University of Vermont medical students who graduated in the 1870s recalled the school obtaining cadavers from nearby cemeteries.
In other states that were less strict about how corpses could be treated, businesses sprang up that sold cadavers. Grave robbing was apparently a very lucrative business. This was true of southern states, which shipped the bodies of blacks north to medical schools. The practice of shipping bodies had its drawbacks, though.
One UVM student remembered a body arriving from New York packed in brine in a barrel labeled “onions.” The person, the students found out later, had died of smallpox. As a precaution, all the students were vaccinated the next day.
Grave robbing in Castleton, Vermont
In 1830, Castleton students were actually robbing graves to practice medicine.
According to an interview in Poultney, VT., by C.F. Derven with Will L. Farnum, on August 14, 1938, corpses for medical use was supposedly practiced in Castleton, Vermont, when the Castleton Medical School existed.
A grave was robbed in Hubbardton, and a woman’s body taken from it
The authorities thought that the medical students in Castleton might have done the deed. So they came to search the school for her body. They searched through the buildings and were about to give up when someone noticed that new nails had been driven into the planking of the attic floor. The boards were quickly removed. In the opening was the corpse. But the head was missing.
No one found the head.
Since then, people say that one doctor, who was wearing a great, flowing cape, had the head hidden under his cape during the entire investigation!
From an article in the Castleton Spartan by Batu MacEslin in 2008:
“According to several documents and articles describing the “Hubbardton Raid,” in November of 1830, they caught two Castleton medical students robbing a grave in the name of science. The body they dug up was that of a woman named Penfield Churchill. The dean of the school installed the 300 men from Hubbardton while inside the two students were cutting off Churchill’s head to prevent her identification. One student hid the head under his coat and escaped out the back, while the other stuffed the body under the floorboards.
Upon entrance to the medical school, the townsmen could see no trace of the body, according to published reports of the incident. However, while walking around, one man stubbed his toe on a loose floorboard, which led to closer inspection and the finding of the headless body of Churchill.
To appease the public, Castleton expelled the two students as long as charges were dropped and the head returned, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.”
Updated in 2018, Briana Bocelli of the Castleton Spartan writes:
The Old Chapel was the scene of of the infamous Hubbarton Raid. Photo by Briana Bocelli
The year was 1830, on the 29th day of November, in the curious town of Castleton, Vermont.
A small group of medical students swiftly pack a knapsack with shovels, pickaxes and a large wool cloth. The clock strikes 2 a.m. and the church bells eerily echo from the lofty tower of the Old Chapel.
It’s time to go.
The students silently march along the dusty road in darkness to the neighboring town of Hubbardton.
They remain stealthy and cunning, attempting to go undetected.
Finally, they arrive at their destination; The Hubbardton Cemetery.
“Over there!” the doctor whispers to his students.
They gather in a circle and look down at the ground with a sense of guilt and angst upon their faces.
Here lies the remains of Mrs. Pennfield Churchill. Beloved wife, mother, friend, the stone read.
Silence falls over the group. All that can be heard is the faint chirping of crickets in the distance.
“Shall we?” the man said.
The group begins stabbing at the ground with their shovels and pickaxes. At the final strike, a loud thud stops the mattocks in their tracks.
“There it is,” said one student from the group.
“Let’s just grab it and get out of here,” another added.
They carefully lift the cold, rotting cadaver from the wooden box and toss it up onto the cloth.
The students and the corpse disappear into the night. Little did they know, their efforts wouldn’t go unnoticed.
It wouldn’t be until the turn of the last century that New England states loosened their so-called anatomical laws. The new regulations helped keep doctors on the right side of the law and the deceased in their graves.
In another excellent article published by Mark Bushnell for VTDigger, grave robbery truly was a “grave concern”.
Read the entire article here. Another equally fascinating article by Joesph Doran can be read here.
Other bizarre grave robbing stories in Vermont
In more recent times, several incidents of grave robbing have occurred despite the illegal nature of such as heinous activity.
In 2006, a Morrisville man broke into a burial vault in Morrisville, opened a casket, severed the head from a corpse, and stole it.
The body was that of a Morrisville man who died about three years earlier. The family were notified about the theft, and the head was returned to the casket. Police said the perpetrator had no known connection to the body of the man in the crypt, and they suspect no other motive than gruesome vandalism.
Police were told that the person who committed the crime planned to use to head to build a bong, a pipe for smoking marijuana or hashish.
A few years later, the person who committed the crime contacted Vermonter.com and requested that we remove his name as he was trying to forget the incident and move ahead with his life. We have done so and hope that he is one a better path.
When Mike and Patty Clark of Williamstown, Vt. visit their daughter Tori’s grave, they’re haunted by knowing she’s not actually in the ground. “It’s just not the same,” the father sighed. See the sad video below and story here.