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The rise and fall of Cincinnati’s infamous body snatchers

The lucrative business that bridged Sweeny Todd and Sherlock Holmes in the Queen City.
Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 11:17 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Around 150 years ago, the Queen City ran rife with a practice as foul as it was illegal.

Some in the nineteenth century called them “resurrectionists,” but the name dropped out of fashion like a bit of Victorian gilding. We remember them today as “body snatchers.”

It was a lucrative trade. That’s what brought so many Cincinnatians shovel-in-hand to the unsettled earth of the city’s fresh graves.

But grave-robbing was also pivotally important for the medical schools whose students required an ever-replenishing supply of corpses to dissect.

Foul, illegal... and for a few decades in the mid-1800s, the price of progress.

There were nine distinct medical schools in Cincinnati at the time. According to local historian Greg Hand, every one of them needed cadavers at a time when it was illegal to donate one’s body for medical science.

Body snatchers stepped out of the Dickensian ether to satisfy the demand.

Hand says most of the medical schools employed body snatchers directly to go out on the school’s behalf and dig up freshly buried bodies.

“And if you didn’t have a resurrectionist on staff,” said Hand, “there were a lot of freelance resurrectionists who went around to the different graveyards in the city and dug up bodies.”

Law enforcement routinely overlooked the practice. The medical schools, Hand argues, were complicit.

“They were partners in this crime,” he said. “They needed certain numbers of bodies. And in fact, the Ohio Medical School on Sixth Street had a drop-off chute for bodies so that a wagon could drive down the alley out back of the school, unload a body into the chute, and it was picked up there by the anatomical professor the next day.”

It became such a profitable trade that body snatchers began selling corpses from Cincinnati to cities elsewhere.

William Cunningham was the most famous of them—and the most brazen.

“He would disguise the corpses that he had just pulled from the grave by having them sit next to him on his wagon as he drove through town passing the police,” Hand said.

There was also the scandalous case of John Scott Harrison, the son of William Henry Harrison, whose body was exhumed and sold to a medical school.

Body-snatching became so widespread that Spring Grove Cemetery installed a jail cell in the administration building in the event the night watchman caught one.

But it would not last. Harrison’s case prompted changes at the state level.

“People realized that medical, scientific progress really requires these sort of hands-on anatomical lessons,” Hand said. “Eventually state law caught up with the medical practice, and people were allowed to donate their bodies. And at that point, there was no sense robbing graves.”

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