The worst thefts in NYC history have not been gold and jewels but bodies, the bodies of the poor, the bodies of the rich and famous and the bodies of ordinary people whose final remains became part of a gruesome but very financially rewarding trade in bodies or parts of bodies.
The money spinning trade of body snatching developed in the latter part of the 18th century as medical schools were set up in NYC and there was a demand for bodies on which budding surgeons could learn and practice their trade. It continued until the late 19th century as hospitals gradually became more scrupulous about how they acquired their anatomy specimens.
The men who dug up the bodies and hawked them around had a name, the Resurrectionists and like all tradesmen they perfected the specifics of their trade, refining methods of digging up coffins and then openeing them up so the bodies within could be snatched.
People buried in Potters Fields around NYC were targetted, spies attended burials to scout out what bodies were available and certainly everyone dying without family and friends was at risk. Because body snatching became so prevalent, fearful NYC families devised various means to try and ensure their loved ones would not be disturbed.
In 1788 the ‘Doctors Riot’ broke out in NYC when a family feared a recently dead mother had ended up on the anatomy tables of City Hospital. Physicians, medical students and professors were all under attack from a mob and survived only because the New York Militia turned out to protect them.
But selling corpses to anatomy schools was not the only way of getting money for a corpse. In 1876, one of New York’s and America’s wealthiest men died, A. T Stewart a groundbreaking retail mogul, breathed his last. Thieves took his body from the family crypt and several months later they asked for $250,000 to return it. His widow finally negotiated the return of her hussband’s remains for $20,000.
However far surpassing their 18th and 19th century body snatching predecessors, in the early 21st Century a group of NYC crooks headed by Michael Mastromarino set a sophisticated scam whereby he took body aprts from cadavers being prepared for burial in funeral homes across the city, substituted PVC pipes, cotton wool balls and other materials and then onsold bone, tissue, tendons and heart valves to companies that supply body tissue to surgeons.
Over 1,000 bodies were plundered and Mastromarino and his cronies made millions despite the tissues and bones they sold having a very good chance of being diseased because the harvesting process had not been carried out under the guidelines set down to ensure the suitability of body parts. This left many who had received materials from this tainted source, open to the possibility of contracting HIV, cancer and hepatitis. This was quite apart from the distress of familes who discovered the larger part of their relatives bodies had been stolen
As the scandal unfolded it became clear that body parts from one cadaver can fetch up to $20,000 if bone, tissue, ligaments and brains are all sold separately. The U.S. is the biggest trader in human tissue and for this reason has very strong laws in place to protect the integrity of what body parts are onsold. All the crooks involved received high prison sentences but Mastromarino spent little time in goal because he died of cancer, though all teh othere continue to pay the price of their crime.