Part II- Human Dissection in Philadelphia 1762-1882
The Age of Enlightentment set in motion both the gains and accompanying dangers of creative thought and the education to support its inevitable confrontation with accepted beliefs. The beginning of truse surgery, extending beyond amputation, in Amsterdam and then Edinburgh would lead medicine past balancing good and bad humours to modern medicine but, at a cost, both physical and psychological to society.
Young men were trained to be surgeons by being accepted by Masyter surgeons and then studying texts and assisting in the often horrifying procedures in the surgical amphitheaters. The assistance in live surgery before modern anesthesia was mostly a hardening to the gasps of the audience, the screaming of patient and family, the straining to restrain or assist. The skill to cut quickly, efficiently, cold-heartedly was learned in the same amphitheaters upon cadavers- an ever growing number of cadavers as new school were founded and all the colleges in the New World were new.
The English "Murder Act" of 1752 stipulated that a Judge should stipulate a condemned man's body as sentenced to dissection and that suicides had given up the right to Christian burial but the public was well aware that the number of cadavers obtained under the law in no way satisfied the demand of the anatomical theaters. They knew it was the raids of fresh pauper graves and bribing of the morgues by the Body Snatchers or Resurrectionists which were supplying the needs of these new schools.
William Shippen was a young surgeon from a very prominent Philadelphia family who returned from his studies in Edinborough in 1762 and was urged by his friends and colleaques to advertise that he would demonstrate the art of dissection and anatomy in the new surgical amphitheater of what wiould become the University of Pennslyvania in 1762. Dr. Shippen placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette and his house was twice attacked by mobs. Dr. Shippen went on to serve on the board of the University of Pennsylvania and to serve as Chief Medical Officer of the Continental Army but, though he repeatedly pledged that the bodies came only from "executed bodies and suicides" there was always a cloud over his name among the lower classes.
The London House where Benjamin Franklin lived was fully restored in the 1990's and the skeletal remains of four adults and six children were uncovered, the bones bearing the signs of dissection. They most likely were from the surgery school of William Hewsons who lived in the same house but there was strong suspicion that Dr. Franklin participated in some lectures if only to demonstrate the effect of electricity on the musculature.
The expansion of the University of Pennsylvania and the founding of Jefferson Medical College greatly increased the demand for corpses. Grave Robbing was a felony which targetted the well off while Body Snatching was only a misdemeanor targeting the poor, at the Dickensonian time of increasing distance from the wealthy who might sit in the seat of a medical amphitheater and the poor who might lay on the slab. The Victorian sense of morbidity which followed the death of Prince Albert and the rise of cheap novels of Dickens, Stevenson, Poe and Lippard fed the public apprehension and image of the Resurrectionist skulking about the Potters Fields and fine new sculpted graveyards of the city. The street Arabs sleeping rough in huddled groups, the destitute in night's lodging, feared with each hacking cough that they would be snatched from shallow grave and their naked corpses cut to amuse the wealthy.
Robert Louis Stevenson published The Body Snatcher while in Philadelphia George Lippards published The Quaker City which was the most popular novel in America until Uncle Tom's Cabin and gloating Resurrectionist stood out in horror among a cast of villeans.
Various Anatomical and Resurectionist Acts were passed over the years in attempt to impose an order and legality to the obtaining of corpses for dissection. The Murder Act of 1752 was ineffectual in calming the public and restricting the Resurrectionists. The colleges insisted they obtained only the bodies of suicides and murders but they commonly required students to obtain their own skeletons and bodies for dissection, a practice which inevitable led to wealthy students making arrangements with Resurrectionists or forming groups for night raids on fresh graves as they would not have access to the "legal" bodies. And for some young Victorian gentlemen, these contacts with "roughs" and "dark deeds" had a sort of sexual and visceral appeal. Thomas Eakins began his life long habit of carrying pistols and identifying, in a Whitman- like way, with the roughs while a student of anatomy at Jefferson Medical.
An Act of 1867 stipulated that medical school could only use corpses unclaimed for 48 hours at the Morgue but even the ease of bribing morgue attendents and city officials did not obtain sufficient bodies. The development of anesthesia did allow for more teaching in surgery and advances in embalming in the civil war allowed for longer retention of claimed corpses but Resurrectionists continued as an almost open practice particularly on the "outsiders"- African Americans, immigrants, whores, sailors.
Then in 1882 a gang of Resurrectionists were caught transporting eight bodies from the Negro cemetary in Lebanon toPhiladelphia. Dr. William S. Forbes, "The Father of American Anatomical Art" was implicated by the Grand Jury but ultimatly found not guilty. He then championed the Rusurrection Law of 1882 which imposed greater government regulation and stipulated that only accredited medical colleges could obtain bodies certified to be abandoned or donated.
to be continued in Part III- Meet the Resurrectionist, and completed in Part IV- The Tale of Dr. Gross ( and Dr. Forbes) and Mr. Eakins