On a moonlit night in 1796, Harvard University student John Collins Warren and a pack of shadowy figures snuck into Boston’s North Burying Ground with tools in their hands and mischief on their minds. The trespassers crept over to the cemetery’s freshest grave, belonging to a recently deceased man who lacked any kin. Rather than paying their respects to the lonely soul, however, the young men instead unearthed the coffin and tore it open. They heaved the plump body out of its tomb, stuffed it into a bag and hauled it to a waiting carriage that sprinted back to campus with the morbid loot in tow.
News of the nocturnal expedition traveled fast around Harvard, and when Warren arrived for class the following morning, he met the disapproving eyes of his professor—who also happened to be his father, Dr. John Warren. Fatherly concern quickly melted into pride, however. “When the body was uncovered, and he saw what a fine, healthy subject it was, he seemed to be as much pleased as I ever saw him,” the younger Warren recalled.
The anatomy professor, who helped to found Harvard Medical School in 1782, could admire his son’s work because he had also been a body snatcher during his days as a Harvard student a quarter-century earlier. These Ivy Leaguers weren’t robbing graves in order to participate in some ghoulish 18th-century fraternity prank, however, but to pursue scientific knowledge. The gruesome enterprise of harvesting corpses from cemeteries was a necessary evil at Harvard and other medical schools in the fledgling decades of the United States because of a severe lack of corpses on which students could practice their surgical techniques and learn about human anatomy in order to save future lives.
In colonial Massachusetts, anatomy students were permitted to dissect executed criminals, but that yielded perhaps one body a year, not enough to meet demand. In response, some universities hired body snatchers known as “resurrection men” to supply them with cadavers. But in some cases, students were forced to literally dig up their class work.
Around 1770, a group of Harvard students, including the elder Warren, formed a secret anatomical society called the “Spunker Club,” perhaps the most macabre extracurricular group in the university’s nearly 400-year history. The student group, not recognized by the university, was so clandestine that members were forbidden to write its name. Populated with both aspiring physicians and the morbidly curious, the organization included the only surviving son of patriot firebrand Samuel Adams and future Secretary of War William Eustis. Members studied medicine under Dr. Joseph Warren, the Sons of Liberty founder who later died at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Competing against rival groups who also sought Boston’s coveted cadavers for anatomic study, the Harvard group trolled for bodies, dissected animals and delivered lectures using human skeletons as props.
If physicians and medical students suffered from a dearth of corpses, that was nothing a good war couldn’t solve. During the Revolutionary War, fallen British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries provided a regular source of cadavers. Even the bodies of patriot soldiers were targets. From his headquarters down the road from Harvard, General George Washington reported in his general orders of September 1, 1775, that the body of a soldier had been taken from his grave in an “abominable crime.”
The perpetrator very well could have been an alumnus of Harvard’s secret anatomical society since John Warren, Adams and Eustis all served as army surgeons. “The military hospitals of the United States furnished a large field for observation and experiment in the various branches of the healing art, as well as an opportunity for anatomical investigations,” reported Warren, who began to lecture on anatomy and publicly demonstrate dissections during the war.
Once the guns fell silent, however, the spigot of corpses turned off. “After the peace, there was great difficulty in getting subjects,” John Collins Warren reported. Medical schools received the occasional pauper and the random executed criminal, but usually no more than two a year. As medical schools proliferated in New England in the early 1800s, so many students traveled to Boston to procure anatomical subjects that watchmen began to patrol the city’s burying grounds. Responding to public outrage at the grave robbers, in 1815 Massachusetts passed an Act to Protect the Sepulchers of the Dead, which made it a felony to disturb a grave or obtain a corpse taken from a burial plot.
With the local supply of bodies choked off, Harvard Medical School was forced to import its corpses from New York City, where the bribing of public officials and cemetery employees allowed the practice of grave robbing to endure. John Collins Warren, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a Harvard anatomy professor and founded the New England Journal of Medicine in 1812, even employed one of the sons of patriot hero Paul Revere to act as a middleman for providing him with cadavers.
By 1829, the Massachusetts Medical Society published a public plea to change the state’s 1815 statute, which it argued required medical students to pursue their training “in defiance of the law of the land.” Two years later, Massachusetts passed the Anatomy Act of 1831, which allowed the unclaimed bodies of the imprisoned, insane and the poor to be legally obtained for study.
Many other states, however, were slow to follow, and the continued multiplication of medical schools and increases in class sizes meant that demand continued to outstrip supply. The practice of body snatching would continue into the 20th century in some corners of the United States.
In 1999, Harvard’s forgotten body-snatching history was itself resurrected when a construction worker accidentally broke through a wall in the basement of the university’s Holden Chapel, which had once been home to the Harvard Medical School and the location of anatomy lessons until 1850. Behind the wall of the brick building in Harvard Yard was a defunct cistern filled with broken scientific equipment and human bones that bore marks consistent with dissection techniques and served as a reminder of a macabre chapter in the university’s past.