General Washington and the Body-Snatchers


September 3, 2014
by J. L. Bell Also by this Author


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Among the many challenges Gen. George Washington faced in his first year as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he probably didn’t expect to deal with grave-robbing. But on 1 September 1775 his general orders included this admonition:

Complaint has been made to the General, that the body of a Soldier of Col. [Benjamin Ruggles] Woodbridge’s Regiment, has been taken from his grave by persons unknown; The General and the Friends of the deceased, are desirous of all the Information that can be given, of the perpetrators of this abominable Crime, that he, or they, may be made an example, to deter others from committing so wicked and shameful an offence.[1]

Washington and most of his soldiers probably knew who had taken that body: the army’s own surgeons, eager to study anatomy and practice their cutting techniques. James Thacher, then a surgeon’s mate in the Continental Army hospital at Cambridge, later wrote in his published journal:

The body of a soldier has been taken from the grave, for the purpose, probably of dissection, and the empty coffin left exposed. This affair occasions considerable excitement among our people; both resentment and grief are manifested; as it seems to impress the idea that a soldier’s body is held in no estimation after death. Such a practice, if countenanced, might be attended with serious consequences as it respects our soldiers. Much inquiry has been made, but without success, for the discovery of the persons concerned; and the practice in future is strictly prohibited by the commander-in-chief.[2]

Curiously, Thacher included that entry in his journal under the month of November, many weeks after the incident, perhaps to distance himself from it.

In fact, Thacher may have handled that body himself. He was working at the hospital with Dr. John Warren, younger brother of the physician-politician killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Warren later wrote:

The military hospitals of the United States furnished a large field for observation and experiment in the various branches of the healing art, as well as an opportunity for anatomical investigations.[3]

“Anatomical investigations” meant dissecting cadavers. In the late summer of 1775, American troops weren’t fighting big battles, but they were dealing with epidemics of dysentery and other camp diseases which provided a steady supply of corpses of young men, often far from family. To a military doctor, improving surgical skills was more important for the army than letting dead soldiers lie.

According to one of Dr. Warren’s sons:

My father began to dissect early in the Revolutionary War. He obtained the office of army surgeon when the Revolution broke out, and was able to procure a multitude of subjects from having access to the bodies of soldiers who had died without relations.[4]

Another Warren son wrote a biography of his father that acknowledged Gen. Washington’s order against body-snatching, but went on to suggest that the only problem had been letting other soldiers see what had happened:

It was done with so little decency and caution, that the empty coffin was left exposed. . . . It must have been the act of a reckless agent or a novice. In cases of this kind, where the necessities of society are in conflict with the law, and with public opinion, the crime consists, like theft among the Spartan boys, not in the deed, but in permitting its discovery.[5]

It is possible that Gen. Washington shared the Warrens’ belief in the necessity of surgical training, however distasteful, and issued his admonition just to satisfy the dead soldier’s angry friends. His orders did not mention the “wicked and shameful” offense of body-snatching again, but “anatomical investigations” surely continued.

[FEATURE IMAGE AT TOP: © Ahanson84 | – A skull and crossbones decorates an old headstone in Granary Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts.]


[1] Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Philander D. Chase, Dorothy Twohig, Frank E. Grizzard, Edward G. Lengel, et al., editors (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985–), 1:395.

[2] James Thacher, A Military Journal During the American Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783 (Boston: Cottons & Barnard, 1827), 36.

[3] Edward Warren, The Life of John Warren, M.D. (Boston: Noyes, Holmes & Co., 1874), 227.

[4] Edward Warren, editor, The Life of John Collins Warren, M.D. (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1860), 1:404.

[5] Warren, Life of John Warren, 233.


  • … and when peace settled in, the grave robbing continued on for a starved medical community. In New England, their efforts were so notorious they were called “resurrectionists” and “sack ’em up men.” Access to bodies was of such concern to beginning medical schools that they were surreptitiously smuggling them in casks of spirits from one state to another. The circumstances of their passing (natural death, murder?) was something the medical establishment did not bother itself in asking.

  • Frequently, graves/cemeteries had guards of family members posted by grieving families for a period of days after a burial – long enough for the corpse to have decayed enough that it would be unwanted by surgeons or medical students. As this was a military burial it was unlikely that the deceased at family available for this duty. His military friends may have been unable to provide this service. It may be that after this instance informal guards were placed at the burial grounds….at least some times. BTW, when I saw the title of this article I immediately thought I knew the author….and, I was correct. Well done, J.L.

  • It’s interesting that this issue reached Washington’s desk, considering that it was only an enlisted man’s body. Might this say something about the democratized culture of the New England-based army especially, about which Washington complained so mightily?

    1. The main hospital for the besieging army was right down the street from Washington’s headquarters—literally the next house closer to Cambridge center. So that might have made it easier for the issue to reach his desk. I also sense that his response in the general orders was meant for employee relations—assuring all the soldiers that their persons were vaued—while there’s no evidence of headquarters actually doing anything more.

  • The same Warren family apparently involved in this incident also helped to found the Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital, adding greatly to the region’s medical knowledge. They also left some funny anecdotes of grave-robbing in the early republic.

    That practice was controversial enough to provoke a “Doctors’ Riot” in New York in 1788, with three men dead and John Jay and Gen. de Steuben among the injured.

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