Years before modern machinery was invented that could reproduce an accurate replica of a human skeleton, the only options was to use the real thing. Doctors, researchers, and science teachers everywhere wanted to get their hands on a complete set of bones for their classrooms and offices. Considering that the only way to get a complete skeleton was to take it from someone who had passed away, these were (and still are) very expensive investments for medical professionals. For the people who sold bones, it was an opportunity to make a ton of money in a relatively short period of time.
However, there’s just one problem- these skeleton sellers need to get dead bodies that they can sell, and in most cases, they most likely had zero empathy or respect for the dead. For hundreds of years, the skeleton trade has gone through a creepy transformation. Doctors learned how to bleach and sterilized bones, and experts became wealthy from becoming skilled at a process that few people were willing to perform. Just like any other business, the competition grew as time went on, and money-hungry people competed in profiting from the dead.
In modern times, some people agree to donate their bodies to science after they pass away. These are known as “cadavers”, and medical students will perform operations on these bodies in order to practice and learn more about internal organs without the obvious risk of practicing on a live human being, which would likely result in injuring or killing someone. From the 1700’s through the very early 1900’s, medical schools needed human corpses for the same reason, but there wasn’t a system in place like there is today that could provide cadavers to the medical industry.
Unfortunately, this demand for fresh cadavers lead to a string of criminals body snatching people from freshly dug graves. Doctors were rich, and if they were conducting experiments that required multiple bodies, sometimes, they would personally pay grave robbers to keep fresh cadavers coming in. Grave robbers usually had a female accomplice who would show up to a funeral, so she could cry and pretend to be a friend of the family. Later, she would tell her male grave robbing partners in crime exactly where to find the fresh grave, to make it easier for them to find it in the middle of the night. People were so afraid that their loved ones would be robbed, that the came up with some creative methods of protect their bodies. Families who could afford to take precautions to prevent grave robbery paid for cemetery guns, coffin torpedos, mortsafes, and more.
For some grave robbers, they didn’t just sneak into cemeteries to dig up fresh graves. They would look for older graves, hoping to find decomposed bodies in order to sell the skeletons. During the 1800’s, the skeletons that were taken from the United Kingdom were shipped over to the United States and the British colonies in the West Indies.