Date Approved


Embargo Period


Document Type


Degree Name

M.A. History




College of Humanities & Social Sciences


Wiltenburg, Joy

Committee Member 1

Carrigan, William

Committee Member 2

Lindman, Janet


Anatomy, Body, Body snatching, Dissection, Philadelphia, Resurrectionist


Death--Social aspects; Human dissection--History; Philadelphia--Social conditions--18th century; Philadelphia--Social conditions--19th century


United States History


In 18th-century Philadelphia the first medical school in the thirteen British colonies was established. However, cadavers for dissection could only be obtained involuntarily, a posthumous punishment generally reserved for murderers and suicides. Body snatching, the disinterment of corpses for dissection, immediately became a problem because legal sources of "subjects" did not meet demand. Body snatching was resisted in popular representations and the actions of everyday citizens in riots, petitions, and other forms of protest. However, in the late 19th century the requisition of "unclaimed" bodies for dissection - that is, dead "paupers" - became enshrined in Pennsylvania's 1883 Anatomy Act, a model followed by other states.

This study seeks to explain this momentous legal change in the disposition of Philadelphia's dead by tracing the history of body snatching in the city, a history that parallels the development of burial places and institutions such as the Philadelphia Almshouse and medical schools. This study explores what body snatching meant to "resurrectionists", anatomists, medical students, victims, elites, and everyday Philadelphians, and the beliefs and practices it contravened. The history of body snatching is a long history of directing violations of beliefs and practices of care for the dead toward socially marginalized groups, defined by class and race, which became codified in 19th-century anatomy acts, a legacy that lives on today.