The Era of the Body Snatchers


You’d think that death and burial would be the end of one’s body, but that isn’t always the case. Keeping the dead in their graves is serious business -and not just in the sense that the undead may rise to haunt us. Sometimes we have to protect those buried bodies from outside forces.

Grave Robbing

Photograph by Andrew Bossi.

The act of robbing graves has been with us since the custom of burial began. If a body is observed to have been buried with any jewelry or other valuables, word will get around. Then someone will be tempted to dig the grave up to help themselves. Tombs of royalty and the wealthy are particularly tempting. Archaeologists are disappointed when they find that a tomb has been looted by grave robbers, yet to some outside the sphere of science, what archaeologists do is grave robbing, too. Looting tombs for valuables is unsavory, but did not bother people as much as what came later: stealing actual bodies from their supposed final resting place.

Body Snatching

Photograph by Kim Traynor.

You can read books for years to learn medicine, but there’s no way of getting around having to deal with the human body. Before medical students are entrusted to care for living bodies, they study anatomy by dissecting human cadavers. Today, people bequeath their corporeal remains to the betterment of science in order to train the next generation of physicians. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, when medical schools were fairly new, the average person did not understand why corpses were needed, and the teachings of some religions forbade desecration of the body even after death.


In the 19th century, medical education was making great strides in the United Kingdom, and professors needed cadavers for demonstrations and lectures. However, the only legal way to procure bodies was after criminal executions, and there weren't enough of them. As medical schools grew, capital punishment waned. This gave rise to the profession of body-snatching, and grave robbers could make a pretty penny for their clandestine efforts. Stealing a dead body was merely a misdemeanor, but people feared such a fate for their loved one’s remains -and there were religious objections. Therefore, body snatching was not safe, and almost always done under the cover of night. A “resurrectionist” named Joseph Naples was one of the rare body-snatchers to keep a diary of his work. Here’s a snippet from the diary:

13th January 1812

Took 2 of the above to Mr Brookes & 1 large & 1 small to Mr Bell. Foetus to Mr Carpue. Small to Mr Framton. Large small to Mr Cline. Met at 5, the Party went to Newington. 2 adults. Took them to St Thomas’s.*

26th August 1812

Separated to look out, the party met at night…Willson, M. & F. Bartholm, me, Jack and Hollis went to Isl [ingto]n. Could not succeed, the dogs flew at us, afterwards went to [St] Pancr [a]s, found a watch planted, came home.

The New York Doctors Riot

In America, the disgust with medical anatomy classes led to a riot in 1788. Medical students at New York Hospital were digging up graves for their own instruction. This was given little notice among the citizenry as long as the grave robbing was restricted to the black graveyard or the “potter’s field” for the poor. Then a story hit the papers of a body stolen from Trinity Churchyard -that of a white woman. A group of men stormed the hospital’s anatomy room, removed the corpses, and burned them in the streets. Doctors and students were taken to jail for their own protection. The next day, a mob moved on to Columbia Medical School and then to the jail. Only the intervention of the state militia ended the riot, which left between six and twenty people dead. And that was in just one city! A slew of riots elsewhere in America finally led to laws against body snatching. Medical students continued to dig up bodies, but were more discreet about it after the laws were passed.


Photograph by Martyn Gorman.

Families of the recently deceased were determined to protect their loved ones from the resurrectionists. Whereas rocks were placed over graves since ancient times, previously they were to keep animals from digging up the corpse, or to keep the undead from rising. With the very real danger of corpse robbery, the stones became bigger, and new devices were fashioned to thwart the body snatchers. Mortsafes, metal cages that covered the grave, became popular with those who could afford them. Some still survive in cemeteries in the U.K.

Booby Traps

Some people employed an extra deterrent to body snatchers: guns. Cemetery guns could be loaded at night by a cemetery keeper. If a trespasser tripped a wire, he would be blasted by a flintlock loaded with birdshot, salt, or a more deadly ammunition. In 19th century America, several devices to booby trap individual graves were patented, such as the “grave torpedo,” which operated like a land mine, and a gun placed inside a coffin, set to blast away at anyone who raised the lid.

