It turns out that preparing human bones for display is a lot like taking meat off of any other animal. Grave robbers and newbie skeleton preparers would boil the limbs so that the flesh would fall off. However, this was considered to be very sloppy workmanship, and it damaged the bones, leaving them to turn yellow over time. Skeleton experts could tell when they had been boiled, and it made them less valuable. The French had a far superior method of putting the limbs in acid, and leaving them for three months until the flesh disintegrated enough to slide off. This process also left the bones bleached and milky white, instead of yellow.
Apparently, bones will still smell like rotting flesh, even if they have been cleaned. It turns out that there are oils inside of bones that will continue to smell, unless the are drained, and fully dried out. While the Europeans had perfected the craft of creating skeletons, Americans during the 1800’s were struggling to keep up. In New York City alone, 500 bodies were transformed into full skeletons each year, but there was a struggle to make sure their quality me the standards doctors and scientists were looking for.
In the 1800’s, there was only one American man who knew how to fix this problem, and his name was Maitre Mazzur, and he studied the art of bone preparation in Paris. Due to this knowledge, he was a go-to expert on draining bone oil. Mazzur was careful not to let his secrets out in the public. He did not allow anyone inside of his workshop on Bleeker Street, for fear that he would lose his corner in the market of the industry.
If you thought a “first class” skeleton was expensive, it could even more money for a medical researcher to get his hands on an abnormal skeleton. In 1891, The Baxter Spring News reported a story about a woman who had a disease where her bones never stopped growing. When she died, so many scientists wanted to own her skeleton, there was a bidding war to get their hands on it. It sold for an undisclosed amount, but it was likely worth tens of thousands of dollars.
John Merrick was known as “The Elephant Man”, because he had a bone disease that completely disfigured his face. When he was alive, he lived in a workhouse, but his condition only got worse and worse. He was put in a freak show, until a doctor came along and began treating him. After he died at 27 years old in 1890, his skeleton was purchased by the Queen Mary Medical School in London. Since then, it has continued to be on display, and everything that could possibly be learned about his deformity has already been discovered.
In 2014, there was a petition that Joseph Merrick’s skeleton should finally be laid to rest. The school responded that they believed further study could possibly be done with his bones to help with cancer research, but if Merrick’s family requested it, they would bury him. While it may seem politically incorrect to some people, the Queen Mary Medical School is not the only institution who is doing this. The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia also has similar displays of real human skeletons and bodies.
It’s hard enough to imagine being a professional mortician (unless you are one), but becoming a professional bone preparer is on a whole other level of creepy. In 1891, the Helena Independent newspaper reported a story of a French man called M. De Robaire lived in Philadelphia. He was a professional skeleton salesman by trade who had prepared over 5,000 skeletons during the course of his career, and he kept dozens of specimens for himself.
He lived alone in a house in the poor section of Philadelphia, and his skeleton collection was hanging out in literally every single room in his house. At the time the story was reported, he had already been living like this for over 20 years. Instead of paintings hanging on the walls, real human skulls were tacked like art pieces. A skull was turned into a lamp, and dried human skin hung from the ceiling like curtains.
While it’s hard to imagine ever wanting this job in the first place, there was a big payout once a skeleton actually sold. De Robaire told the reporter from the Helena Independent that the field was actually very competitive, so he had to struggle to make money and find clients when he first got started. He was afraid he would get shut down by the police, so he set up a storefront to make his home look like a pharmacy.
Eventually, he became well-known for his work, and he was able to save a fortune. We will never know the true amount of money this man made, but after dissecting over five thousand bodies at the modern-day equivalent of $8,000 each, that is like netting $40 million. This was more than enough to allowed him to retire early and maybe get married and start a new career. However, he genuinely enjoyed taking people apart. This guy may or may not have been a serial killer. Or, maybe his obsession with bones satiated his desires. He chose to continue making human skeletons over having a normal life.
One of the biggest bummers of imagining a skeleton trade is that strangers were profiting off of dead people’s bones, and yet the person who died never got to enjoy any of the money. This lead to a small corner of the industry where people who were dying in the hospital agreed to sell their bones to their doctor in exchange for cash.
In a story from The Maitland Daily Mercury in 1907, a young man in his 20’s had tragically been in an accident just two months after getting married, and the doctors at the hospital told him that he was not going to live. When he heard this, he asked if he could sell his body to science, and give the money to his young wife. They paid him $50, which is the modern-day equivalent of roughly $1,200. This may have been just enough to pay for his funeral, and to help her cover expenses immediately following his death. The doctors got a skeleton for a fraction of what they would normally pay, and they would have sent the body to a bone cleaner.
Today, a similar system is in place, but it is now illegal in the United States to pay for human bodies. Funerals are very expensive, and can cost up to $10,000. Cremations are a much cheaper option, but even that costs between $600 and $3,000. In the United States, people have the option to donate their body to science when they die. After one to two years, the body will be cremated for free.
In the medical field, obtaining a real skeleton became a necessary tool of the trade, so schools, hospitals, and private practices were trying to buy one whenever they could. The increase in demand, combined with buckling down on using the bodies of people in Europe and the United States lead to seeking skeletons from overseas. In the 1940’s, The Royal College of Surgeons began to collect skeletons from all over the world in order to see if there were any differences in skeletal structure between races. After decades of abuses in the skeleton industry, countries around the world began to create laws to prevent buying and selling human remains, but the industry still finds a loophole.
Unfortunately, nations with extreme poverty are the easiest targets for this kind of abuse. Today, the vast majority of human skulls come from Calcutta, India. Grave robbing still goes on there, as bodies are dug and and sold to buyers overseas. People were even getting murdered by bone sellers.
NPR did an investigation on the issue, and they interviewed a woman who used to work for a company that gathered human skeletons. Her employers were willing to do absolutely anything to get human bones, because each skeleton can fetch upwards of $3,000. They fished dead bodies out of the river whenever someone drowned, and stole bodies out of the morgue on a regular basis. Residents of Calcutta say that they can smell rotting flesh throughout the entire town, and neighbors witnessed human body parts being boiled in giant cauldrons. People knew that when they died, their bodies would be stolen and sold overseas, as well.
Exporting bones is illegal in India, but the local police force in Calcutta does not have the resources to enforce the law. In the instances when the police did actually stop bone smugglers, they were traveling with at least $70,000 worth of bones. It’s illegal to export human bones in the U.S. and Europe, but it’s not illegal to import them. So, even to this day, grave robbers get away with it.
Doctors and scientific researchers are not the only ones who needed to use real human skeletons to do their jobs. Disneyland was built in the 1950’s, and the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction was built in 1967. Artificial paper mache and plastic skeletons looked very fake, and Walt Disney himself wanted to spare no expense, especially after he realized that fake skeletons on display would not stand the test of time. So they decided to purchase real human skeletons from the UCLA medical department, which were scattered all over the ride and dressed in pirate costumes.
Decades later, technology has improved so that it is possible to create a very life-like fake skeleton without needlessly dissecting a human being. When the knowledge that they used real people’s bones became known to the public, there was an outcry that these humans deserved proper burials. The Disney corporation responded that they removed the real skeletons, returned them to their respective countries, where they were given proper burials. Considering how the skeleton trade works, it’s questionable if this is actually true, since most of the identities of the bones are undocumented.
There is a rumor that some of the real skeletons are still on the ride to this day. The trouble is, no one can tell the difference, except for the mega-fans who claim that some of the skeletons are clearly more yellowed and appear to be made of different materials than the majority of the bones that now exist on the ride.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: