Early NYC and The Robbers of the Grave (Archaeology of the African Burial Grounds Part 2)

From the African Burial Ground Memorial in NYC

Note: As you read, learn and engage with this series of articles, there are some other themes that I encourage you to think about, and try to make connections to as you follow:

  • The culture of mistrust between the African American population and the medical community
  • Power dynamics between the biomedical model and traditional practices
  • The ways in which racism is/ has been supported and bolstered through institutional practices
  • De-valuation and de-humanization of the poor and “other” populations
  • Urban planning- separation, community, race

…I ended my previous post suggesting that the empty graves discovered during the excavation of the African burial grounds may have set off a red flag regarding some questionable activities that occurred during the time period. Well, let’s pick up where we left off.


In 1754, a medical school, then known as King’s College (Columbia University), was established in lower Manhattan. “One early manifestation of the institution’s lofty goals was the establishment in 1767 of the first American medical school to grant the M.D. degree” (http://www.columbia.edu/content/history.html ).
By this time, much of the academic world was heavily invested in the scientific study of biology, medicine, and the natural world. In order to achieve their goal of being able to grant M.D. qualifications, the college needed to be able to give their students adequate experience working with human anatomy. This meant they needed bodies. Colleges did receive bodies via donation, bodies of criminals, or unclaimed individuals. However, there were not enough bodies to provide substantial, hands-on experience for the growing medical program.

Image from Granger Collection

This shortage led to the practice we often refer to as ‘grave robbing,’ or ‘body snatching’. It is important to note, that prior to this time, there had been no laws in the U.S. that prohibited taking bodies from graves. Bodies had no status as property, so it was not illegal. Medical students during this time would have been young (15-20 years old), white men, probably dressed in black suits. Several of them would meet up at night, and head to the grave yard to seek out fresh graves. They would dig up and open the coffin, hoist the body out of the hole, refill the hole and carry the body back to the school.

****FYI: The men that did this type of work in the UK had come to be known as ‘Resurrectionists’. Also, if you want to make some interesting comparisons and correlations between necessity, greed, and corruption, check out how the business of grave robbing worked out for Burke and Hare! It gets gruesome!

More affluent families could afford items or deterrents such as light posts, cages (mortsafe- shown below), lead coffins, and guards to keep young medical students from digging up their loved ones.

Image found on http://wednesdaymourning.com/

As a side note, these forms of grave security were not new. Grave robbing has existed for centuries. Additionally, cultural or religious belief have caused people to develop similar contraptions to keep the dead from returning. Perhaps one day, I’ll do a post about mortuary security through the ages or around the world.
However, I digress…
Since the poor, could not usually afford such measures, they were more vulnerable to these acts. The African burial ground I discussed in the previous post was exceptionally susceptible because of two reasons: 1) many of the individuals laid to rest were poor and 2) location!
The burial grounds were located several blocks away from King’s College. This meant students could dig up fresh corpses and move them quickly under the cover of night. This practice of medical students digging up fresh corpses for their homework lasted until the 1788 Doctor’s Riot. Over the 30 years that this was practiced, there is no telling how many bodies were exhumed by the medical school for scientific study and inquiry.
This also led to the establishment of many medical and ethical laws and policies that are often taken for granted today.
When the 1991 excavation of the lower Manhattan African burial grounds occurred, many empty graves were discovered. Considering the distance to the school, prevalence of the the practice, and the vulnerability of this population of people, it would be a safe deduction to say many of the missing bodies found their way into the classrooms and labs of King’s College.
The connection between slavery and grave robbing doesn’t end there. In part 3 of this series, I’ll highlight a key individual in this journey back through history and the development of medical culture and practice. For now, I’ll refer to him by his nickname, “The Resurrection Man”.
Here are some resources if you’re interested in learning more (I left out TONS on purpose!):

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