The term Resurrectionist would technically refer only to the night criminals who physically disinterned corpses to sell to medical schools for dissection 0r, on a much smaller scale, to medical students or providers of skeletal parts or casts to aid in anatomical studies or, to PAFA during the Eakins adminstration. The trade in bodies for medical dissection included a imate component of morgue attendants, graveyard guards and supervisors, women who claimed "loved ones', night's dwelling slum lords and, in the antebellum South, plantation owners in agreement with medical colleges there to sell the bodies of deceased slaves.
The Resurrectionists captured all the fear, loathing, discomfort of the public and especially the vulnerable lower classes in the necessity of human dissection in medical college. it was the Resurrectionist like "Indian Joe'' in Tom Sawyer killing the young "sawbones" in a dispute over payment, the Body Snatcher of Robert Louis Stevenson, or the groom who doubled as a Resurrectionist in A Tale of Two Cities who entered the imagination of the public as a new prototype, a Dr. Jeckyll. and it was the character of Devil-Bug in the novel Quaker City drinking and bragging:
"The doctor sent for me last night; the one what wants me to steal dead bodies for him. He pays me well, and I like the business. Sich a jolly business! To creep over the wall o' some graveyard in the dead of night, and with a spade in your hand, to turn up the arth of a new made grave! To mash the coffing lid into small pieces... and to drag the stiff corpse out... with the shroud so white and clean, spoilt by the damp clay. To kever the corpse with an old overcoat or coffee bag and bear it off to the doctors, with his pen-knife, and his daggers, and his gimlets- hoo-hoo!"
The most common modus operanti was to have a small team with a network of paid informants at the cemetaries of the poor, the settlement house, prisons and especially the morgue to keep the team of Resurrectionists informed of the burial of new bodies. If there was a demand for a new body, and there generally was in the "dissecting season" or Winter months of the school term, then the team would enter the graveyard late at night.
Most of these graves were shallow and the earth already broken so it was not a long task to uncover the head of the coffin. The lid would be sawn or broken using the earth over the rest of the coffin as leverage and anchor, a rope passed about the shoulders of the corpse and the team would haul it out. The corpse would be quickly stripped and wrapped in an old over coat or rough cloth like burlap or canvas. Garments and possessions were tossed back into the coffin as grave robbing was a felony, the earth replaced and the body born off to the waiting cart and off to the dissecting room and "pickle" vat. The whole process, apart from transportation, took less than an hour.
The Resurrectionists plied their trade with little official interferance from the 1750's through 1882. There were periodic riots which were met by police presence but the primary focus of the Resurrection Acts were to facilitate the disposal of bodies destined to be buried at public expense in the dissection rooms. the fact is, as distasteful as human dissection is, the benefits of trained surgeons outweighs the inconvenience of men like the Resurrectionists lurking in the shadows.
Much of this changed in 1882 when newspaper men were tipped off that a team of Resurrectionists were to hit the African American Lebanon Cemetary in South Philadelphia. It was located where Roosevelt Park now stands across the intersection from the Sport Stadiums. the reporters, in company with Pinkerton agents caught Frank McNamee's team red-handed with six bodies. The story became head line news across the country andriot was threatened as the bodies were identified. police were sent to guard Jefferson College, not Lebanon Cemetary.
Arrested immediatly were the supervisor of the cemetary Robert Chew and his brother Levi, Frank McNamee, and Henry "Dutch" Pillet all from "other" portions of society. Robert confessed that he had accepted bribes and providing bodies to various teams of Reasurrectionists for nine of the eleven years he had been Superintendant.
The story grew again when it was found that McNee had the keys to the Jefferson College dissecting room and implicated Dr. Forbes " the Father of American Anatomical Art" and a respected gentleman of the city. Dr. Forbes was later released after character witnesses by dozens of the city's prominent members including Dr. Gross. He went on to sponsor the 1883 Resurrection Act.
Frank McNamee made a "daylight" living as an expressman. He had a wagon and a team and a mail contract. It was not unusual to see a delivery man making predawn rounds and his confession showed how he had started his Resurrectionist career with a legal delivery.
" First handling I did was three years ago. Dr. Behan, who assisted Dr. Forbes had me go to the Prison to haul a body in daytime. Dr. Forbes gave me $1.00 a body. After I began to obtain and haul at night I told him I needed more money to pay for the digging and the cost of transportation. He eventually paid me $8.00 a body of which I kept $3.00" New York Times, December 14, 1882
Resurrectionists dropped from the Philadelphia conversation soon after. The improvement in perserving bodies first from gains in the Civil war and then by improvement in refrigeration allowed bodies to be stored and the legitimate sources became sufficient for the needs of the school.
pickles at the Academy IV concludes the series with the effect on the Art of Thomas Eakins .
I highly recommend the articke "Jeff Boys" by Alan C. Braddock for those interested in this bit of history