Buried Alive

As graves were made more secure, the fear of being buried alive grew among morbidly nervous people. The devices that protected graves from body snatchers only made it more difficult to rescue someone who’d been buried prematurely. This led to several inventions for coffin alarm systems that could be used if one were to come to and find himself lying in a coffin. The vault shown above can be opened from the inside by turning a wheel.

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

An account from 1824 described an incident in which a man awoke in his coffin, and was rescued by… a body snatcher!

They dragged me out of the coffin by the head, and carried me swiftly away. When borne to some distance, I was thrown down like a clod…Being rudely stripped of my shroud, I was placed naked on a table. In a short time I heard by the bustle in the room that the doctors and students were assembling. When all was ready the Demonstrator took his knife, and pierced my bosom. I felt a dreadful crackling, as it were, throughout my whole frame; a convulsive shudder instantly followed, and a shriek of horror rose from all present,

The drawing above, from the 1830s, illustrates a common fear of a body, thought to be dead, waking up in an anatomist’s lab.


Sometimes graverobbers couldn’t keep up with the demand by digging up fresh graves, and a very few resorted to murder to supply more anatomical specimens. William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants working as laborers in Scotland in 1828. They found they could make money by diverting the recently deceased to an anatomist. Instead of waiting for someone to die, they killed 16 people over a period of ten months. Hare testified against Burke and escaped conviction, but Burke was executed by hanging in 1829. His body was then given to an anatomist for dissection, a fate many at the time found quite appropriate. His skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School.

The Anatomy Act of 1832

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Following the Burke and Hare case, the British parliament saw the need to find a way for medical schools to obtain an adequate supply of corpses legally. The Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed medical schools to dissect, in addition to the corpses of executed criminals, unclaimed bodies of those who died in prison or a workhouse, and bodies that were voluntarily donated.

More Recent Body Snatching

Photograph by Sector001.

When the goal is neither valuables, artifacts, or cadavers, grave robbery still goes on. Often it is because the body is a celebrity. Read about several such cases in the mental_floss article Worth More Dead Than Alive: 5 Famous Grave Robberies.

Modern Anatomy Classes

Photograph by Tulane Public Relations.

Modern medical schools are keenly aware of the history of obtaining cadavers for anatomy classes. Not only is grave robbing forbidden, but the donated cadavers that help teach young medical professionals about the human body are treated with respect and often reverence. An extensive article about a group of medical students in a gross anatomy class shows how much has changed since the days of body snatching.

Keystone/Getty Images
The Terrible Crime at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin 
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright
Keystone/Getty Images

Some of the most horrific murders in Wisconsin history involved none other than famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright was in the middle of building a home, which he named Taliesin, for himself and his mistress in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He had recently left his wife and six children for Martha "Mamah" Borthwick, whose husband Edwin Cheney had commissioned Wright to build a house in Oak Park, Illinois. Cheney may have a gained a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but he lost his wife—Mamah and Wright became close, even traveling to Europe together, sans spouses, in 1909. The Cheneys divorced in 1911; Wright’s divorce would take more than another decade to be finalized.

On August 15, 1914, Wright was away attending to the construction of Midway Gardens in Chicago when he got a terrible message. “Taliesin destroyed by fire,” it read, and that was all. For the time being, at least, Wright was spared the details: Their servant, Julian Carlton, had attacked Mamah, her children, and Taliesin workmen, pouring gasoline under the door and setting the home ablaze. When some of the victims broke windows and tried to escape, Carlton hacked at them from outside of the house with a hatchet.

The Ogden Standard, September 5, 1914
A news account of the tragedy, September 5, 1914
Library of Congress // Public Domain

While precise accounts of the crime vary, according to biographer William Drennan, Carlton first killed Mamah and her two children, 8-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, while they were eating lunch on a porch, bludgeoning them with a hatchet. Once Carlton had taken care of them, he went to a dining room where the workmen were eating, locked them in, and set fire to the place.

In the end, eight people died—seven victims and the murderer himself. The victims included Mamah and her children, draftsman Emil Brodelle, gardener David Lindblom, handyman Tom Brunker, and Ernest Weston, the son of carpenter William Weston.

