Return of the Bodysnatchers: Arrests at Harvard Medical School Mortuary.

Photo: Patrick Caulfield. In the eighteenth century it was common for medical schools to obtain bodies to illegally dissect from public cemeteries.
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By Editor-June 15th, 2023.

A manager of Harvard Medical School’s morgue and his wife and others are accused of stealing human body parts — among them heads, brains, skin and bones — from donated cadavers and selling them on Facebook, according to a federal indictment.

Cedric Lodge, 55, was identified as the morgue manager in a federal indictment filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Lodge and five others, including his wife, Denise Lodge, 63, are facing charges of conspiracy and transport of stolen goods.

Lodge and his wife were part of a “nationwide network” of people buying and selling human remains that came from Harvard and an Arkansas mortuary, according to the prosecutor’s office.

“Some crimes defy understanding,” U.S. Attorney Gerard M. Karam said. “The theft and trafficking of human remains strikes at the very essence of what makes us human. It is particularly egregious that so many of the victims here volunteered to allow their remains to be used to educate medical professionals and advance the interests of science and healing.”

Also facing charges is the owner of Kat’s Creepy Creations in Peabody, Katrina Maclean. Her Instagram page advertises “creations that shock the mind & shake the soul,” including bone art. Two Pennsylvania men, Joshua Taylor and Jeremy Pauley, are also accused of being part of the buying and selling network.

Although these allegations may seem bizarre and shocking to modern readers, in fact Harvard Medical School has a history of this kind of behavior stretching at least as far back as the eighteenth century.

Harvard’s corpse legacy began in late 18th century, when the newly opened Medical School began hiring grave diggers—not to bury bodies, but to exhume them, which could be a lucrative business.

According to a 2015 history of the so-called “resurrection men” in Synthesis, an undergraduate history of science journal, the diggers snuck into Boston’s burial grounds in search of new graves, stealthily dug up some of the most “fresh” residents, and refilled the graves to avoid arousing suspicion.

Harvard turned to these drastic measures because, as techniques improved, the demand for dissectable cadavers had grown until it could no longer be satisfied legally.

Although Massachusetts had less restrictive laws than most states, allowing for human body dissection once every four years, Harvard Medical School was lucky to legally receive one or two cadavers a year––hardly enough for the growing establishment where “a single body [was] made to do duty for a whole course of lectures,” according to a 1788 issue of the Boston Gazette.

As the lack of clinical material limited instructional experiences, class sizes, and opportunities for up-close dissection, the quality and quantity of doctors in the United States waned.

The inexperience of the dwindling new medical graduates caused public outrage, prompting medical schools to change their curricula to emphasize hands-on study of anatomy. This shift to the “Paris method,” in which students learn by dissecting cadavers first-hand, further stimulated the demand for human corpses.

Harvard Medical School dealt with this shortage by employing “resurrection men,” but several faculty members and students went a step further: they raided graveyards and dug up dead bodies themselves.

Around 1770, Joseph Warren founded an illicit secret society called the “Spunker Club,” also known as the “Anatomical Club.”

Although this macabre organization was dedicated to grave-robbing in the name of learning, some of its morbidly curious members saw the painstaking process of body-snatching as art.

Stealing a body required at least three participants––two to exhume the corpse and one to drive the getaway car. The surrounding area had to look undisturbed, so thieves often used large pieces of cloth to catch any flyaway dirt.

Spunker Club members reportedly took great pride in their technique. In a 1775 letter, John Warren described a grave robbery “done with so little decency and caution” that “it need scarcely be said it could not have been the work of any of our friends of the [Spunker] Club,” according to a 2012 article in the Journal of Social Archaeology.

As “resurrection men” and body-snatching enthusiasts continued to ransack Boston graveyards, civil indignation incited the Act to Protect the Sepulchers of the Dead in 1815, making disturbance of buried bodies illegal and prompting a citywide patrol of graveyards and burial grounds.

This legislature forced Harvard Medical School to “import” the cadavers from New York instead, where body snatchers were “emptying at least six hundred or seven hundred graves annually,” according to an article in the Boston Gazette.


Sources: NPR, The Crimson, news agencies.
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