When the Latter-day Saints moved west to escape persecution, they weren't just forced to leave behind homes and valuables. Many of them were most heartbroken to leave behind the bodies of their deceased loved ones—possibly to fall into the hands of unscrupulous body snatchers, also commonly called "resurrectionists."
Body Snatching: A Fate Worse Than Death
Body snatching—robbing crypts and graves for human cadavers—is a practice with a rather controversial history.
Due to medical schools' high demand for bodies to study for anatomy, body snatching became a lucrative business that escalated during the 1600s through the 1800s. In fact, in the 1820s two body snatchers, William Burke and William Hare, even went to the extreme of murdering 20 people so they could sell their bodies for dissection.
At that time, people considered dissection a fate worse than death, a "further Terror and peculiar Mark of Infamy" reserved only for the worst of criminals who were publicly executed.
Fearful citizens held riots and ransacked medical schools that they thought practiced dissection. One such riot, held in New York in 1788, involved by citizens ransacking and searching for bodies in the rooms of students and professors at the Columbia College of Medical School and led to the outlawing of body snatching in New York the following year. However, more comprehensive, national laws regulating medical dissection didn't come into play in the U.S. and Britain until the 1830s.
Despite these past misgivings, Cambridge scientists claim the knowledge that was gained from these dissections had a greater influence on medicine than WWI. "The body snatchers, like the war, allowed scientists to have a greater understanding of general medicine and amputation due to the bodies they had to work with," Louise Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Cambridge told the Daily Mail. "For the first time, medical students were able to not only practice but work with real bodies—they could understand how the organs worked."
Body Snatching in the Early Days of the Church
So, what does all of this have to do with Mormons?
Many Latter-day Saints were victims of "resurrectionists" and illegal body snatching before they began their trek out west.
Saints in Kirtland kept an especially close eye on the graves of their loved ones, guarding them day and night for weeks after their burial because of their close proximity to Willoughby Medical College. According to Latter-day Saint Helen Mar Whitney, the medical students and professors at the college thought it "no sacrilege to dissect a 'Mormon' dead or alive" (George W. Givens, 500 Little-Known Facts in Mormon History).
One common way the Saints protected their deceased was to overturn a bier, or coffin stand, on top of the grave of a loved one and then tie a rope connecting the bier to the arm of someone sleeping nearby. If the bier was moved, the person on watch would be notified by a tug from the rope (George W. Givens, 500 Little-Known Facts in Mormon History).
Did You Know? Following the death of Joseph Smith's brother, Alvin, rumors circulated about his body being dug up and dissected. In order to put these rumors to rest, Joseph Smith Sr. "ran a public notice five times in the Palmyra weekly" which read in part: "“TO THE PUBLIC: Whereas reports have been industriously put in circulation that my son Alvin had been removed from the place of his interment and dissected; … therefore, for the purpose of ascertaining the truth of such reports, I, with some of my neighbors this morning, repaired to the grave, and removing the earth, found the body, which had not been disturbed" (Ensign, August 1987, "The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction").
A Miraculous Encounter with Body Snatchers
Kirtland was not the only place the Saints faced the terrorizing body snatchers.
In Pomfret, New York, in January of 1831—nearly 50 years since body snatching had been outlawed in the state—"opposers" to the Church murdered Mormon missionary Joseph Brackenbury, who died from "the effects of poison secretly administered to him" (HC, 7:524, quoted in George W. Givens, 500 Little-Known Facts in Mormon History).
The cold, stormy night following Elder Brackenbury's burial, my ancestor Joel Hills Johnson had a strange dream. Joel Johnson (the famous writer of "High on a Mountain Top") was not yet baptized a member of the Church, though he had already shown interest in its teachings. (It's not clear how Johnson knew Elder Brackenbury, but it's possible he could have been one of the missionaries who shared the gospel with Johnson.)
As Joel Johnson slept, he dreamt that body snatchers were defiling Elder Brackenbury's grave and stealing his corpse. The dream was so realistic and disturbed Joel so deeply, he woke his brother David and convinced him to travel with him to the cemetery a mile from their house.
There, the brothers found men digging at Elder Brackenbury's grave. After chasing the men, they were able to catch one and discovered he was a doctor hoping to dissect the body. The man was brought to the authorities and given a bond, but like "many anti-Mormons accused of crimes against the Saints, he was never brought to trial" (George W. Givens, 500 Little-Known Facts in Mormon History).
Not six months after this event, Joel Hills Johnson was baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and David and many of his other siblings followed. In fact, the descendants of Joel's father, Ezekiel Johnson, are believed to belong to the largest family in the LDS Church.
Unfortunately, the experiences Joel Hills Johnson and the Saints in Kirtland had with body snatchers are not unique in Latter-day Saint history. Perhaps these encounters give us one more reason to admire the courage of the pioneers and to realize a portion of what they sacrificed and left behind.