While working on her master’s thesis, Dr. Erin Shelor explored the complexities of the history of medicine. Shelor’s research may have focused on the professionalization of general practice in medicine, but one topic caught her attention: grave robbing.
Grave robbing, otherwise known as tomb raiding or body-snatching, is the practice of stealing items or bodies soon after a person is buried. Grave robbers would commonly steal bodies from tombs and sell them to medical institutions to be analyzed by students.
After 16 years as associate professor of history at Millersville University, Dr. Erin Shelor is the newly appointed department chair of the University’s history program. Shelor applies her research on the history of medicine with her niche understanding on the topic of grave robbing, sharing her expertise with Millersville students and various groups in Lancaster County.
In her presentations, Shelor explains the legal and social situation regarding grave robbing in Great Britain, prior to legal reform that took place in 1832. Shelor focuses on the public perception surrounding the anatomical study and the use of human bodies for medical research.
According to an article published in the Smithsonian Magazine, “Grave robberies and body trafficking for profit were distinctly Anglo-Saxon phenomena; in Central Europe, the authorities usually distributed unclaimed corpses to medical schools”
“I am working from the framework of early 19th century British history. Grave robbing did happen [in the United States] as well, it’s a pretty big deal in fact. I know there were riots in Baltimore over similar problems,” says Shelor. “Because I am speaking particularly about a change in the legal system, in terms of how medical students get access to bodies for anatomical study, it’s pretty specific to Great Britain.”
“We certainly associate [grave robbing] with the medical study because dissection was so controversial. If for instance, you look at the Renaissance, we know that Renaissance artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo did observe dissections, but we also know that they were probably mostly illegal dissections.”
According to Shelor, dissections were looked down upon by the Catholic Church which made the practice widely unaccepted.
“The Catholic Church said, ‘You need all your body parts in heaven,” says Shelor. “That’s part of the social idea that made [dissection] so unpopular. Even after the reformation, [in] most organized Christian religions, people believed that you’re going to rise again and if you’re missing your hand, you’re missing your hand forever.”
Grave robbing was eventually commercialized. Professional grave robbers, otherwise known as “resurrection men” were hired to dig up bodies for medical study.
“What really brings a lot of this to a head is when we go from only looking at these grave robbers as kind of lowlife lawbreakers to actually beginning to charge medical students and medical practitioners as accessories to the crime,” says Shelor. “That’s the point where everybody [starts saying] ‘well wait a minute, we might need to start changing things.”
Parliamentary hearings were held in Great Britain to assess the situation. According to Shelor, three grave robbers were asked to testify about their practice and how they worked around the laws that were in place at the time.
“In 1828, and then again in 1831, there are these cases of really well-publicized murders by people who are kind of attached to this business in order to sell the bodies,” says Shelor. “We get people no longer having the patience to find a dead body and dig it up, but instead they’re killing people and selling the bodies.”
Parliament eventually passed the Anatomy Act of 1832 which legalized dissection for medical study.
“When we are able to capture people’s imagination, we’re able to use a story like this, to make them say ‘Oh my gosh that’s so cool, I want to know more about that time period,” says Shelor. “I don’t expect anyone to apply [this information] by going out and robbing a grave, that’s not a good idea.”
Shelor’s next presentation will be taking place on October 23 in Downtown Lancaster. Shelor’s presentation will benefit the Lancaster Medical Heritage Museum. To find out more, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/halloween-lecture-and-lager-medical-history-on-tap-tickets-166094540241?aff=ebdsoporgprofile
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