A Spot of Grave-Robbing in 19th Century Spartanburg, SC

I’ve been doing genealogy for 29 years and I just made my spookiest discovery yet. And on Friday the 13th!

I’m in the middle of the Research Like a Pro Study Group with FamilyLocket (highly recommend), and one of my research plan action items involves Spartanburg District, SC Court of Common Pleas cases for a father candidate for my ancestor, George W. West.

No, that’s not the spooky part. (Except some of the handwriting. Yikes.)

I almost didn’t check this particular case this go-round. After all, a big part of this study group is to learn how to focus your research on a specific question and then prioritize how you go about searching. However, a Joseph West lived in the household of one of my father candidates, so when I was looking through defendant indexes I decided to go ahead and add him to my list of cases to check.

I’m still not sure if I’m happy or sad about that snap decision. 

During the nineteenth century, Spartanburg District’s Court of Common Pleas handed down judgments on documents called “Judgment Rolls.”  We modern researchers are lucky that they’ve been numbered, indexed, abstracted and then recorded in numerical order! 

As I was going through the court shenanigans of all my father candidates on this fateful Friday the 13th, I was frankly getting a little bored. Yes, there was good and important stuff in here and I was noting that in my research log and planning to transcribe and study it later. But most judgment rolls don’t give many details and I was checking off judgments regarding “debt, debt, the administration of an estate, debt, administration, debt, debt, debt.” You know, the usual. Yawn.

Until I got to one William R. Timmons vs. Joseph West, Roll 4475 from 4 Apr 1857.

This one started with a charge of trespass. Okay, so we’re getting criminal now. That’s more interesting. 

And then it got downright macabre. I’ll just transcribe it for you.

“…the said defendant [Joseph West] with force and arms did close on the plantation of him the said plaintiff [William R. Timmons] and….did break and enter and dig up and subvert the grave of the said plaintiff’s wife, Margaret, did open the coffin therein deposited, did break open the said corpse, did take and carry away and other wrongs and injustices against the peace.” 

The judgment goes on to specify that the land Joseph West trespassed on was a graveyard. And for this injustice, William R. Timmons, husband of poor Margaret, was suing West for $5,000. 

West pled not guilty. 

He was still fined $692, which is about $24,000 in today’s dollars. Then, I presume, he went home and got back to treating his patients.

The Grave Robbing Phenomenon of the Nineteenth Century

So what the heck is going on here? This particular judgment makes a case for careful reading of the full and complete document. Because if I had skipped over some of the copying and boilerplate I might have missed one salient fact. 

He was “Dr. Joseph West.” 

Now it was starting to make more sense. In the 19th century, medical science was still formalizing into an actual “science.” But in order to advance that science, medical students needed cadavers to study and practice on. 

You may have heard of Burke & Hare, the duo who committed 16 murders in order to sell the bodies to a Dr. Robert Knox  in 1828 Edinburgh. 

But most of the time  there was no murder involved. Instead, doctors, medical students, or other medical workers would avail themself to fresh bodies by doing precisely what Joseph West was accused of: digging them up. These people became known in the yellow press as “resurrectionists.”  According to Smithsonian Magazine, the proliferation of railroads across the US made it easier to literally pack cadavers in barrels of pickle brine (you know, to hide the smell) and ship them to the nearest medical school in exchange for a tidy payout. 

This particular grave robbery took place in February, which in the upcountry of South Carolina would have been very cold, but the ground wouldn’t have been frozen. These sound like nearly ideal body-snatching conditions.

While the railroad didn’t come to Spartanburg until 1859, a railroad line in neighboring Laurens District was completed in 1854. It would be interesting to find out if that railroad line was completed as early as February and Dr. West decided, “Well this is handy. The first thing I’ll do with this new nearby railroad is ship a corpse to a medical school.” 

No extant newspapers even covered this story. That might have been to protect the Timmons family, or a local doctor’s respectability, or it may simply have been because, as the Smithsonian Magazine article notes, grave-robbing was a misdemeanor and rarely prosecuted! Oh, I’ll never get over those folks from the 19th century and their cultural norms. 

I don’t want to get too graphic here, because I’m pretty squeamish, but the wording of the judgment suggests that maybe he was doing his own scientific experiments. Oooof. 

More Resources about 19th Century Grave Robbers

Learn more about the practice of medical grave-robbing here:

And in conclusion, I’m done with genealogy for today. I promise to never again complain when all the court cases I come across are debts and probate tussles. 

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2 thoughts on “A Spot of Grave-Robbing in 19th Century Spartanburg, SC”

  1. Such an interesting find! I love how genealogy research leads us to learn unexpected and unusual bits of history. Because several of my ancestors were 19th-century physicians, I once read a book about 19th-century medicine. It will definitely make your skin crawl!

    Reply
    • Agree! This was so fascinating to research. And for all I know, this man could be in my family tree! (He certaintly has the right last name in the right place at the right time.) Thanks for your comment 🙂

      Reply

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