Episode 7: A Preview of Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom

by Tanya D. Marsh | Death, et seq.

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Megan Rosenbloom is Associate Director for Instruction Services at the Norris Medical Library of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and the co-founder and director of Death Salon, the event arm of The Order of the Good Death. Rosenbloom is writing a book called Dark Archives, anticipated to be published in 2019, which describes the history and discusses the ethics involved in “anthropodermic bibliopegy,” books alleged to have been bound in human skin.

In this episode, Rosenbloom discusses the connection between grave robbery, the Anatomy Acts, and the practice of binding books in human skin, as well as the relationship between this story and the development of medical ethics.  “These books are kind of a warning,” Rosenbloom explains, of the dangers of objectifying patients.

Rosenbloom refers often in this episode of the podcast to the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Rosenbloom recommends the book Death, Dissection, and the Destitute by Ruth Richardson for more information on the Anatomy Acts. Here is a brief explanation:

Throughout history, the use of cadavers has been hugely important to medical innovation and advancement. The demand for cadavers often vastly outweighed the available supply. Religious, moral and legal concerns often bred a reluctance to address the issue. With a relatively small supply of legally-obtained cadavers, some enterprising individuals turn to grave-robbing to cash in on the high demand. In few extreme cases, certain individuals even resorted to outright murder to generate a cadaver supply.

The imbalance between demand and supply eventually forced lawmakers to act. The Murder Act of 1752 passed by Parliament in the United Kingdom allowed doctors and medical schools in need of cadavers to use the bodies of executed convicted murderers. As executions declined in number and demand for cadavers continued to increase, this solution proved insufficient. Growing public awareness and aversion to the corpse trade ushered in a climate of acceptance toward the Anatomy Act of 1832 in England. This Act gave doctors, medical students and the like more access to the cadavers of those who died in the care of the state.

The 1832 Anatomy Act in particular had a strong influence on state legislatures in the United States. Even though grave robbing was illegal in colonial America, the practice grew with demand as it did in Europe. In 1788, riots broke out in Manhattan when someone discovered mutilated remains in the medical school at Columbia University. New York’s legislature responded by outlawing grave robbing and ordering that remains of executed criminals may be dissected.

For an example of a U.S. statute, see Ohio Rev. Code § 1713.34:

“Superintendents of city hospitals, directors or superintendents of city infirmaries, county homes, or other charitable institutions, directors or superintendents of workhouses, founded and supported in whole or in part at public expense, superintendents or managing officers of state benevolent institutions, boards of township trustees, sheriffs, or coroners, in possession of bodies not claimed or identified, or which must be buried at the expense of the state, county, or township, before burial, shall notify the professor of anatomy in a college which by its charter is empowered to teach anatomy, or the secretary of the board of embalmers and funeral directors of this state, of the fact that such bodies are being so held. If after a period of thirty-six hours the body has not been accepted by friends or relatives for burial at their expense, such superintendent, director, or other officer, on the written application of such professor, or the secretary of the board of embalmers and funeral directors, shall deliver to such professor or secretary, for the purpose of medical or surgical study or dissection or for the study of embalming, the body of any such person who died in any of such institutions from any disease which is not infectious. The expense of the delivery of the body shall be borne by the parties in whose keeping the body was placed.”

Ohio Rev. Code § 1713.38:

“The bodies of strangers or travelers, who die in any of the institutions named in section 1713.34 of the Revised Code, shall not be delivered for the purpose of dissection unless the stranger or traveler belongs to that class commonly known as tramps. Bodies delivered as provided in such section shall be used for medical, surgical, and anatomical study only, and within this state.”

Ohio Rev. Code § 1713.41:

“No superintendent of a city hospital, city infirmary, county home, workhouse, hospital for the mentally ill, or other charitable institution founded and supported in whole or in part at public expense, coroner, infirmary director, sheriff, or township trustee, shall fail to deliver a body of a deceased person when applied for, in conformity to law, or charge, receive, or accept money or other valuable consideration for the delivery.”

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