A grave history

Queen's medical students had blood on their hands for over a century, while Kingston stood as one of Canada's body-snatching epicentres

The Faculty of Medicine’s Class of 1926 poses with their beloved skeletons and cadavers.
The Faculty of Medicine’s Class of 1926 poses with their beloved skeletons and cadavers.
Credit: 
Supplied by Queen's Archives
The granite slab in the basement of Summerhill, where Queen’s medical students dissected their first cadavers.
The granite slab in the basement of Summerhill, where Queen’s medical students dissected their first cadavers.

When someone’s buried six feet under, it’s assumed they’re dead and gone.

However, a century of Kingston’s devious body-snatching history would tell you otherwise. The city was one of Canada’s epicentres for body-snatching from around 1820 into the 1920s.

Its prevalence peaked in the 1880s, and dwindled throughout the 20th century as society embraced a more respectful treatment of the dead.

The trend was predominantly carried out by medical students looking to acquire cadavers for their anatomical learning, according to Scott Belyea, MSc ’12. Belyea wrote his master’s thesis on the history of body snatching in Kingston last year, through the department of biomedical and molecular sciences.

“At the time, anatomy was very much a core focal point. Without anatomy, without bodies, you really didn’t have a med school back then,” Belyea said. “That’s why cadaver acquisition was of the utmost importance.”

Belyea said Kingston was a focal point in the body snatching landscape since it was home not only to the Queen’s School of Medicine, but also the Women’s Medical College, which merged with its sister institution, Women’s College Hospital, in Toronto in 1895.

Due to the higher density of medical students residing in Kingston during the late 19th century, the city saw high rates of reported body snatchings, especially after 1854, the inaugural year of Queen’s School of Medicine.

Belyea found nearly 60 cases in which bodies had undisputedly been stolen shortly following a death.

“That’s of course not the number of incidents that actually occurred. The number of reported incidents is only a percentage of the ones that were found out, and the ones that were found out were only a percentage of the ones that happened,” Belyea said.

According to Belyea, cadavers at Queen’s were always provided to classes by the school’s anatomy department, but evidence published in news articles proved students were the ones selling the bodies to the University.

“For $30, you could sell the body to the faculty, who would then turn around and provide the body to your lab, even though you were the one who found it,” he said.

“Then, everyone was happy because the students got their money … and then the school had their bodies, so their hands were clean.”

Barely any questions were asked about the sources of the school’s cadavers, showing the common nature of this practice, which usually involved the nocturnal excavation of a body from its burial site in one of Kingston’s three graveyards.

The Lower Burial Ground, also known as St. Paul’s Churchyard, located at Queen and Montreal Streets, dates back to the mid-18th century and was thus practically unusable for body snatchers in the 19th century due to the unsalvageable state of the long-deceased bodies there.

Skeleton Park – also known as McBurney Park – located just north of Queen and Clergy Streets, was also a graveyard at the time, known as the Upper Burial Ground. Its high density of bodies meant it had higher rates of body snatching.

Kingston’s third major graveyard, the Cataraqui Cemetery, is located further uptown near Princess St. and Sydenham Rd., and is the burial sight of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

The exhaustive precautions that were taken to secure Macdonald’s grave showed the severity of Kingston’s body-snatching trend, Belyea said.

“There were extensive efforts which were made to ensure that his body wasn’t stolen,” he said.

“Things like a few feet of concrete, reinforced steel bars, stone slabs.”

Most of the stolen cadavers were taken directly from graveyards, which required efforts to find the most recently buried bodies.

“In one [story] in particular, there was somebody who was dressed in military attire and who attended the funeral, but wasn’t known to any members of the family,” Belyea said. “This was sort of thought to be either a student or an agent of the students scoping them out.”

Hoping to acquire the freshest body possible, however, body snatchers sometimes opted for a more direct means: bribing the undertaker to get the body and then weighting the coffin, or stealing bodies directly from Kingston General Hospital.

“Students would have had a lot of access to [KGH], and have been very aware of who was on their last legs, or who was about to die,” he said.

Body snatching inevitably strained town-gown relations, and searches were often executed at the medical schools.

“The meds learned to therefore wait and keep the bodies at another location until the search had been completed,” Belyea said. “Then the public began to learn of this and delayed their searches of the school.”

As a result of this persistent chase for bodies, some cadavers were dissected entirely off-campus, sometimes in student homes.

Folklore from abroad stirred up even more speculations about the trend.

