In April 1818, the discovery that a body snatcher had removed eight human bodies from their final resting place shocked the people of Chebacco Parish on Massachusetts’ North Shore.
Several months earlier, people saw lights in The Old Burying Ground (now in Essex). It snowed that night, so no telltale footprints were left.
But when the snow melted, it revealed a hair ornament on the ground. It belonged to 26-year-old Sally Andrews, who died of consumption on Christmas Day 1817. Further investigation found her grave empty.
Not only did town officials discover a body snatcher had removed Sally’s body, they found seven more bodies missing as well. They included 10-year-old boys Isaac Allen and Phillip Harlow; Mary Millet, aged 35; William Burnham, 79; Elisha Story, 65; and Samuel Burnham, 26.
All had been recently buried. The body snatcher had also taken a colored man who had been buried six years previously.
The furious residents of Chebacco Parish raised the enormous amount of $500 for information about the person who had conducted this “most daring and sacrilegious robbery.”
As a reminder of the heinous crime, eight coffins were left open for the public to view for three months.
The townspeople had no hope of recovering the bodies, as they believed they had ‘passed under the dissecting knife of the anatomist.’
Suspicion fell on the ‘anatomist’ for a reason: In the 19th century, body snatchers robbed graves to sell to doctors or medical students for anatomical research or lectures. Doctors even did it.
The body snatchers generally targeted fresh graves, as the soft earth made digging easier. Sometimes they hired women to act as grieving relatives who claimed the bodies of the dead at poorhouses. Sometimes they hired women to attend funerals so they could detect any obstacles to the body snatching.
The demand for fresh bodies grew as colleges established medical schools in America. Harvard Medical School, established in 1782 by John Warren, younger brother of Joseph Warren, Aaron Dexter and Benjamin Waterhouse.
Wrote Warren’s son, John Collins Warren, Jr., “No occurrences in the course of my life have given me more trouble and anxiety than the procuring of subjects for dissection.”
Thomas Sewall, a promising young doctor in town, was a likely suspect as a body snatcher.
He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1812 and set up a physician’s practice in Ipswich. He also lectured on anatomy to medical students.
The Rev. Robert Crowell described his scientific approach to medicine:
Though endowed by nature with a bold and penetrating genius, and though rich in all the learning of his science and vigilant in marking its progress, he never allowed his judgement to yield to the fascination of theories, or to the authority of systems; but founded his practice on the solid basis of experience.
The townspeople suspected that ‘solid basis of experience’ included dissecting fresh bodies.
Sure enough, authorities discovered he possessed parts of the bodies of Sally Andrews and William Burnham.
Sewall hired Daniel Webster as his lawyer, but it didn’t matter. A jury found him guilty on two counts of knowingly and willfully receiving, concealing and disposing of the bodies of two of his patients. The court fined him $800 and ordered him out of the community.
Webster invited him to move to Washington, D.C., to reestablish his career. In 1825 he cofounded the medical department at Columbian College (later George Washington University), and he taught anatomy.
In 1819, Chebacco incorporated into the town of Essex.
Two decades after the body snatcher incident, the townspeople could still barely talk about it, wrote Duane Hamilton Hurd in his book, History of Essex County, Vol. II. Hurd had arrived in town 22 years later, and wrote that a ‘pungency and acerbity in every occasional allusion to it by the majority of the adults.’
If you liked this story about the body snatcher of Chebacco Parish, you may also like to read about Fortune, the slave whose body was used for medical training, here.
This story was updated in 2020.