Founder of MGH Rattled by the Family Resurrectionist Tradition

in about Warren

by Dr. John Collins Warren

Date: Recollection of circa 1796 events

“No occurrences in the course of my life have given me more trouble and anxiety than the procuring of subjects for dissection in the medical lectures. My father began to dissect early in the Revolutionary War. He obtained the office of Army Surgeon when the Revolution broke out, and was able to procure a multitude of subjects from having access to the bodies of soldiers who had died without relations. In consequence of these opportunities he began to lecture on anatomy in 1781; lectures in Cambridge, with dissection, 1783. After the peace, there was great difficulty in getting subjects. Bodies of executed criminals were occasionally procured; and sometimes a pauper subject was obtained, averaging not more than two a year. While in college I began the business of getting subjects in 1796.

Having understood that a man without relations was to be buried in the North Burying-Ground, I formed a party, of which Dr. William Ingalls was one. He was a physician of Boston at that time. We reached the spot at ten o’clock at night. The night was rather light. We soon found the grave; but, after proceeding a while, were led to suspect a mistake, and went to another place. Here we found our selves wrong, and returned to the first; and, having set watches, we proceeded rapidly, uncovering the coffin by breaking it open. We took out the body of a stout young man, put it in a bag, and carried it to the burying-ground wall. As we were going to lift it over and put it in the chaise, we saw a man walking along the edge of the wall outside, smoking. A part of us disappeared. One of the company met him, stopped him from coming on, and entered into conversation with him. This individual of our party affected to be intoxicated, while he contrived to get into a quarrel with the stranger. After he had succeeded in doing this, another of the party, approaching, pretended to side with the stranger, and ordered the other to go about his business. Taking the stranger by the arm, he led him off in a different direction to some distance; then left him, and returned to the burying-ground. The body was then quickly taken up, and packed in the chaise between two of the parties, who drove off to Cambridge with their booty. Two of us staid to fill the grave: but my companion, being alarmed, soon left the burying-ground; and I, knowing the importance of covering up the grave and effacing the vestiges of our labor, remained, with no very agreeable sensations, to finish the work.  However, I got off without further interruption; drove, with the tools, to Cambridge; and arrived there just before daylight.

When my father [Dr. John Warren] came up in the morning to lecture, and found that I had been engaged in this scrape, he was very much alarmed; but when the body was uncovered, and he saw what a fine, healthy subject it was, he seemed to be as much pleased as I ever saw him. This body lasted the [entire anatomy] course through.

Things went on in this way until the year 1806; when, with the co-operation of my father, I opened a dissecting room at 49, Marlborough Street. Here, by the aid of students, a large supply of bodies was obtained for some years, affording abundant means of dissection to physicians and students. In the mean time, however, schools began to be formed in other parts of New England, and the students were sent to Boston to procure subjects.  The exhumations were conducted in a careless way.  Thus the suspicion of the police was excited; they were directed to employ all the preventive measures possible; and watchers were set in the burying-grounds.  Thus the procuring of bodies was very much diminished; and we were obliged to resort to the most dangerous expedients, and finally to the city of New York, at a great expense of money, and great hazard of being discovered.  Two or three times, our agents were actually seized by the police, and recognized to appear in court.  One or two were brought in guilty, and punished by fine; but the law officers, being more liberal in their views than the city officers, made the penalty as small as possible.  Constant efforts were necessary to carry on this business, and every species of danger was involved in its prosecution.”

Source: A transcript of the diary appears in Edward Warren’s John C. Warren, MD – Compiled Chiefly from his Autobiography and Journals, Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 2 Vols., 1860, pp. 404-406.  It is also quoted in Matthews, Albert “Notes on Early Autopsies and Anatomical Findings” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 19, pp. 273-290, 1917. J.L. Bell provides salient text in a 2010 blog entry http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2010/01/difficulties-of-medical-training-in.html. I believe the original ms is in The John Collins Warren Papers, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society.

Commentary: Dr. John Warren (1753-1815), Dr. John Collins Warren’s father, is recalled in this narrative as the middle aged Harvard medical professor appalled at his son’s resurrectionist misadventure, but pleased at its result.

Despite the creation of a medical professorship at Harvard in 1782, obtaining subjects for anatomical study remained a shadowy enterprise. John Warren had pursued comparable adventures as a Spunker in the 1770s.

John Collins Warren (I, 1778-1856) may have experienced “more trouble and anxiety” from his youthful resurrectionist misadventures. In addition to major contributions of co-founding Massachusetts General Hospital in 1811, and facilitating the introduction of surgical anesthesia in 1846, be became obsessed with pathology specimens, bones of pre-historic animals, and the remains of his ancestors. He obtained the then-largest known mastodon skeleton and set it up in his home. In 1855 he retrieved the heads of his father, and uncle Dr. Joseph Warren, from St. James cathedral and kept them in his house for a year until they were re-interred at Forest Hills Cemetery in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Dr. John Collins Warren was indeed an odd duck.

A modern observer may see humor in John Collins Warren’s college associates in 1796 making off with their cadaver, sitting stiffly between them in a coach in the manner of the film farce Weekend at Bernie’s. In the context of 18th and early 19th century New England, this was serious business.

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