Bathsheba Smith’s body was stolen, taken unceremoniously from her not-so-final resting place in the West Haven burial ground in the predawn hours of Jan. 11, 1824.
A neighbor heard the gravediggers passing by in a cart between midnight and 2 a.m. The next day, the local West Haven constable, Erastus Osborn, was summoned to the now-bodiless gravesite of the 19-year-old farmer’s daughter who had died recently of unrecorded causes.
But there was no great mystery to be solved. Everyone knew the motive for the crime, and everyone knew where the body had been taken: Yale’s medical school.
Grave robberies were not uncommon at the time in communities near U.S. medical schools, says Michael Sappol, author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America.
“It happened at Harvard and happened at Dartmouth, and every single medical school in antebellum U.S. had a body-snatching scandal and often a riot,” he says. “In order to have a medical school you had to have a course in anatomy with dissection. No good legal source of bodies. Therefore, body snatching.”
Sometimes hospital, poorhouse or prison wardens were paid off to supply bodies to medical schools. Other times professional grave robbers, so-called “resurrection men” or “sack-’em-up men” were hired. But often the act was undertaken by medical students themselves.
“In many places students had to get their own bodies,” Sappol says. “And given the fact that these were very young, high-spirited men, there was a lot of gamesmanship and sport, a lot of pleasure, a lot of adventuring, storytelling, student culture, etc., around grave robbing for anatomical study. It was a practical necessity. It was fun.”
On Monday, Jan. 12, 1824, as news of the grave robbing spread across the New Haven area, Osborn got a warrant and, along with several West Haven and New Haven volunteers, including Bathsheba’s father, searched the Yale medical facility on Grove Street (the medical department moved to York Street in 1860 and the Grove Street building was demolished in 1931).
Upon entering the building’s small, low cellar, paved with large, flat stones, Osborn spotted a small amount of fresh dirt scattered near one stone.
“I scratched with the end of my walking stick and the more I examined the more suspicion was created,” Osborn would recall in a letter written later that day to his father. “We soon found the earth appeared fresher between the stones and finally took up a large flat stone where we discovered a white bundle, apparently a bundle of clothes.” Upon closer examination, they “found a human body doubled up in a heap entirely covered up with the grave clothes. We took it out and it was immediately known to be the body of the young woman we were searching for.”
Bathsheba’s body was put into a wagon to be brought back to West Haven. The wagon moved down College Street at about noon, then down Chapel Street where bells tolled and an angry crowd gathered.
New Haven’s resurrection riot had begun.
By the following night, Yale’s medical students had armed and shut themselves up in the college, expecting an attack. “West Haven people, a great number, have come over and New Haven has mustered a large company,” Osborn says. “Drum has beat & the streets are crowded with the besieging army preparing for the assault.”
Newspapers of the time reflect the furor of the city’s populace. The Connecticut Herald wrote on Tuesday, Jan. 13, “If subjects are necessary for dissection, in the progress of Anatomical instruction, the cerements of the grave, where the names of the loved and the lamented are placed to mingle with their kindred earth, are not to be violated with impunity, and the hand that could ruthlessly touch the hallowed spot is even more venomous than slander.”
For several days after Bathsheba’s body was removed from Yale, the riots continued. The glass on the medical building windows was broken by rioters, and there was even an attempt to tar and feather a suspected perpetrator of the grave robbing. The City Authority stepped in to protect the students — there were 81 registered medical students at the time — stationing armed guards outside and arresting several rioters.
“We have never known so great an excitement in the city on any occasion as we have witnessed during the past week,” the Columbian Register proclaimedon Jan. 17.
Ultimately, Ephraim Colborn, a Yale medical assistant, was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to nine months in jail and a fine of $300. Writing about the incident in 1935 for the Yale Journal of Biology, Hannibal Hamlin argued Colborn may have unjustly taken the fall. “He was the only person indicted, two suspected medical students having transferred their studies with great alacrity to other parts before they could be [dragged] into court.” Hamlin adds that the evidence against Colborn was circumstantial and there were no witnesses.
A few months later Connecticut passed legislation allowing for the bodies of those who died in prison and capital offenders to be used by medical professors and students.
A strange era of medical history in the state had come to an end. As Hamlin notes, “Throughout the history of anatomy nearly every important center of instruction has been obliged to hide an illegitimate skeleton in its closet.”
This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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