Grave Robbing for “The Benefit of the Living”

Rattle his bones over the stones,
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns. [1]

Imagine you are a sick pauper living in Cleveland, Ohio in 1855. For shelter and medical attention, you stay at the newly built City Infirmary, where faculty and students of the Cleveland Medical College offer their services. Alas, your illness cannot be cured and you die – friendless and alone. Your body is taken to the Potter’s Field in Woodland Cemetery across town. But there it is not to stay.

Map of Cleveland in 1861, with the relative locations of Woodland Cemetery, the Cleveland Medical College, and the Cleveland Infirmary marked.
Map of Cleveland in 1861, with the relative locations of Woodland Cemetery, the Cleveland Medical College, and the Cleveland Infirmary marked.

In November 1855, the Cleveland police caught a young demonstrator of anatomy, Dr. Proctor Thayer, with two young medical students, in the process of stealing a body from Woodland Cemetery [2]. This sort of behavior was not a secret in the medical community, however the public became outraged at its discovery. In fact, Dr. Horace Ackley, who founded the Cleveland Medical College stated when defending the young men,

For twelve years, he [Ackley] had been responsible for all subjects used in the College, and during that time had never violated the spirit of the law in their procurement; that the authorities had given their consent, for being aware of his proceedings, they had been silent, which in a matter of this kind, was equivalent to assent. [3]

Cleveland Medical College. The college was in the same location from 1844 to 1884.
Cleveland Medical College. The college was in the same location from 1844 to 1884.

Ackley further supported the men, reportedly saying,

 Fine me if you like, but not the boys, for they did only what I told them to do. The body they were after was that of a pauper from the Poor House, who had no friends. The man served no good purpose in life and his body was justly forfeited to medical science – for the benefit of the living. [4]

Ackley then, with the support of the Cleveland Medical College, went a step further. At the time, Ohio law made the removal of bodies from their grave for the purpose of dissection without consent illegal [5]. He found it unjust that while there was a general consensus that “that no Physician can be considered qualified, who is deficient in his knowledge of practical anatomy,” there was no official or legal way for a surgeon “to procure the necessary material for dissection” [2].

Thus, Ackley devised a plan that could exonerate Proctor and this medical students, while making “subjects” available to them for dissection. He proposed a new law to the City Council whereby the “vagrant pauper, without relations to look after and care for them while living,” would be turned over to the faculty of the medical colleges [2]. This petition was signed by these faculties and their students, as well as supposedly all of the male paupers (who may or may not have been literate), and submitted to city officials [6].

Cleveland City Infirmary in 1855
Cleveland City Infirmary in 1855

Next week’s post will explore how public opinion entered the debate about “the demands of science” in the procurement of bodies in Cleveland [7]. The rulings of this Special Committee on the Pauper Ordinance varied with the many editorial articles in the local newspapers that portrayed doctors as both greedy grave robbers and benevolent saviors of humanity [8].

But first, whatever happened to Proctor Thayer? The doctor’s status was not threatened by this run-in with the law. In fact, a few years later, Thayer was called to use his postmortem expertise to determine foul play during a local high profile murder trial [9]. This anatomical skill was remembered in a memorial after his passing in 1891:

…He devoted all his time to study. He lost no daylight, and when night came he stuck a candle in the eye of a skull and kept right on until midnight…He studied with the subject [cadaver] before him. If he ran out of material, he went the next night and found what he wanted. He always knew where to go or send. Dr. Thayer probably dissected more bodies than any man living or dead in this state. [10]

Postmortem kit from Tienmann Surgical Instruments, c. 1860-1870.
Postmortem kit from Tienmann Surgical Instruments, c. 1860-1870.

Even after his multiple successes and death, Thayer’s evening trips to the cemetery were remembered. Check back in next week to find out if new laws would provide ample material for such anatomists, or if their work was to remain a shadowy secret.

 

 

 

 

About the Author:
Catherine Osborn, BA, BS, is a graduate student in Medical Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, the Editorial Associate at Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, as well as a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History.

References:
[1] “Doctors and Dissection.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, pg. 3. December 4, 1855.
[2] “Doctors and Dissection.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, pg.1. November 28, 1855
[3] “Dissection.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, pg. 1. December 5, 1855.
[4] Hodge, Orlando John. 1902. Reminiscences Vol. 1. p. 63. Cleveland, OH: The Imperial Press.
[5] Curwen, Maskell E., ed. 1853. The public statutes at large of the state of Ohio: from the close of Chase’s Statutes, February 1833 to the present time. And a supplement containing all laws passed prior to February 1833 which are now in force, Volume 2. Cincinnati, OH
[6] “The Other Side of the Question.” Cleveland Leader, pg. 2. December 4, 1855.
[7] “Woodland Cemetery.” Cleveland Leader, pg. 3. December 7, 1855.
[8] “Doctors and Dissection.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, pg. 3. January 10, 1856.
[9] Bellamy, John Stark II. 2005. Women Behaving Badly: True Tales of Cleveland’s Most Ferocious Female Killers. Cleveland, OH: Gray & Company Publishers.
[10] Baker, Albert R. and Samuel W. Kelley, eds. 1891. Editorial, pg. 228. Cleveland Medical Gazette. Vol. 6.

 

Published by

Catherine C. Osborn

I am a PhD student in Medical Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, the Editorial Associate at Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, as well as a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Medical History Center. My research focuses on interpretations of illness and use of medical technologies both cross-culturally and historically. I believe that it is only through multidisciplinary study that health and the human approaches to managing it can be truly understood.

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