Grave Robbing: Interview with a professional "subject gatherer."

Nearly half a century after the Anatomy Act was passed in the U.K., granting medical schools the bodies of poor people who had no friends to pay for a burial, colleges in the states were still desperate for bodies - desperate enough that you could bring a body to most medical schools and trade it in for cash or valuable prizes, no questions asked.  Here’s an interview with Charles Keeton, “Professor of Subject-Gathering” conducted by the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1878. Keeton was proud of his profession, since his labors were performed in the interest of science:

Enquirer; How long have you been in the business?

KEETON:  About eleven years, sir. I began with Mr. Cunningham, “Old Cunny,” they called hi, eleven years ago, and have followed the business every winter since that.

Does it pay pretty well?
Not now. It used to pay, for we got a good price for subjects, but there isn’t much money in it now.

Why don’t they pay so much now?
Well, sir, the fact is I don’t want to say nothing against anybody, but it ‘pears to me that somebody ain’t exactly doing the fair thing by the profession of subject-gathering. I don’t ‘cuse none of the doctors themselves of going out to get stiffs, but there is something wrong somewhere. The old demonstrators of anatomy at the colleges wouldn’t have stooped to such a thing either, but I think things are changed now. I went to the demonstrator of one college— I ain’t going to call any names— in March, and asked him how many subjects they were going to want for the spring session, and he told me he thought they wouldn’t want any more, that they had enough on hand. Well, you see, I know better than that, and my private ‘pinion is that that ‘ere demonstrator gets his subjects in some queer sort of way. I don’t say that he goes out for ‘em himself, but if he doesn’t he must have some no ‘count men that would as soon rob the grave of a party well connected, with lots of friends, as any other way. Now, now body snatcher as has any respect for hisself or his calling ‘ll do a thing of that sort. There’s plenty of material lying ‘round and rotting, just rotting, sir, and no friends to claim it.

How long have you been at the business?
It’s about eleven years since I first begun it. I begun with Old Cunny. First he paid me $3 a head; that was while I was learning. Then he gave me $8 apiece, and finally I decided to quit him and go by myself, and so he said he’d give me half, and then we worked together and shared till he died.

Do you make it a regular business, then?
I get my living by it in the winter time.

What do you get for subjects?
We used to get about $25 apiece for them, but lately the price somehow has got down to $15. The professors buy some subjects for themselves, and they most always get them for about $15.

How do you usually get the bodies?
Well, we generally go out two together and go to a burying ground. We go to the poor lots, the Potter’s Field, and when we can find any fresh graves we get the bodies.

You don’t get them from the parts where the better class of people are buried?
No. Lots of times Cunny and I have been out together and we’d find a fresh grave on a large lot, and Cunny would always say “Come ‘long, honey, we won’t take that.’ When we’d come through to the part where the graves were close together, and we knew it was the poor lot where the people without any friends were buried, then we’d dig down to the coffin, break it open, and put a rope around the neck and pull the body out. I don’t do it that way now, though, for it is just as easy to throw all the dirt out. Then, after throwing it out, I generally get down and open the coffin, and take the body by the waist and lift it out to my partner. He takes it, and gently runs a knife down the back and rips the clothes off, and lets ‘em drop down. Then we slip the head into a sack, press the knees up against the chest, and slip the body in it and tie the sack. That’s all there is to it.

How do you enjoy the work?
Well, it wasn’t very pleasant at first, of course, but any one gets used to it. It is for the good of science, and I think it is just as right and honorable as for the man what does the dissection. I want to say one thing, though, and that is that the colored people have ‘cused me of robbing the graves and their graveyards. I never have done so. I have took up a good many bodies of colored people wot was buried in the poor lot, but never any other.

How many do you suppose you have furnished in your experience as a body snatcher?
Maybe 500. I got about forty last winter, but it wasn’t a very good winter for it, though.

For WAY more information:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...