Friday 30 October 2015

Record of the Week: Case of the Body Snatchers

A view of St. Michael's Cemetery, Toronto

The rise of body snatching from graveyards in the nineteenth century led to gated and walled cemeteries, some of which even had watchtowers.

Body snatching is the disinterment and theft of fresh corpses from graveyards. Body snatchers, or "resurrectionists," often supplied cadavers to medical schools for dissection during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was a lucrative business and one that was rarely prosecuted successfully.

Other sources of corpses for anatomical study were executed prisoners or those who died in poorhouses with no relatives to claim them. However, as many new medical schools were established in the United States and Canada, demand for cadavers was far greater than the legal supply. In the UK, body snatching was so prevalent that families of the deceased often watched over graves for days after burial. Eventually, legislation in Europe and the colonies was enacted to allow doctors and anatomy teachers to dissect donated bodies.

Read more about Body-Snatching in Ontario.

This letter was written to Bishop Alexander Macdonell of Kingston (the only Catholic diocese in Upper Canada at the time). It seems that Bishop Macdonell had received a complaint that the priest in Amherstberg, Ontario was exhuming the dead. To calm the bishop, Rev. Augustin Vervais explains that the incident was actually a case of body snatching. Apparently the trafficking of corpses across the Detroit River between Malden, Ontario and Gibralter, Michigan was common practice:
"Malden, 27 April 1841
Console yourself Monseigneur, there is nothing as grievous as that which you announced in your letter. So --
For a long time, there had been those who were making a business of removing dead bodies from the English cemetery - no sooner interred than removed. They take them, so they say, to Gibraltar, which is in front of Malden, an American state, to be dissected there.
Last December 24th, some days after I had myself buried a Catholic Irishman...a respectable citizen named Olivier Bertrand told me that he had risen from his bed around midnight to the cries of dogs and that he had seen some men in the cemetery. Some of us went to look, and we found, close to the ditch, two sticks and a pipe, and a little farther, a white sheet and a cord. The people dug to find the man had been removed - there were only his cloth and his slippers. The people were happy at having been warned by Mr. Olivier Bertrand.
Some days after, I buried a woman, and her relatives guarded the body for several nights. We learned nothing useful - what a futile exercise." [translated from French]

Bishop Macdonell fonds
M BB19.06

 Included with the letter is testimony from Olivier Bertrand, corroborating the story:

[translated] "I certify that several months ago I advised M. le Curé [the priest] that I had seen some men in the cemetery, that the noise of the dogs had led me there, and that, in my opinion, M. le Curé did well to excavate in order to safeguard and to save our relatives.
Malden 28 April 1841 [signed] Oliver Bertrand"

Bishop Macdonell fonds
M BB19.06

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