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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Grave Robbery at the Pittsfield Common

This summer construction will again begin at the Common, as it undergoes an 0.08 million dollar renovation, the second of four planned stages in an ongoing redesign overhaul.  While there have been a few stray qualms here and there with design elements and other issues, dissent has paled drastically compared to some of the brouhahas that have embroiled this central Pittsfield yard throughout its distinguished history.

By far the incidents of greatest controversy occurred during the 19th century, at which time this First Street lot served as one of the city's primary burying grounds.  As with most early New England towns, in its infancy Pittsfield buried its dead in the central part of town near its church, and so the first cemetery was near the site of present day Park Square.  As with other small towns that grew to become cities, it later faced some difficult landscaping decisions; these first bodies were relocated to the Common, though this would not be their final resting place.

While the majority of the bodies from the Common were relocated en masse to Wahconah Street's more spacious 95 acres in 1870, a few cadavers left their burial spot sooner than planned.

In the 18th and early 19th century, rapidly growing medical schools throughout the east found themselves constantly desperate for proper anatomical learning materials: namely, dead humans.  The only real legitimate source of bodies at this time was those executed for crimes, and this provided nowhere near enough to accommodate generations of doctors in training.  In her book Body Snatching, Suzanne Schultz notes that less than forty persons received capital punishment in Massachusetts between 1800 and 1830, scarcely enough to supply even one college for a year. However, no specific law then existed for the protection of corpses, and any physician could possess one for dissection without question as to its origin.

"There are many thrilling traditions originating in the popular excitement upon this subject, which in the cities and larger towns often led to fearful riots," says local historian J.E.A. Smith, "In Berkshire there was hardly a village in which one or more graves had not been robbed."

Thomas Melvill(e)
On September 20, 1813, a British soldier's body was taken from the Pittsfield Cantonment [much of what is now the Upstreet Cultural District was part of the largest POW camp in the country during the War of 1812], and though the culprit was found out, no charge could be filed.  Not long after, it happened again, and the Cantonment commander, Thomas Melville (grandfather of author Herman) had the military dead moved from the town cemetery to a more secure location.

There were no discovered thefts again for six years, until a popular young man named George Butler, Jr was interred there in November of 1819, and his body promptly removed.  All winter, George's mother spoke of macabre dreams of her son's grave being empty, and of shadowy figures working over it. That Spring, she had one of her surviving sons open it, only to find the coffin was indeed empty.

"Almost every person in Pittsfield- men, women, and children- as well as from neighboring towns, went to gaze, shuddering, into the gaping grave," recalls Smith, "Which was purposely left open all summer, exposing its shattered and tenantless coffin, to remind the spectator of the most shocking circumstances of the desecration."

A special town meeting was held, and Pittsfield recommended that the legislature enact a law forbidding such nighttime seizures of the dearly departed.  Such legislation was eleven years in coming.

With this grisly memory still fresh, it was with great trepidation and even some outrage that Pittsfield residents viewed a proposal in 1822 for the fledgling Berkshire Medical College to establish itself right beside the site of these recent offenses.  Faculty went to great lengths to assure the citizenry that while questionable occurrences had taken place in the past, the school intended to maintain strict policies to prevent this in the future.

This, however, ultimately meant that the mining for involuntary dissection subjects was simply driven further afield, with students and freelance "Resurrectionists" nabbing corpses from more distant yards, and even still stories of other morbid incidents close to home continued. A mill worker was found missing from his coffin in the northeast corner of the Common by his mourning friends, whose own reasons for digging up the grave were opaque; another time, a search of the college failed to uncover the remains of a small girl who'd perished from a wasting disease, as it was hidden all the while in the cape of a tall student.  Finally, a party from Pittsfield was followed and caught body snatching in eastern Hampden county, and around the time of the first law in 1830 a pair of Berkshire students were linked to the disappearance of two newly deceased in Franklin County.

People of Pittsfield had had enough, and were prepared for mob justice.  Town father Major Butler Goodrich threatened to lead a band of men to demolish the college buildings if the bodies were not returned.

They were returned unmarred, and restored to their burial places, and the thieves this time were prosecuted.  Another town meeting was held, wherein the public expressed "sentiments of unmingled indignation and horror," and along with trustees of the college set forth stricter, more unforgiving resolutions against the use of any unauthorized cadavers.

This more or less ended the era of grave robbery at the Common, though it was not soon forgotten. Forty years later, during a debate over the removal of Pittsfield's dead to the large new cemetery, James Butler spoke emotionally of the pain his family had endured over the desecration of George Jr's body half a century before.  Today the graves of Butler and the rest of those laid to rest beside the old school reside at Pittsfield Cemetery on Wahconah Street... all, save for a small percentage of remains  that were never located, inadvertent contributors to the science of medicine.


Happel, Richard. Notes and Footnotes. Berkshire Eagle November 8, 1973

Shulz, Suzanne. Body Snatching: The Robbing of Graves for the Education of Physicians in Early Nineteenth Century America. 1992

Smith, Joseph E.A. The History of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Volume 2.  1876

Taylor, Alan. The War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies. 2010


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

People of Pittsfield had had enough, and were prepared for mob justice. Town father Major Butler Goodrich threatened to lead a band of men to demolish the college buildings if the bodies were not returned.