Modern Day Grave Robbers/Body Snatchers

By James Fritz

In the early 1800s, Great Britain saw an increase in the number of students wanting anatomical training, and classrooms of medical colleges swelled to capacity. Anatomy classes had the special requirement of a corpse for lecture and demonstration purposes. Britain’s laws specified the only cadavers that could be used in these classes were those of recently executed criminals. The number of executions was inadequate to meet the growing needs, and hence began the practice of “grave robbing” or as it is sometimes called “body snatching”. It soon became the regular occupation of some underworld characters. Those who practiced body-snatching or grave robbing were often called resurrectionists or resurrection-men.

Body-snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to prevent its violation. The topic was covered by many novelists at the time including Charles Dickens who wrote of Jerry Crucher, a character in A Tale of Two Cities who worked at night as a resurrection man. Grave robbers could open a grave, remove a body and restore the soil between patrols of the night watch.

Before electric power to supply refrigeration, bodies would rapidly decay and become unusable for study. Therefore, the medical profession turned to body-snatching to supply the shortfall of newly-deceased bodies. Upon delivery of a cadaver from someone other than those authorized to transport criminals’ corpses, doctors and their assistants most likely suspected the bodies were stolen from graves but generally said nothing in order to keep the anatomy classes filled with paying students.

Stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanor in common law, not a felony, and was therefore only punishable with fine and imprisonment rather than execution. The trade was sufficiently lucrative to be worth the risk of detection, particularly as the authorities tended to turn a blind eye to what they considered a necessary evil.

The Anatomy Act of 1832 expanded the legal supply of cadavers for medical research and education in reaction to public fear and revulsion toward the illegal trade in corpses. It effectively ended the reign of Resurrectionists.

The Return of the Body Snatcher.

We now have a new demand for cadavers, or rather the body parts of cadavers, and the Resurrectionists are returning. Transplant surgery, which was relatively rare only a few decades ago, is growing at a phenomenal rate. Tissue, bones, skin, heart valves and tendons from corpses are in strong demand.

The advantage of human parts over man-made parts is significant. The new term for these parts is “allograft.” The allograft remodels like an autograft, but doesn't require a second surgery to harvest tissue from the patient as does the autograft. As in the 19th century, the market keeps growing, and the demand far exceeds the supply. Allografts are used in more than 600,000 surgical procedures in the United States annually.

Several companies are working on allografts. Regeneration Technologies and Cryolife both offer a variety of allograft transplant parts. The allograft industry totals $900 million and is growing ten to fifteen percent annually. The demand for tissue grafts outweighs the annual supply of 22,000 donations. Cryolife provides "cryopreserved" or freeze-dried heart valves, vascular tissue and knee cartilage for transplant. They also produce BioGlue, a surgical adhesive.

A company called LifeCell Corp. specializes in AlloDerm a "dermal matrix" made from donated human skin and freeze-dried for storage. AlloDerm is a human-derived material superior to anything that can be made for skin grafts.

These companies obtain human parts from hundreds of non-profit tissue banks located around the country. In the U.S. it is Illegal to buy and sell human tissue, so they pay what is called a processing fee. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Just like the baby parts industry.

The Return of the Underworld Characters.

A recent lawsuit against one of the above-mentioned companies is believed to be the tip of the iceberg. A recipient of one of these body parts found out the bone implanted in his neck to relieve back pain was stolen from a corpse. He is suing a medical technology company and several tissue processing businesses for fraud and negligence. He asks, “How can you sell parts out of a body, just like parts from a stolen car?"

New York authorities believe the owner of the now-defunct company made deals with funeral directors to remove bones, tendons and heart valves from corpses without notifying their families or screening for disease, a felony punishable by up to twenty-five years in prison. The owner is accused of doctoring death certificates and forging consent forms, then replacing the bones with PVC pipe and sewing the incision so it would not be noticed at the funeral.

