Body Snatchers: African-American Bodies Stolen From Graves

Written by Jae Jones

To planters and others—wanted 50 Negroes. Any person having sick Negroes, considered incurable by their respective physicians, and wishing to dispose of them, Dr. S. will pay cash for Negroes affected with scrofula, or King’s evil, confirmed hypocondriasm, apoplaxi, diseases of the liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, and intestines, bladder and its appendages, diarrhea, dysentery, etc. The highest cash price will paid on application as above (Weld, 1968)

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was a common practice for Europeans practicing medicine to have hands-on anatomical dissection experience. However, the way these medical students acquired the bodies to practice was quite disturbing. Most often, bodies were used of people who died in prison, accidents, or natural causes. During the late 18th century, African-American bodies were the primary source of anatomical material.

Grave robbing, also known as “body snatching,” was a common practice. If the soil allowed and the grave was shallow, the thieves, usually slaves working for the medical school, would steal the body in less than an hour. To begin, a hole was usually dug at the head of the grave, then the coffin lid was pried off and the body was lifted out.

Clothing and other personal effects were usually removed from the body and tossed back into the coffin. The corpses were then taken by wagon for sale to the anatomy professors. Bodies that were too far decomposed were refused.

Ten days was the average limit between burial and theft. Most bodies were robbed between November and March, when medical school was in session and the corpses were better preserved by the cold weather.


In 1852, a slave, Grandison Harris, was purchased by the Dean of Medical College of Georgia for $700.00. Owned by all seven members of the faculty, his principal task was to procure cadavers. Harris was a powerful man and reportedly frequently obtained bodies from the Cedar Grove Cemetery, a burial site reserved for Augusta’s indigent Black community.

However, body snatching did not only take place in the south. In 1882, a crowd of angry Philadelphia African-Americans gathered at the city morgue and demanded protection of their grave sites from body snatchers. When the snow melted in the spring of 1883, the city’s black cemeteries looked as if they hand been ransacked. The cemetery’s black superintendent admitted that for many years, he had let three grave robbers steal as many corpses as they could for sale for anatomical dissection.

sources: Weld TD. 1968. American slavery as it is. New York: Medical College of Georgia. MCGHistory.

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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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