, after procuring a light, was to go to the grave itself to make assurance doubly sure; and there the whole dreadful secret was revealed; the coffin lay in the hollow pit, the lid burst open and only at the upper end through which the body has been dragged up — the body of a woman who left married daughters behind her.

He then set forth in pursuit, followed by his friend, who had conceived some strong ideas that they would both be shot; and, knowing the country, and also having his suspicions of their rendezvous, he came again upon the party, about a mile and a half off, having crossed the rough open ground in the dark night and at the top of his speed.

Three were in advance; two brought up the ghastly rear. Here, then, our young brave made his demand, seizing the reins, and challenging by name the one, who had just come with straw from a barn hard by, while he called on his friend to stand manfully up to the other.

Little altercation ensued; but a blow was menaced from the cart at our cour-de lion, with what appeared to be a heavy twisted instrument, by which he lost his cap; when they threw the corpse upon the ground, and immediately drove off at the heels of their fleeing comrades.

A rope was round the beck [of the corpse] and through the mouth of the body, which, according to established rules, had been divested of every particle of clothing; and thus the pale moon rose upon a sight which may be more easily conceived than described. Besides the rope, other tangible evidence exists — the invaders had left a shovel behind them, that at least can be sworn to, &c.

How they proceeded to restore the remains to the grave, calling up friends, sending for the relations, calling at the parsonage for help, lighting a fire in the church, composing the mutilated frame, keeping watch and ward all night, decently burying the corpse at breaking day, may be gathered from the particulars already given, and we have only to add, that however much we may and do appreciate the interests of a noble and humane science, still we must congratulate the Church of England and Ireland that the hallowed repose of the grave found so brave and unflinching defence, on this occasion, rendered by the two young men who bore no affinity to the departed; especially the one — a youth scarcely out of his teens — whose name we have felt it our duty to place on public record.

Unfamiliar Canadian history stories 050


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