Home> Learn> Articles> The 1883 Law That Still Decides the Destiny of Pennsylvania’s Unclaimed Dead
The 1883 Law That Still Decides the Destiny of Pennsylvania’s Unclaimed Dead
On a December night in 1883 four bodysnatchers approached a Philadelphia cemetery to dig up the graves of people who had recently been laid to rest there. Their arrest would lead to the creation of a law that decides the fate of Pennsylvania’s unclaimed dead to this day. With no changes to the law on the horizon, community volunteers have taken matters into their own hands.
It’s December 1882 and Louis N. Megargee of the Philadelphia Press is huddled on the side of Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia late into the night. He’d been watching this stretch of road from Center City for several months now, at the edge of the city, behind the gates of Lebanon, one of only two Black cemeteries in the city. What he waited for on that cold winter night was the sound of the methodical clod of horse hooves on the dirt path, and the groan of a wagon wheel on the path of the resurrectionist, the night doctor – the body snatchers were headed his way.
Megargee and his fellow concerned citizens sprung the trap, pulling taught a rope across Passyunk to trip up the horses. They quickly placed under arrest Frank McNamee, Levi Chew, Robert Chew, and Henry Pillet, all four of the body snatchers who had been involved in the theft of as many as 60 bodies from the cemetery.
The public response would be bombastic. At the time, few people trusted doctors, finding their fascination with the human body grotesque, and the practice of cutting into human remains macabre. Anatomy riots, public protests in response to the perceived immorality of medical dissection, had already taken place in the fledgling United States and the dark memory of the Burke and Hare murders undertaken to specifically sell cadavers to doctors was still fresh; and Philadelphia wasn’t having it.
Megargee and his small posse delivered the four men to the 15th and Filbert police station, and the following night Black community leaders held meetings about what to do, and how to work through the trauma of potentially never being sure that their loved one was at peace in their grave. At the police station, McNamee was quick to give up his buyer. William Forbes was the man who hired him, paying $8 a body, he said. Yes, the same one who was the Demonstrator of Anatomy at a prestigious college, that’s the guy.
The ultimate results of that night are still felt today.
When he took the stand, Forbes leaned hard on technicalities stating he never personally took possession of the bodies, and that the school had a don’t ask/don’t tell policy when it came to “donated” cadavers. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, medical schools relied on the gallows to supply their cadavers. But fewer and fewer people were being put to death as punitive practices shifted. In 1867, Philadelphia passed a law allotting each medical school a portion of unclaimed bodies equal to the number of their students, as though they were simply divvying up playthings amongst schoolchildren. However, there weren’t enough cadavers to go around, so medical schools began to greedily eye the fertile plots of potter’s fields, full of the anonymous, and poor dead, as well as Black cemeteries where the white populace was likely to turn a blind eye.
Forbes passionately defended the right of doctors to practice medicine. The strict laws around human bodies made it incredibly difficult to study them upon death and few of the Victorian denizens, focused on “peace” and “rest”, were willing to offer themselves up to science upon death. Rather than face charges and sentencing for his role in stealing bodies from their resting place, he was instead held up as the “Father of the Pennsylvania Anatomical Act” which outlined that no bodies could be obtained illegally, that a board of scholars would be responsible for delivering legally obtained bodies to medical institutions, that the bodies would be allotted to each institution based on need and class size, that any body crossing the state line would be considered trafficked and illegally obtained, and that any unclaimed body in the state of Pennsylvania could be claimed by hospitals and medical schools for research and training.
The act was extensive and rather influential at the time with several other states creating laws emulating it. Today the American Association for the Advancement of Science considers it the best created of the many “anatomy acts” of the time period, and it’s still in place today. While our world and understanding of death has changed, our death practices have evolved, and the socio-economic and societal reasons a body may be found anonymous have shifted dramatically, it remains in the state of Pennsylvania the only law governing the fate of the unclaimed deceased persons.
