A Quick History of Grave Robbing in the US

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Grave robbing, also known as body-snatching and tomb raiding, might sound like something limited to horror films and Halloween scares. However, grave robbing has a very real place in both ancient and modern history.

Jump ahead to these sections:

In the United States, grave robbing occurred for a number of purposes, from medical research to thieving. In some parts of the United States, grave robbing was even a form of racial prejudice leading to public outcries for justice.

You may come up with a lot of questions to ask when buying a cemetery plot, but most people in modern times no longer think about grave robbing. In this guide, we turn back the clock to examine a quick history of grave robbing specifically in the United States as well as the relevant dialogue around this practice today. 

Why Do People Rob Graves?

People rob graves for a number of reasons, and none of these have to do with zombies or ghosts. However, the real-life reasons may sound even more grim and disturbing: 

  • Thieving: The biggest reason to rob graves involves selling valuables. Both historically and in modern times, people were buried in their finest clothes and jewelry. Robbers would dig up graves to steal jewels, fine clothing, and valuables. 
  • Medical research: One of the most common reasons to “snatch” people from their graves was to sell the corpses for dissection or anatomy lectures. Students would use these bodies in medical schools for research and education. 
  • Historical artifacts: Lastly, graves were sometimes robbed to steal historical artifacts, either for resale or private auction. Many people have tried to rob Abraham Lincoln's grave. 

In the United States, people robbed graves for all of the reasons above (or multiple reasons). Body snatching, in particular, continued until the early 1900s in the United States. At this time, states created their own anatomy board to allocate unclaimed corpses to medical institutions. This ended the demand for the trafficking of bodies in the United States. 

That said, modern-day grave robbing still happens, though on a much smaller scale. Though every state has laws against exhuming bodies and graves, these robberies still happen, typically in private or old cemeteries. 

What Did Grave Robberies Use to Be Like in the US?

In the early days of the United States, grave robbing wasn’t as scandalous as it sounds. Though the practice of robbing graves and stealing bodies sounds gruesome by today’s standards, the taking of corpses and digging up of graves wasn’t actually illegal in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Because these corpses and their possessions weren’t technically “owned” by anyone, grave robbing wasn't much of a concern among the general public or authorities. Though most considered the practice as morally and ethically wrong, many institutions looked the other way because they needed bodies for medical research or they appreciated the value brought by selling jewels and fine clothing.  

The practice of body snatching and robbing graves was highly lucrative. To do their work, these robbers would frequent graveyards at night typically soon after the death to avoid bodies that were too far decomposed. It was as simple as avoiding detection, digging into the earth, and taking what they wanted. 

How did grave robbers avoid detection?

If grave robbers were digging into graves soon after burial, how did they escape detection? In the United States, robbers targeted the graves of the poor. They specifically favored Black burial sites

Why were these graves “ideal” for robbers? The simple truth is that they were not as funded as other cemeteries, and that means they were less likely to have security, high gates, or guards. The authorities would also take less action on these particular graves. 

This was a practical choice for grave robbers, though it has impacted these communities for generations and continues to do so today. Today, many Black cemeteries remain in varying states of disrepair because of the grave robbings of the previous centuries. These losses remain unremembered and unmourned, and activists continue to fight for justice today.  

How did robbers dig up graves?

One of the biggest questions involves the practicality of grave robbing. How did robbers manage to excavate them by themselves without causing a huge scene with those giant caskets? 

To start, they worked in teams. They targeted graves that were covered roughly, like those found in poor cemeteries. This made their work hard to detect. Most importantly, instead of digging up the entire coffin, they dug a vertical tunnel down to the head of the coffin.

Once they reach the head, they break this part of the casket only. This was just enough space to access the body, jewelry, and any other valuables, usually by the top of the head. It’s also important to note that most body snatchers did not take the possessions of the deceased, and vice versa. 

What Does Modern-Day Grave Robbing Look Like?

Unfortunately, grave robbing has not fallen entirely out of practice. Grave robbers have been found at archeological sites sifting through graves and at some of the more beautifully decorated cemeteries across the country. 

In the southeast, many historical American cemeteries are at risk. One of the caretakers of Savannah, Georgia’s Laurel Grove Cemetery notes that many of their modern-day grave robbers don’t dig up graves at all. Instead, they steal many of the valuables outside of tombs. Things like statues, urns, columns, benches, and fountains all turn a pretty profit for thieves.

Today, grave robbers still target older, historic cemeteries, especially those likely to have valuables left untouched for decades or even centuries. Petty thieves take some valuables but some target removing archeological valuables and historical remains.  

Is There Any Way to Prevent Grave Robbing?

Luckily, cemeteries today prevent grave robbing in many ways. You may know to ask how much a burial plot costs when you shop for the right cemetery. You should also ask what steps the cemetery takes to stay secure. 

Security and Caretakers

Even in the past, grave robbers were much less likely to target heavily monitored graves. Today, cemetery sextons take care of the cemetery grounds and graves. They keep a watchful eye over the property, watching for suspicious activity. 

Fencing

Sometimes the simplest security involves strong, secure fencing. Without fencing, there's more of a risk of foul play. 

Many modern cemeteries install fencing, security systems, and have public visiting hours when these fences are open. This is an important thing to ask about prior to choosing your own plot. 

Avoid Extravagant Decorations

Some of the most common grave robbings today don’t happen below ground at all. While placing columns, benches, fountains, and statues enhances the appearance of cemeteries, it comes at a greater risk of theft. Securing these to the ground offers a good first step, but you may want to choose alternative decorations. 

Consider a Burial Alternative

Lastly, burial alternatives eliminate the need to worry about grave robberies altogether. With the rise of cremation as a popular choice, it’s likely that Americans have moved away from traditional burials and graves. Other options include green burials, memorial diamonds, and so on. 

The Gruesome History of Grave Robbing in the USA

Though grave robbing was common until the 20th century, many people still believe it only exists in books and horror films. In reality, grave robbing and body snatching was a very real practice, and it’s still something that unfortunately happens today. 

Regardless of whether the robbers target public or private cemeteries, the threat has always been very real. Valuables attract thieves. Luckily, modern cemeteries have modern solutions for this ancient problem, and these robbers have largely gone away. 

Everyone deserves a peaceful final resting place. This means not having to worry about a grave robber or being disturbed in the afterlife. Yet, graverobbing seems as ingrained in human culture as death itself. Though inescapable, society has still come a long way.  


Sources:
  1. Craughwell, Thomas J. “A Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body.” US News. 24 June 2007. USNews.com
  2. Meier, Allison C. “Grave Robbing, Black Cemeteries, and the American Medical School.” JStor Daily. 24 August 2018. Jstor.org
  3. Pietila, Antero. “In Need of Cadavers, 19th-Century Medical Students Raided Baltimore’s Graves.” Smithsonian Magazine. 25 October 2018. SmithsonianMag.com
  4. Rickett, Oscar. “Meth Heads Are Robbing People’s Graves.” Vice News. 7 November 2012. Vice.com
  5. Stanley, Edith. “Today’s Grave Robbers Do Lively Business.” Los Angeles Times. 21 November 1996. LATimes.com
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