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Profiting from body parts, then and now

September 04, 2006|Elena Conis

Cadavers and their organs have been in great demand since the early 1800s, when anatomy courses first became a regular part of medical school curricula. Medical students rely on the bodies and parts to learn anatomy, doctors depend on them to perfect new procedures and surgeons count on them for transplants. But before the modern era of donor programs, procuring bodies for science was a challenge -- one that was often met by criminals.


In the early days of anatomy instruction, cutting up human corpses was rare. In part this was because cadavers themselves were rare: Laws of the time proclaimed that medical schools could dissect only murderers.

As decades passed and the demand for bodies grew, new laws were passed to make up for the shortfall. Medical schools were then allowed to dissect "unclaimed" bodies (often the poor or African Americans) in addition to cold-blooded killers.

But with medical schools opening at a rapid clip, the demand for corpses grew ever higher. What emerged in response was a new breed of criminal: the body snatcher.

Alternately known as grave robbers, resurrectionists and sack-'em-up men, the body snatchers planned in advance and worked quickly.

They used wooden shovels (metal made too much noise), dug only near the head of the coffin to minimize telltale signs and placed the removed dirt on a cloth near the grave to keep the grass there from looking disturbed. They dragged bodies from their rest by pulling them out head first and put the dirt back in place to leave everything looking as it was.

Wealthy families in Britain and the United States took action by hiring graveyard guards or putting mortsafes -- metal grates or cages -- directly over the graves of their deceased.

This in turn encouraged some criminals to come up with yet another source of bodies -- people who were still alive.

The most renowned "anatomy murderers" were a pair of Williams: Burke and Hare, two Irishmen living in Scotland in the early 1800s. After discovering the price medical professors would pay for bodies, they decided to produce them as efficiently as they knew how -- they plied old women and prostitutes with whiskey and suffocated them once unconscious.

Burke and Hare killed 16 people before they were caught in 1828. In the end, Burke was immortalized by having his name turned into a verb; dictionaries still state that to burke is to murder without leaving a mark, or to quietly suppress.

Body snatching persists to this day, though it's taken on a different form. Whole bodies and individual parts command high prices in illicit deals -- but the sources today are usually funeral homes and universities themselves instead of graves.

In early 2004, Henry Reid, the director of the program that manages donated bodies at UCLA, was arrested on suspicion of grand theft for allegedly selling body parts. (Reid has denied the allegations and has not been charged; the investigation is ongoing.)

The program now operates under court supervision, and body parts are tagged with tiny radio-signal transmission chips that allow them to be tracked wherever they go.

On the East Coast, investigators are turning up evidence of a crime ring of body snatchers, allegedly led by a former dentist. Criminals are believed to have paid funeral homes $1,000 per corpse -- including the body of former "Masterpiece Theater" host Alistair Cooke, whose bones were then allegedly resold for several thousand dollars.

The investigation is ongoing.

Elena Conis

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