We’re a far cry from the days when doctors performing autopsies and studying cadavers was considered an insidious act. Today, folks regularly donate their bodies to science, at an estimated rate of about 20,000 a year. On top of that, over 160 million people in the United States have volunteered their organs upon death. And the need for medical cadavers is not what it was in 1883 when the law was created, thanks to technology. That’s part of why the City of Philadelphia has at least two mass graves in Laurel Hill Cemetery for the cremated remains of a combined 2,015 anonymous people and untold others in storage in the coroner’s office.
As per the 1883 law, if no one comes forward in 36 hours the body is declared unclaimed and stored for three months before the city pays the $500 fee for a contracted funeral home to cremate the remains and either store them, if there is space (for up to 10 years), or send them to contracted burial sites. An average of 250 bodies are cremated every year this way in the city of Philadelphia.
The causes behind why someone may die without family or friends to identify them are varied and intersect constantly with various other racial and socioeconomic issues. Over the past two years, the city has seen over 200 gun-related deaths a year, with many of them disproportionately located in the poorest sections of the city. Many unclaimed bodies are the result of families unable to pay the several thousand dollars it would take to offer their relative a proper burial with the city only offering a $1,500 stipend. Not to mention even qualifying for financial assistance for burials and cremations means needing to meet certain requirements with the state, and only working with approved funeral homes. It’s cheaper and easier to let the city cremate the remains, whether the deceased would have wanted it or not, and then pick them up later. Another common source of the unclaimed dead is nursing homes, where mandates around creating end-of-life plans are a facility-by-facility decision and record-keeping can be antiquated.
With no changes to the law on the horizon, concerned volunteers have taken matters into their own hands. Unclaimed Persons, a volunteer organization of genealogists and historians founded by Janis Martin, attempts to identify next of kin and get the information over to county coroners. Every life is worth remembering, as their motto goes. As of 2017, they’ve tackled well over 400 cases since their founding 10 years earlier and boast a 70% success rate across 55 counties. The larger NameUs organization is part of legislation in at least 5 states (Pennsylvania is not one of them) and has resolved over 700 cases of unidentified persons (6 of which were in Pennsylvania) with well over 13,000 still open. Philly Death Doula Collective, in addition to their wide variety of services during the final stages of life, assist family and friends in dealing with funeral homes and the associated necessities which can help prevent the financial burden that necessitates allowing the city to cremate the remains.
But for those who could not be identified and for whom hopes for a personalized burial are too late, Laurel Hill superintendent Bill Doran tends to their resting place and watches mourners, with no apparent connection to the thousands of deceased, he places flowers at the site of one anonymous headstone: “1,500 citizens consigned to the earth.” Salt Trails, a Philly collective focused on exploring grief through art and gatherings, offers a community-based approach to grieving, which can help give dignity and remembrance to those who died and were buried anonymously.
Not everything about the issue of the unclaimed dead can be solved with policy. Sometimes families drift apart or even become estranged. Anonymity in death can be part of a larger systemic problem of poverty and violence that requires far more solutions than an update to Pennsylvania’s Victorian-era unclaimed body laws. But a price ceiling on many funeral costs would put the ideal funerals within reach of many who simply cannot afford their or their family’s own last rites. The lack of end-of-life plans or diligent recordkeeping in place for the elderly in nursing homes creates undue burdens which could be resolved with state-wide mandates requiring such conversations to take place as part of onboarding. There’s no single fix, but exploring these alternatives could do more than simply lower the statistic of unclaimed dead, it could work to provide families, friends, and communities the closure they deserve, and the deceased the respect and care they are due.
Melanie Moyer is a Philly-based author and podcaster. She is the 2021 Foreword Indies Gold Medal Winner for Science Fiction. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Ghouls Magazine, Certified Forgotten, and Hear Us Scream. She co-hosts the horror pop culture podcast Splatter Chatter.