The murderer didn’t die right away, though. He swallowed hydrochloric acid soon after the attack, and died of starvation about seven weeks later. Despite being questioned, Carlton never did give a motive for his killing spree. There’s some evidence to suggest a series of disputes with the workers, however, and that Carlton had recently been told he was being terminated.

Taliesin as it looks today
edward stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As for the absolutely devastated Frank Lloyd Wright, he rebuilt Taliesin in Mamah’s honor. The land may have been cursed, however, because this second reincarnation of the house was also destroyed by fire. In 1925, a lightning storm apparently ignited the wiring, sparking a conflagration that eventually burned the house down. Not one to be deterred, Wright built Taliesin III on the same spot. Today, the home is open for tours and events.

A version of this story originally ran in 2011.

8 Animals That Have Been Imprisoned or Arrested

It might seem like a case of animals just being animals, but when eight donkeys in northern India recently ate nearly $1000 worth of greenery in their small town, they did four days in the big house. (Perhaps part of the problem? They ate expensive saplings that were planted right near the jail. Rookie mistake.) But whether they harmed property or people, were in cahoots with human outlaws, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, these eight other critters are proof that "crime" can sometimes be cuddly.


In 2015, officials in India arrested a pigeon they suspected was a spy. The bird’s body was stamped with a message written partly in Urdu—Pakistan’s official language—and what appeared to be a Pakistani phone number. It had landed in a village close to the country’s shared border with Pakistan, near the Kashmir region that’s claimed by both countries and has been the subject of multiple wars between India and Pakistan beginning in 1947. Though there was a ceasefire in 1972 (the current situation is that India controls 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan 35 percent, and China 20 percent), because both countries believe they have rights to the area, it's frequently the site of military clashes and infiltration.

So when a 14-year-old boy found the suspicious-looking pigeon so close to Kashmir, he turned it over to authorities. The officials took it to a veterinary hospital for x-rays, and though they couldn’t find any concrete evidence of foreign fowl play, they kept the bird in custody, recording it as a “suspected spy” in their police diary.

That said, not everyone took the news as seriously as the Indian police did: In the days following the bird’s arrest, Pakistani social media was flooded with memes depicting the feathered detainee as a slick 007 type, and amused internet users coined hashtags like #PigeonVsIndia and #IfIWereAPigeon.


In December 2016, a wild beaver must have decided that forest trees weren’t festive enough, because it wandered into a dollar store in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to browse Christmas trees and decorations. Workers noticed the animal knocking items onto the floor, and called the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office.

Captain Yingling of the sheriff's office arrived on scene to prevent the "shopping" beaver from ruining the store. “The suspect attempted to flee the area but was apprehended by Animal Control,” the sheriff's department joked on their Facebook page.

Instead of allowing the beaver to finish up its holiday shopping, the St. Mary's County Sheriff handed the critter over to a wildlife rehab center. As for the police, they said the quirky incident just marked another day on the job: “As a law enforcement officer, you just never know what your next call may be...” they mused on Facebook.


In 2015, police in the Indian state of Maharashtra taught a foul-mouthed parrot named Hariyal a lesson in politeness after they “arrested” it for swearing at an elderly woman named Janabai. According to locals, the pet bird had picked up the rude habit from Janabi’s stepson, Suresh Sakharkar. The two were embroiled in an ugly property dispute, and the latter had reportedly spent the prior two years training Hariyal to spout epithets whenever the estranged relation walked past his house.

The situation escalated, and Janabi, Suresh, and his bird were eventually called to the police station. “Police should investigate and seize the parrot,” the embittered stepmother told Indian news channel Zee News. That said, Hariyal must have known he was in hot water, because he kept his beak shut. “We watched the parrot carefully but it did not utter a word at the police station after being confronted by the complainant,” a police inspector told reporters.

Instead of locking Hariyal up, officials gave the parrot over to Maharashtra’s forestry department, where he can presumably fly—and curse—freely for the remainder of his life.


While walking down the street in the West German city of Bottrop in 2015, a woman realized that she had attracted a furry stalker: a tiny red squirrel. The animal was chasing her and acting aggressively. Frightened and unable to flee the rodent, the woman called the police for help. Authorities captured the squirrel, “arrested” it, and brought it back to the station. There, they discovered that the critter was suffering from exhaustion.

