Writing about dead bodies and dissections may not seem like the perfect subject for a new year, but given the pandemic and the medical research that quickly created the necessary vaccines, medical training and anatomy seem like an appropriate topic for researching in the Early State Records collections. 

The necessity of learning how the body works through a critical examination of the human body were evident from the early days of the colonies. For example, on page 13 of both LLMC#23391, the Book of General Lauus [Laws] and Liberties concerning the inhabitants of the Massachusetts, published in 1648 and LLMC #98490, An Abridgement of the Laws in Force and Use in Her Majesty's Plantations, published in 1704, a provision in the laws and ordinances of New-England required condemned men to be buried after execution within 12 hours, unless “in case of anatomy” (page 13).  This small provision was brief in its requirements, but did indicate that some bodies were allowed to be used for medical anatomical studies.  Similarly, as discussed in the book A History of Criminal Law of England, during the reign of King George II (1727-1760), the laws for the punishment of murder required execution the following day (unless on a Friday) and the corpse subsequently hung either in chains or dissected (or “gibbeted”) (LLMC #67423, page 477).  This section was repealed during the reign of King William IV (176501837), although students of anatomy were still allowed to dissect some bodies (LLMC #68478, vol.1. p. 458).  Presumably these bodies could still be used for medical education. 

Interestingly, medical doctors were not always required to be schooled in anatomical studies.  In an 1837 report of the New Haven County Medical Society, the members contended that physicians be licensed and members of the Medical Society (or be unable to collect fees).  In providing the case against "irregular practitioners,” the society noted a “doctor” that used the theory of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water to form bodies as the basis of curing illness.  The society pointed out that this practitioner never even studied anatomy in making his diagnosis[1] (LLMC #20101).  Likewise, the December 27, 1848 petition of the Medical Department of the Hampden Sidney College (LLMC #22528), which sought monetary relief from prior loans from the state legislature, referred to anatomy as important to medical students. 

While the importance of anatomy was accepted, the source for these bodies generally centered on two: paupers and prisoners.  For example, an 1833 act to legalize study of anatomy in Maine allowed selectmen or board of health to tender the bodies which would otherwise be buried at public expense to medical schools for study of anatomy (with some exceptions as to when a body would not be given) (LLMC #24471).   Eleven years later, during the February 1844 session, the Maine Joint Select Committee reported on petitions for the encouragement of anatomy.  The committee concurred and proposed a bill which would allow the use of dead bodies by physicians, surgeons, or medical students, if said bodies would be otherwise buried at public expense, and not claimed within twenty-four hours after the death (LLMC #41727). 

However, prisoners were the more common method of obtaining the necessary cadavers.  In LLMC #99916, p. 17, there was an 1839 New York act to establish a medical school in New York City.  As part of this act, Chapter 25, section 2 allowed the agent of the State Prison at Sing-Sing to deliver up to half of the dead convict bodies for dissection, as authorized by law.  Similarly, in LLMC #99866, an Alabama 1837 act provided a penalty for disinterring the dead.  However, the provisions allowed all sheriffs in the state to surrender the dead bodies of executed criminals for capital crimes to doctors for anatomical science, unless a relative took the body for burial (p.6). 

On the other hand, while there were often provisions for obtaining bodies for anatomical study, states punished those who “helped themselves.”  For example, both Utah in 1876, and Montana in 1892, provided for terms of up to five years in prison if a person was convicted of selling or dissecting bodies without authority (LLMC #01057t, Chapter VI Section 147, p. 598 and #01089t, Chapter V Section 311, p. 47, respectively).  Moreover, authorization was a process one needed to follow to avoid penalties.  For example, in LLMC #99890 (1822-24 volume (C. Babcock) May Session 51/50), the 1824 General Assembly of Connecticut passed Chapter XVI to prevent the disinterment of bodies of deceased persons without permission, even if for anatomical study.  As part of the process to avoid criminal penalties, professors were required to give a bond that they did not improperly obtain the bodies.  Of course the act also allowed for the use of bodies of criminals dying at New Gate prison with no known relatives, as well as court authorized bodies of those executed for capital offenses. 

These and other documents from Early State Records demonstrate both a recognition of the need for anatomical studies and the early attempts to provide these cadavers.  Happily, the concern of grave robbers and the use of statutory-based methods for obtaining bodies in United States has generally been replaced with a system of voluntary donations.[2] We are fortunate to be able to review the evolution of this and numerous other topics through this collection. 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed here as well as a grant award from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).  LLMC is digitizing 2000+ reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 48 states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many hidden documents, such as the manuscripts, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 



[1] Other “theories” regarding human anatomy can be found in a 1741 natural history treatise by Capt. Bernard Roman (LLMC #2000).  On page 55, he discussed Negroes and his absurd notion that their skulls were always black and filled with black “humour.”  He then hypothesized that Indian tribes were similarly distinct; based on that “finding,” further concluded that God made these tribe as a separate species on this continent. 

[2] Garment A, Lederer S, Rogers N, Boult L. Let the dead teach the living: The rise of body bequeathal in 20th-century America. Acad Med. 2007;82:1000–1005, cited in Bodies for Anatomy Education in Medical Schools: An Overview of the Sources of Cadavers Worldwide, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6112846/#R2