1882: Grave robbers sold black bodies to medical college

Lebanon_Cemetery_Chapel
George Dubois’ artwork provides a view of the chapel with steeple at the African American rural cemetery founded in 1849 at Passyunk Road near 18th and Wolf streets in South Philadelphia. Also shows monuments in the cemetery and visitors, including a family. Cemetery protected by a stone wall with iron fencing, including an iron gate. Cemetery was condemned in 1899 and closed in 1903, with the bodies removed to Eden Cemetery.

This series, Crooks, tells the forgotten stories behind some of the most outlandish crimes, and criminals, in Philadelphia history. See below for how to access these archives for yourself.

For about a year in 1882, a newspaper reporter camped outside a South Philadelphia burial ground in the middle of the night.

From afar, he would watch a group of men steer an empty one-horse cart into Lebanon Cemetery, and then exit with a pile of decaying black bodies. Human beings stacked like logs.

Just before Christmas of that year, the reporter pulled a gun from his pocket and leaped out from the shadows.

From Science to Suspicion

Those bodies made their way to Jefferson Medical College, where they would serve as cadavers on which students applied their lessons.

Louis Megargee of the Philadelphia Press had been observing the dissections led by Dr. William Smith Forbes for months as part of an in-depth article about medical programs.  It was the cadavers’ skin color that piqued his suspicions.

His investigations led him to a rural patch of South Philadelphia, and up to the iron gates of Lebanon Cemetery.

A thin wooden spire loomed over the five-acre lot, with graves laid out in haphazard rows like pairs of crooked teeth.

Founded in 1849 by Jacob C. White, one of Philadelphia's black elite, the burial ground was one of only two private cemeteries for the city’s African American dead. The swath of countryside at 19th Street and Passyunk Avenue housed the wealthy and the dignified, and some black soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

By 1882, the land was coveted by factory owners looking to expand south. The cemetery was overcrowded and had fallen into disrepair. And the decline in conditions happened to coincide with a booming underground market for grave robbers.

Supply and Demand

Forbes was well-known for helping to write a Pennsylvania law that provided medical schools with the bodies of loners and deviants who died on state property. The 1867 bill was called the Anatomy Act but nicknamed the "Ghastly Act."

The bill called for hospitals, prisons and mental health wards to hand over the bodies of those who died in their care and who did not have family or funds for burial.

While the Anatomy Act was intended to aid medical schools and end grave robbing, it had the opposite effect. Because the schools were sharing a small pool, there weren’t enough bodies to go around.

So colleges would turn to grave robbers, who in the dead of night sneaked into cemeteries and unearthed freshly buried corpses.

Newspapers dubbed them "the Body Snatchers."

During busy semesters, shovels were not needed. The corpses would be stolen the night before a funeral, and the next day families would unknowingly bury an empty box.

Of course, the practice was not new. Philadelphia physicians had been associated with body-snatching since colonial days. But in the 19th century, it reached a boiling point and doctors brought in middlemen to do the dirty work.

Muck-raked

Over the spring semester, under the guise of his article, Megargee began tracking the corpse trade, according to Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love by Thomas H. Keels. 

He would camp out from midnight to 3 a.m. and watch the thieves ride into the cemetery, led by deliveryman Frank McNamee. The cemetery’s superintendent would direct them toward the fresh graves. They would load up the horse cart and take the remains back toward the college on 10th Street near Sansom Street.

Megargee followed them to the medical school, where they didn’t have to break in, because they had a key.

But he had to wait until classes resumed in the fall before he could make his move.

In December 1882, Megargee called upon a few reporter friends and prepared to catch the unholy criminals in the act. After midnight, as three men rode out of the gates, Megargee’s group leaped out in front of the loaded wagon, brandishing pistols and waving a warrant for a citizens arrest.

Later, they would learn that the grave robbing at Lebanon dated back at least 10 years with the blessing and cooperation of the cemetery’s superintendent. McNamee, who ran a legitimate delivery service during the day and had taken over the body-snatching business from his brother-in-law, was found with keys in his pocket.

Dead end

Angry crowds of African Americans gathered around the police station after the body snatchers’ arrests, carrying ropes and shouting for justice.

Other African Americans headed to the city morgue and to Lebanon Cemetery, where health officials were given permits to open graves so family members could check on their loved ones’ remains.

On the day of the arraignments, the crowd collected outside the courthouse and attacked the defendants as they exited. Police used clubs to push the attackers back as they escorted the prisoners to holding cells.

Shortly after McNamee was taken into custody, he pointed the finger at Forbes. Even though everyone knew what the bodies were stolen for, the open accusation shocked socialites and medical professionals across the country.

Forbes, a veteran of two wars, was a respected and revered surgeon.

McNamee said Forbes knew where the bodies originated, paid for them, and gave him the keys to the school. He claimed Forbes set the going rate of $8 per body.

Forbes was arrested shortly afterward, and went to trial in 1883.

His defense: He could not possibly have violated a law that he himself wrote.

Forbes also argued that he neither claimed cadavers at the door, nor paid the deliverymen (that job was left to his assistants). Regular deliverymen, like McNamee, were given keys, he added. The professor was steadfast in claiming that he didn’t see the bodies until they were on the dissecting table. He was aware that the delivery men were obtaining unclaimed bodies, but he said he never investigated where the bodies came from.

After a line of colleagues stepped forward to vouch for Forbes’ character, he was acquitted.

The four body snatchers were sent to Moyamensing Prison, but only one served more than a year while the others served mere months.

In 1903, no longer able to fight the demand for land in a rapidly expanding city, Lebanon Cemetery closed. The bodies that remained were moved to Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Delaware County.

That same year, McNamee — whom the Inquirer dubbed "probably the most notorious grave robber in the country" — was found unconscious near Fifth and Walnut Streets with a deep head wound. He died days later.

Newspapers speculated that it was a revenge killing.

After Forbes’ trial, the Anatomy Act was strengthened, adding a board to directly regulate the distribution of cadavers to state medical schools.

Following Forbes’ death in December 1905 from heart disease, he was lauded in newspaper accounts as a gentleman and scholar, without mention of the infamous proceedings.

His body was cremated.


About this series:
Using the digital archives of the Inquirer and Daily News, Crooks tells the forgotten stories behind some of the most outlandish crimes, and criminals, in Philadelphia history. *Search the archives for yourself and subscribe for full access.*