Police helped nurse the squirrel back to health by feeding it honey, and a spokesman said the squirrel would be sent to a rescue center instead of languishing away in a cell for its stalkerish habits.



In 2004, a rogue monkey became infamous for terrorizing residents of the city of Patiala, in India’s northern Punjab region. The monkey was guilty of multiple crimes: It stole food from homes, ripped the buttons off people's shirts, threatened kids with bricks, and once even swiped someone’s math textbooks and calculator. To keep the marauding jungle creature off the streets, officials sentenced it to “monkey jail”—a now-defunct detainment center in Patiala that was reserved for ill-behaving primates.

The “monkey jail"—which appears to have operated from 1996 until the mid-2000s—was located in the corner of a local zoo. The 15-foot-wide barred cell was secured with chain-link fencing and wire mesh, and had a sign that read: "These monkeys have been caught from various cities of Punjab. They are notorious. Going near them is dangerous."

Punjab is filled with countless wild Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) monkeys. Some of the animals have moved into cities and towns in search of food, as humans continue to destroy their natural jungle habitat. Others were once used as animal guards, or trained as performing monkeys, and were set loose by their owners once they turned violent. Particularly ill-treated or mischievous primates have been known to destroy property and pester—or even attack—humans. But since Hindus revere Hanuman, the monkey god, killing the creatures is verboten.

Wildlife officers in Punjab took matters into their own hands by opening the monkey jail. They responded to public complaints by capturing the creatures with trapping cages and tranquilizer guns. Once the monkeys were locked up, there was little to no chance of "parole."

As of 2004, there were 13 jailed monkeys, all imprisoned for harassing people or committing petty crimes. Patiala’s primate penitentiary was eventually closed, and authorities announced it was going to be replaced by “reform school" that's intended to train the monkeys to be less aggressive.


On New Year’s Day 2013, a cat took the heat for scheming Brazilian inmates who were likely either planning a jailbreak or attempting to communicate with outlaws on the outside. The white feline was slinking around the main gates of a medium-security prison in Arapiraca—a city in northeast Brazil—when guards noticed that its body was wrapped in tape. They apprehended the kitty, and discovered that it was carrying items including several saws and drills, an earphone, a memory card, batteries, and a phone charger.

Prison officer Luiz de Oliveira Souza told reporters that the cat had been seen entering and exiting the jail before. It had been raised by inmates, and was often in the custody of one of their families. However, officials couldn’t figure out which of the jail’s 263 prisoners had tried to use the feline for their own nefarious purposes: “It’s tough to find out who’s responsible for the action as the cat doesn’t speak,” a prison spokesperson told local newspaper Estado de S.Paulo.

Following the cat’s “arrest” and brief imprisonment, it was taken to a local animal shelter to receive medical treatment.


Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Unlike some animals on this list, Pep the dog was a very good boy. But in 1924, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced the dark-haired Labrador to a life sentence without parole. Pep was taken to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, where officials jokingly gave him his own inmate number and mug shot. Reporters nicknamed the canine "Pep The Cat-Murdering Dog," as he was said to have killed the governor’s wife’s cat.

Thanks to all the media hype, Pep had quite the tough reputation. But a few years after the canine’s imprisonment, the governor’s wife, Cornelia Pinchot, set the story straight in an interview with The New York Times. Turns out, Pep had never murdered her pet feline; her family simply bred Labradors, and owned too many dogs. Pep, she said, was a gift to the prisoners to lift their spirits.

Today, researchers say that partisan journalists twisted the facts around, and that Pep was actually a beloved prison pet that freely wandered the hallways and was adored by all. As for the "life sentence without parole" part, the Lab was eventually moved to a newer prison; when he died, he was buried on its grounds.



In 2008, police in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas arrested a feisty donkey named Blacky after it bit a man in the chest, and kicked a second man trying to rescue him. Police apprehended the burro and locked it in the jail’s drunk tank. “Around here, if someone commits a crime they are jailed, no matter who they are,” said Officer Sinar Gomez.

Police said that the donkey would remain behind bars until its owner, Mauro Gutierrez, paid the injured parties’ medical bills and salary for the days they missed work. The boisterous burro served three days in jail, and Gutierrez settled the score by paying Blacky's victims.


More from mental floss studios