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The Cadaver Trade

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Good essay from historian Daina Ramey Berry on the horrible 19th century trade in human bodies you don’t know about: the cadaver trade. There was plenty of weird cadaver trading of white bodies and a burgeoning trade in bodies from various parts of the globe, as scientific racism took over. But much of this trade consisted of dead slaves:

One shocking fact that’s recently come to light: Major medical schools used slave corpses, acquired through an underground market in dead bodies, for education and research.

Yes, there was a robust body-snatching industry in which cadavers — mostly the bodies of black people, many of whom had been enslaved when they were alive — were used at Harvard, the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and other institutions.

It is time to acknowledge this dark truth behind our understanding of human anatomy and modern medicine.

Over several years, I’ve studied what I call the domestic cadaver trade and its connection to 19th-century medical education. The body trade was as elaborate as the trans-Atlantic and domestic slave trade that transported Africans to the New World and resold African-Americans on our soil. But when enslaved people died, some were sold again and trafficked along the same roads and waterways they traveled while alive.

The domestic cadaver trade was active, functional and profitable for much of the 19th century. Fueled by demand from medical schools’ need for specimens for anatomy classes, it was a booming business. Typically, the supply of bodies consisted of executed criminals and unclaimed corpses from almshouses and prisons.

But when these sources fell short, physicians and students alike looked elsewhere. Some anatomy professors personally sent agents to work with professional body snatchers who stole bodies from pauper cemeteries.

Body snatchers like Grandison Harris of Georgia and Chris Baker of Virginia collected specimens for dissection for the benefit of medical colleges. While they received room, board and modest wages for the bodies they collected, they were also enslaved African-American men themselves, listed as “janitors” or “porters” in the medical schools’ records.

The more you know about slavery, the more horrifying you find it. This is another reason why need to talk about this all the time, not just in February.

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