10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade

Shannon Quinn - June 26, 2018

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
A scene of a woman identifying her husband in a morgue in New York City during the 1800’s. Credit: BoweryBoysHistory.com.

You Could Sell Your Own Bones

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.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
In 2007, hundreds of these skulls were seized by police while being smuggled from India. Credit: Reuters.

Supply and Demand

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.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Disneyland had real skeletons on display. Credit: Flickr Anna Fox, aka “HarshLight”

Skeletons in Disneyland

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:

Call for Leicester’s Elephant Man to be Buried After 120 Years. BBC. 2014.

Are There Still Real Skeletons in Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean? Cara Giaimo. Atlas Obscura. 2015.

Skeletons Cheap for Cash. Baxter Spring News. 1891.

Bodysnatchers: Digging Up The Untold Stories of Britain’s Resurrection Men. Suzie Lennox. Pen and Sword. 2016.

The Helena Independent. September 16, 1891.

Skeleton Manufacturers From The New York World. The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle. 1876.

Skeleton Factory. The Maitland Daily Mercury. 1907.

How to Save Money By Donating Your Body to Science. Jim T. Miller. The Huffington Post. 2013.

Into the Heart of India’s Underground Bone Trade. Scott Carney. NPR. 2007.

Packing Up Human Skulls in 1948. RareHistoricalPhotos.com