The story of William Burke and William Hare in particular created hype about the questionable nature of body snatching. In 1828 and 1829, Burke and Hare opened an inn in Edinburgh, Scotland, where they lured people in, only to murder them and sell their bodies to the nearby medical schools.

“That really excited people more than was necessary,” Belyea said. “I did not come across any stories that suggested that that was occurring in Kingston, although that certainly didn’t stop people from speculating.”

Rumours of this type coincided with the ghoulish mood about medical education at the time, something Belyea said continued into the late 20th century.

One story from the 1960s says that individuals retrieved a cadaver from the University medical school’s morgue and hung it in the alleyway behind St. James’ Anglican Church at Union and Arch Streets during Sunday’s church service.

“When the little old ladies came out of church, they were greeted with this hanging in the alleyway,” Belyea said.

This wasn’t the first account of students pulling pranks with cadavers, either.

In 1954, the female residents of Ban Righ and Adelaide Halls arose one morning to the sight of a cadaver hanging loosely from a lofty elm tree on Stuart St.

According to author Herb Hamilton in his historical compilation Queen’s Queen’s Queen’s, the body was taken from the anatomy building. Accounts said the corpse was half-hanging, half-reclining, suggesting the culprits were interrupted in their efforts to terrorize Queen’s female residents.

According to University Historian Duncan McDowall, Queen’s Dean of Women at the time, Alice Vibert Douglas, demanded that anyone who had taken pictures of the unsightly horror surrender their film to the University.

“Even then, all hell broke out,” McDowall said. “So the body was taken down and returned to the morgue.”

McDowall said these types of shenanigans were characteristic of a medical school population who quickly became accustomed to the sight of dead bodies.

At the time, the University kept two types of bodies: those stored in embalming chemicals for preservation, and those that had been mummified.

“There were racks on the roof of the Old Medical Building to dry the bodies out – I guess the mummified ones – you can even see the hatch where they went up onto the roof,” McDowall said.

The Old Medical building, located at the west end of the Medical Quadrangle, now hosts administrative and advancement offices.

Summerhill, the oldest building on campus, is home to the school’s first dissection table: a large granite slab where medical students investigated their first cadavers.

“There was all this ghoulish stuff around [body-snatching],” McDowall said. “It’s only since about the 1950s that as a society, we’ve really started to be a little more mindful of how you can’t disrespect the dead,” he said.

Provincial legislation for dignified and respectful cadaver use and acquisition eventually ushered in strict guidelines around the morgue at Queen’s.

“Most obviously, you have to be very careful that the sanctity of the person is not invaded, and that you don’t have terrible things happen,” McDowall said.

For the past half century, Queen’s has taken measures to respectfully dispose of the remains of cadavers after they’ve been used for academic purposes. In 1962, the University purchased two plots at Cataraqui Cemetery, where the bodies are buried annually, once they’re not of further use to students.

In the current digital era, however, the need for cadavers has declined considerably.

The Scalable Gross Anatomy and Histology Image Catalogue (SGAHIC) is an online database accessible to the Queen’s life sciences community. It hosts nearly 10,000 high-quality anatomy, neuroanatomy and histology images.

According to Jackie Moore, however, Queen’s still receives body donations from those who wish to help with scientific research, following their death.

As the administrative assistant to the department head of biomedical and molecular sciences, Moore coordinates the University’s procurement of cadavers, most of which are acquired through direct donations to Queen’s.

“I have a lot of elderly [people] who contact me and want to have their bodies donated,” Moore said. “They sign a consent form prior to the death, if they wish to donate.”

The body’s eligibility is then assessed upon the individual’s passing.

“I get in touch with part of their medical team and determine whether or not we can accept them for donation,” Moore said.

The University cannot accept a body infected with disease, or one that has recently undergone surgery, nor can any body be used if the person died suddenly during travels abroad.

According to Ontario’s Anatomy Act, revised in 1990, all bodies acquired for educational research must first pass inspection by the provincially-appointed general inspector, or coroners who have been appointed as local inspectors of anatomy.

Once the body has been approved for academic use, it’s delivered to Queen’s, which receives approximately 20 donations of this type each year, according to Moore.

While new technologies allow for the use of digitized images in learning, Moore said that Queen’s students are profoundly grateful for the opportunity to learn using real cadavers.

“We had medical students write up what it meant to them to get to use somebody real, as opposed to using technology,” Moore said.

She said students emphasized that using genuine cadavers enriched and humanized the experience, as the precision of digital graphics and textbook imagery isn’t always realistic.

“It’s just wonderful,” Moore said. “We just couldn’t run the program without our donors, and we’re really grateful for that.”

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