The Horrific History Behind The Lebanon Cemetery Body Snatchers

group of people in a mass grave
Tremain Prioleau II
March 29, 2024

The entrepreneur Jacob C. White, Sr. founded Lebanon Cemetery in 1849. It was one of only two easily accessible public cemeteries for Black Americans in Philadelphia. That accessibility made it vulnerable to graverobbers.

The bodies of Black and poor people were the most likely to end up on dissecting tables. Corpses would be disinterred and sold to medical schools. In 1882, suspicious reporters from The Philadelphia Press caught some “resurrectionists” digging up a body in Lebanon Cemetery. And there was more.

A faculty member at Jefferson Medical College, Dr. William S. Forbes, was accused of having hired the “graveyard ghouls.” Forbes would be acquitted in court, but Philadelphia’s Black residents were enraged by what had happened to the remains of their loved ones.

They staged protests and held meetings to voice their indignation. As a result, the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act of 1883 was passed, making more cadavers legally available to medical schools and increasing the penalties for stealing corpses.

Black Philadelphians spoke up and showed out to end this horrific practice. We should never be silent. The system should know we won’t stand for injustice, and we’ll join together against anything that harms us.

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