Body Snatchers Came to Rochester in the 19th Century

In 19th century America, it was not uncommon for cemeteries to fall victim to the work of men called “resurrectionists”—freelancers who use nefarious means to procure cadavers for the use of medical schools. Because Rochester was situated within a night’s wagon ride of the university medical school at Ann Arbor, its residents were affected by this macabre practice.

Old photo of a dozen men standing near a two-story hotel. Dirt roads in the foreground.
The Pavilion Hotel and livery stood on the southwest corner of Third & Main. Resurrectionists were arrested here in 1879. (Courtesy of Rochester Hills Public Library, Ray Russell Postcard Collection)

The cadavers required by medical schools for the education of their students were in short supply during the 19th century. The law allowed access to cadavers from jails and prisons where the deceased were not claimed by next of kin, and a small number came through donation, but the expansion of medical training in the U.S. fueled an ever-increasing demand that was difficult to meet through legitimate means. Medical school officials thus turned to the so-called resurrectionists to bring them cadavers, asking no questions about the methods by which they were procured and turning a blind eye to any condemning evidence.

Resurrectionists could expect to receive $8 to $10 for each cadaver they delivered to a medical school. They worked under cover of darkness, and cemeteries that lay within a one-night travel radius of a medical school were most vulnerable to their attack. They prowled the cemeteries for new graves, where the soil was soft and digging was easy, and using the simple tools of a shovel, crowbar, and rope, opened the coffins and extracted the remains.

Rochester’s Encounter with Resurrectionists

Well-to-do Rochester residents hired people to guard graves from Body Snatchers

Rochester had a well-publicized brush with resurrectionists in December 1879. According to a report in the Rochester Era, resurrectionists were apprehended in the village after they raised the suspicion of Oscar Comstock, the proprietor of the Pavilion Hotel at Third & Main streets. Comstock, who was also a deputy sheriff, noticed the odd behavior of two hotel guests who kept strange hours and observed that their wagon, quartered in the hotel livery, contained trunks and tools typically used by resurrectionists, or “body snatchers,” as they were commonly called. Comstock and fellow deputy R. J. Bennett, who was the village marshal at the time, surveilled the two men upon their repeat visits to the hotel. When Bennett and Comstock inspected the men’s wagon while the suspects were eating breakfast in the hotel dining room, they found three cadavers stuffed into the trunks. They confronted the two men in the hotel and arrested them at gunpoint.

The discovery of the bodies and the arrest of the men caused quite an uproar in Rochester. According to the Era’s account, hundreds of people came to town to view the remains, which had been placed in the custody of the local undertaker, in an effort to identify them. It was soon discovered that all three had been disinterred from the Oxford cemetery. They were identified as Robert Ensley, James Dove, and Mrs. Pomford.

The suspects had registered at the Pavilion Hotel under the names of Wilson and Jamison, but upon further investigation after their arrest, their true names were revealed. One was James McGuire, identified by the Era as a “notorious grave-robber of Detroit,” who had only months before been arrested for removing bodies from graves at Woodmere Cemetery. The other was Thomas Egan, who had been discharged from the employ of a Detroit undertaker.

Interestingly, not everyone in Rochester was appalled by the apprehension of the resurrectionists at the Pavilion Hotel. Dr. F. M. Wilcox, a physician who wrote a correspondent column for the Pontiac Gazette, commented that the motive behind procuring “dissecting material” was not a mercenary one, but aided a more noble cause. He urged that the accused should receive “lenient consideration” from the courts, and opined that body-snatching “is not so bad as voting to give the Democratic party supremacy in the Nation.” Wilcox’s comments were swiftly condemned by area newspaper editors and readers alike, although his critics generally ignored his political insult and objected only to his “defending the honor of grave-robbers.”

Other historical accounts inform us that the practice of body-snatching was of considerable concern to the people of Rochester. In a 1979 oral history interview, lifelong Rochester resident George Saam recounted that his father, William Saam, had sometimes been hired by well-to-do Rochester residents to guard the graves of their recently deceased family members at Mount Avon Cemetery. When so hired, Saam’s father would stand watch in the cemetery overnight for about a week, until sufficient time had passed to make the bodies less viable for medical school purposes. In his account, George Saam estimated that a good number of graves at Mount Avon that had not been guarded had fallen victim to resurrectionists during this time period.

Newspaper clipping with the headline: Death of a Child
This 1881 item from the Rochester Era recounts how the parents of 5-year-old Maud Burgess protected her from resurrectionists.

Some Rochester residents who could not afford to hire a watchman thwarted the resurrectionists in a different way. A poignant account from 1881 in the Rochester Era reported the death of a small child, Maud Burgess, who only a week before her death had asked her mother whether she might be carried away by body-snatchers. To reassure her daughter, Mrs. Burgess told Maud that were she to die, she would be buried in the garden of the family’s residence, where her mother could keep a watchful eye over her grave. The newspaper noted that upon Maud’s passing, the Burgess family had indeed interred their daughter in the garden of their home to ensure that her body would not be disturbed by resurrectionists. It appears that Maud’s remains were laid to rest in the family plot at Mount Avon Cemetery later when the danger posed by resurrectionists had passed.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.


  1. Ray Henry Jr says

    Great information. Thanks for the article.

  2. Lyn Sieffert says

    I hope Deborah continues her contributions here. They are increasingly interesting when compared to present day Rochester.

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