The Invasion of Real-Life Body Snatchers: 1890-1910

This is all true:

They buried the little girl in the hard ground of the Indianapolis winter. Despite the freezing temperatures, her mother stood by the grave for hours after the funeral, weeping to exhaustion in the falling snow. By late afternoon, family had coaxed her away, but she returned to the grave early the next morning and discovered a single white slipper in the dirt next to her daughter’s grave. The mother recognized it immediately: her daughter’s slipper. The slipper she had been buried in.

Grief and horror overwhelmed the mother and she fell to her knees, clutching the slipper tightly. Her screams alarmed nearby police. Hours later, gravediggers discovered the truth: the new grave was empty. It wasn’t a restless spirit or demon that had dropped the slipper there, it was a careless body snatcher.

A century ago, body snatching was big business in central Indiana. A distasteful and illegal practice, body snatching nonetheless provided a substantial income for unscrupulous criminals who sold the bodies to medical schools for lessons in dissection (among them the Indiana Medical College and the Physiomedrical College of Indiana). 

The growth of the medical field in the United States after the Civil War led to an abundance of medical schools. While these schools were often well-funded, they liked an essential object for anatomy lessons: actual human anatomy. Bodies only trickled in, with dozens of students watching from a distance in lecture theaters as professors dissected and discussed a single cadaver.

This was common practice for centuries, but during the Civil War, the American medical profession learned the hard way that doctors with rudimentary knowledge of human anatomy could do more harm than good. American medicine began focusing on human anatomy, establishing a scientific and practical approach to medicine. These future professionals needed hands-on experience, and that meant more cadavers. Many more. 

Prior to body-snatching, bodies were typically obtained if unclaimed by family, belonged to a jailed individual or, as a final punishment, if the body belonged to an executed individual. Medical schools also received unclaimed residents of nearby mental asylums. 

Prices and body snatching techniques varied, but one rule was consistent across the entire sordid industry: the fresher the body, the higher the price. A body buried and stolen in the same night could fetch as much as $50 to $75 dollars, equivalent to $1000 to $1500 dollars today.


After decades of the White River’s flooding, the city of Indianapolis finally admitted Greenlawn Cemetery, one of the city’s first cemeteries, had to be moved to higher, drier ground to prevent a municipal plague. The resting place of the city’s pioneer families and almost 3000 Civil War soldiers, Greenlawn Cemetery sat just west of today’s Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.

Officials contacted family members and exhumations began. Or what they thought would be exhumations. In grave after grave, coffins and caskets were dug up, only to reveal an empty box containing a pile of clothing. Nothing more. Dozens and then hundreds of empty graves were discovered, with virtually all bodies buried after 1890 gone. The families of Indianapolis wanted blood.


By the time Indiana’s body snatchers operated, their techniques had gone through centuries of improvements, allowing a fresh Hoosier grave to be emptied in less than an hour. Body snatchers, ghouls, or “resurrectionists,” would locate a fresh grave, which made the digging and disguising easier. They would mark the head of the grave and dig a hole one or two feet in diameter straight down.

After reaching the casket or coffin, they’d attach ropes to the exposed lid and, using the dirt’s weight as leverage, yank the rope violently, cracking the lid. The body and valuables would be removed, with only the clothes tossed back into the grave. 

They’d quickly fill the hole in again and smooth the mounded dirt, leaving most cemetery guards and family members none the wiser. Professionals often stole several bodies in a single night, typically fresh bodies, but occasional settling for the lower price procured from skeletal remains. They’d then meet a contact at a nearby medical school for payment. 

A deplorable profession, no doubt, and medical professionals that participated in this morbid black market were no better than the body snatchers themselves, but it was also done for a reason: with the American medical field growing in leaps and bounds, these students desperately needed hands-on knowledge of human anatomy.

The lack of modern refrigeration meant bodies could not practically be stored for any period of time. The dangers of preserving bodies with flammable alcohol or formaldehyde, in the days of oil lamps and gaslights, needn’t be discussed. Occasionally, anatomists could use a simple salt brine, but that changed the consistency of human tissue. 

Reaching a peak around 1900, the large-scale industry faded away by the 1910s. Improved methods of refrigeration contributed to its demise, at first with ice boxes and then with heat pumps. Reinforced graves, known as mortsafes, were briefly in vogue, but were also very costly. Instead, towns and cities began burying loved ones in gated and guarded community graveyards, rather than family or rural ones.

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In direct response to the Greenlawn Cemetery tragedy, Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery adopted stringent security. Armed guards were required to constantly patrol the entire cemetery throughout the night. If they encountered any trespassers, these guards had authority to shoot without warning. This was a stiffer penalty than most body snatchers were willing to pay.

Hoosier Congressman John Scott Harrison holds unique ground in American history as the only person to be the son of one president (William Henry Harrison) and the father of another (Benjamin Harrison). After retiring to North Bend, Ohio, he passed away in 1878, buried near his father’s memorial tomb in Ohio.

A grave in the near the tomb had been defiled by body snatchers the week of the Congressman Harrison’s funeral. His son John Harrison traveled to the nearby Ohio Medical College the day after his father’s funeral to investigate the school’s suspected involvement.

He wasn’t wrong. The missing body was discovered in a large vat of salt brine for later dissection. But Harrison tragically found more than that: dangling from an air shaft at the same school, with a rope tied tightly around his neck, was the body of his just-buried father, Congressman John Scott Harrison.


Public acceptance and understanding of modern medical schools’ needs ended the era of “resurrection men.” Individuals started donating their bodies to schools while alive, and despite misgivings, families typically respected their wishes.

Medical schools in turn began treating bodies with more dignity, ending a then-common practice of posing with dissection specimens in photographs. This mutual respect the public and professionals led to an increase of available cadavers. The black market faded away.

The cultural taboos against body dissection still exist, and while cadaver donation is no longer a dire issue for most medical schools, American universities and colleges have adopted very strict guidelines for the treatment of specimens. Indiana University Northwest’s Cadaver Prosection Program stood as the very model of medical ethics in this regard.

After spending a semester studying anatomy from a donated cadaver, the IUN program’s medical students hold a solemn ceremony honoring the sacrifice, meeting the donors’ family members and hearing about their lives. In a small way, this reflects the understanding between the public and professionals, honoring not only the pursuit of knowledge, but the sacrifices made along the way.