Grave Robbers: The Price of Flesh

March 15, 2017


The new research out there in regards to exposing the horrors of slavery and segregation is quite revealing. Many folks, both black and white, think they know something about the horrors of slavery, they know nothing. In a 2017 book titled, “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation,” by Daina Ramey Berry, the author reveals what happened to blacks on the auction block and what happened to their bodies in death. I am familiar with the horrors of what happened on the auction block; black mothers had their children torn away from them and sold like hogs by the pound. The price

varied according to whether the slave was a male, female, or child. Dr. Berry makes it clear in her extensive research that the sale of black bodies did not end with the death of a slave but continued on after death.


We need to understand the horrors of slavery, especially since there is a conservative move to bury the truth about how this nation was developed. The dehumanization of African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, women, and many others has not ended. Though things can be considered to be better now, we have yet to become a caring nation that moves beyond the past. The past still binds us to racism and injustice, and in understanding how we got to where we are now it is imperative that we understand the psyche of intolerance. In Dr. Berry’s book she explains how slave owners turned black bodies into “commodities.” We know from history that black men and women were sold like animals and beasts of burden on the

auction block. Black women were used as slaves and sex objects to service the needs of white men and their families, while black men were used as slaves to be worked to death and whipped or killed if they did not produce. Even after death, black bodies were buried in black graveyards, dragged to rivers for the alligators, or chopped up for hogs on the plantation. What is generally not known is that black corpses were stolen from graveyards and sold to medical schools.


The medical schools of Virginia, Pennsylvania, John Hopkins, North Carolina and

Maryland all engaged in bodysnatching. After blacks were executed or lynched, most often for some invented reason, their bodies were dug up and taken to medical schools for dissections so that white medical students could learn about the human body. In some cases, where blacks simply died, black employees at the medical school were hired to do this dirty work and were paid different amounts depending on the sex and age of the body. According to Dr. Berry’s research, black adult bodies were sold at Charlottesville medical school for twelve dollars, while “infants from birth to 8 years” sold for four dollars. Mothers and infant corpses were sold for fifteen dollars in the late 1700s and in the 1800s.


The American hero, Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion for freedom in 1831, was also

mutilated after he was hung. He was beheaded and his skin was used to make wallets. Nat Turner’s skull traveled across the country and was in the possession of various physicians across many years. Dr. Berry writes that immediately after his execution, “Witnesses note that Turner’s body was given to medical students (possibly from the University of Virginia or Winchester Medical School in Virginia) for dissection.” She goes on to report that, “A local doctor possessed his skeleton ‘for many years’; at some point, it was misplaced.” One man admitted to tanning the skin of Nat Turner and making it available to be seen in local shops. Several of the blacks that fought with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, after their execution, were dug up from the cemetery

and turned over to medical schools. Black graves were often robbed by medical schools using blacks to do their dirty work. One such grave robber was Chris Baker who “was employed by the Medical College of Virginia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Pictures of this scoundrel can be seen in Dr. Berry’s book.


I have seen reports that the practice of grave robbing often utilized a paid employee that pretended to be a distance relative or a friend of the deceased, and would show up at the funeral only to rob the grave after everyone left the cemetery. This grave robber would often pretend to even cry at the funeral. In modern times, the grave of one of the little black girls killed in the KKK 16th Street Church bombing, Addie Mae Collins, was robbed or paved over, and her body never recovered.




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