The body parts were shipped to processing firms nationwide, sterilized and then implanted in patients. It is unclear how many patients receive stolen tissue or bone. Other lawsuits have been filed around the country.

Physicians who had implanted the suspect material have contacted their patients, and the purchaser of the bones from the now-defunct company has voluntarily recalled about 16,000 bones nationwide.

The demand for tissue, bones, skin, heart valves and tendons from corpses far outweighs the annual supply of donations. Will history repeat itself and the government pass laws to increase the supply? More than likely they will. In this culture of death, the definition of death is sure to change. The cost of keeping unproductive citizens will be brought into question. Unfortunately, history does repeat itself.

The Movement of the Body Snatchers from the Grave to the Funeral Home to the Hospital.

A California woman recently filed a complaint against an organ transplant doctor and a hospital for willfully deceiving her and murdering her physically handicapped son for the purpose of harvesting his organs. She is the only surviving family of her son who was stricken with a rare disorder that left him confined to a wheelchair. Due to a medical issue he was sent to a medical center. When the mother went to visit him at the hospital she was led to believe that her son’s doctor was the "treating doctor". According to the complaint, this “treating doctor” was actually working for a California organ-harvesting corporation.

The complaint also states the doctor spoke words to the effect that nothing could be done for her son, and he was going to die. She was also falsely informed that according to hospital policy, her son's respirator had to be disconnected after five days. Greatly distressed and having been led to believe that her son had no chance of survival, she agreed to donate his organs. At no point, however, did she consent to the removal of life-support.

The hospital medical staff took her son into the operating room where they removed the respirator. He kept breathing, however, and his heart continued to beat. At the direction of his "treating doctor," her son was administered a lethal dose of morphine and Ativan. However, he continued to live, and the doctor increased the doses of morphine then wheeled him away and left him to die without life support. He died nine hours later.

According to Dr. John Shea, a medical advisor for, the debate about whether to harvest organs usually surrounds a comatose person, the victim of a car crash for example, who is hovering between life and death. In this case, however, it appears the patient was not necessarily expected to die.

The question of when a person actually dies and when or if it is ethical to remove organs is strongly debated. As Dr. Shea explained, a person can be brought back to life even fifteen minutes after his heart has stopped beating. Since the notion of cardiac death was developed in 1993, he said, there has been a significant increase in the number of organs harvested. In fact, the number of "non-beating" heart donations -- people who may not have actually died -- more than doubled in the United States between 2003-2007. (

In this case, the fact that lethal doses of morphine were given three times can be interpreted as deliberate homicide. The young man did not have much money, he was disabled, and his mother was also disabled and lived three hours away. He was an ideal victim.

If the allegations are true, this event will have fulfilled the predictions of David Crippen, a University of Pittsburgh critical-care specialist, who stated in The Washington Post in March of 2007, "Now that we've established that we're going to take organs from patients who have a prognosis of death but who do not meet the strict definition of death, might we become more interested in taking organs from patients who are not dead at all but who are incapacitated or disabled?" ( One of the results is new definitions of who is designated as “dead.”

What Can You Do?

Living on a farm, one hears, “If you see a rodent at night, there are nine more of them. If you see one in the day time, there are 100 more of them.” These legal complaints indicate the harvesting of body parts is a very serious problem and is not limited to isolated cases. What can you do? Be aware of the situation and especially the manner in which doctors attempt to change the definition of death to increase the number of willing and unwilling donors. Doctors and the courts are pulling the plug on live human beings. If you are an organ donor, will the doctor "hurry your dying" so as to get to your organs? You can bet on it! It is already happening. Will laws change to further the death culture? You can bet on it! Be aware of what is happening. Learn about the individual state’s so-called ‘living wills’ which turn your life and death decisions over to a “treating (?) doctor.” Get yourself a pro-life living will and a Durable Power of Attorney which turns your life and death decisions over to someone you can trust.

It would be interesting to read what Charles Dickens would write today about our modern day Jerry Crucher.

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