In 19th century Boston, grave robbing was not what you might think. Many of those involved with digging up bodies were using the remains for medical research. Despite the ghoulish undertones, medical training was dependent on a regular supply of human organs necessary for students to practice performing dissections. They couldn’t do it on live persons, and the supply of cadavers typically was limited to the bodies of violent criminals who had been executed.
Like many other major cities, Boston had an anatomist society, known as the Spunkers Club. The Spunkers Club was a group of gentlemen doctors, including John Collins Warren, a founding member of the Massachusetts General Hospital. Joseph Warren, a doctor and patriot who died in the Battle of Bunker Hill, was thought to be the founder of the Club. These honorable men—and others—not only paid for illegally obtained bodies from resurrection men, but also raided graveyards themselves.
The public got a glimpse of this secret society during the 1849 murder trial of Harvard professor, Dr. John White Webster, who was convicted and executed for killing George Parkman in Boston. It was the most sensational murder case of its time.
The Parkman-Webster murder case is the subject of an ongoing exhibit at the West End Museum and, on the evening of Thursday, October 17, 2013, it was the setting for a spooky discussion of the Spunkers Club led by Colonial Lantern Tour Guide Jim Denton. Several players in the Parkman murder investigation and the subsequent Webster trial were connected to the Spunkers Club.
During his lecture, Denton shared anecdotes of Spunkers’ excursions gone wrong. He pointed out that grave robbing was a profitable business at the time. A freshly dug body could fetch $25—a small fortune in the 1800s. One man who took advantage of that economic opportunity was Ephraim Littlefield, a janitor at the Harvard Medical College and the man who discovered George Parkman’s body. The Museum’s exhibit features Littlefield’s involvement in the trade and its relativity to the trial.
According to Denton, the New Hampshire legislature was strongly opposed to the creation of the Dartmouth Medical College because members thought it would give rise to an increase in grave robbing. Dartmouth leaders promised lawmakers they would travel to “metropolitan areas” outside of Hanover to find bodies for dissection.
Modern medicine developed, in part, thanks to the Spunkers Club. Today, their exploits are part of our history and our taste for ghastly Halloween tales. The West End Museum’s current exhibit on the Parkman-Webster case runs through December 21.
Photos courtesy of the West End Museum. More information about the West End Museum can be found at TheWestEndMuseum.org.