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The Case of the Stolen Corpse

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

In 1840, William Sparrow, a young resident of Rochester, went to work with his brother in law at his drug store in the village of Mattapoisett. William was 16 years old and soon he would be heading to Pittsfield where he would study medicine at the Berkshire Medical College. A few years later, William entered into the Yale Medical College. As a student, William continued his studies with his brother in-law, Newton Southworth, who lived in Mattapoisett village on North Street. Newton’s father, who was also named Newton, had long been a doctor in Mattapoisett.

Dr. Southworth's office which would later become Dr. Sparrow's pharmacy, 12 Water St..

The study of medicine was often learned in the form of apprenticeships and many doctors had no formal education. They learned on the job. However, by the mid-nineteenth century the formal study of medicine was growing. One of the more desirable studies young students sought to obtain was the study of anatomy.

Many times the only chance a doctor had to learn anatomy other than reading about it was during an operation or in the case of an autopsy. In a previous blog post, we mentioned, the curious death of, Thomas Randall, of Rochester who was eating dinner when he collapsed and died. Many felt that his death was suspicious and rumors spread that he had been murdered. A week after he was buried, the local coroner summoned a jury to have the corpse exhumed and an autopsy performed. Dr. A. S. Jones went to work on the corpse and found boiled pork packed in his throat. Mr. Randall had apparently choked to death.

The idea of donating one’s body to medical science was not common and religious and social beliefs of the time considered the dead body something to be protected. There were also many superstitions, such as the belief that the living needed to be protected from the dead.

These beliefs resulted in a shortage of cadavers, which led aspiring doctors to resort to robbing graves or paying others to do it. In 1825, a professor from the Berkshire Medical College suggested that his school and the medical school at Harvard petition the Massachusetts legislature to pass a bill allowing medical schools to take bodies of prisoners and inmates of almshouses when they die to use them to dissect. In some states, laws allowed medical schools in large cities to take the bodies of deceased inmates of almshouses or executed criminals for medical study.

Grave robbers often targeted the graves of those that didn’t have family or friends who would not notice or care that their loved ones had been taken. In 1831, Massachusetts passed an “anatomy act”, limited to Boston, which allowed the use of the “unclaimed” dead from hospitals, workhouses and almshouses for medical dissection.

In 1845, the almshouse for the Tri-Town was located in Rochester near Acushnet. In April, one of the inmates of the almshouse, Luke Hall, passed away. Many almshouses at that time had their own burial grounds where the deceased were laid to rest, often in unmarked graves. It is possible that Mr. Hall was buried on the property of the Rochester almshouse or in one of the cemeteries nearby. However, his corpse would not stay buried for long.

Dr. Jones and Dr. Southworth were assisting William in his studies at that time. In order to give William to best education in anatomy, they would need a fresh corpse. Shortly after the burial of Mr. Hall, the three of them headed out to his burial site with shovels in hand.

After digging up the grave, they most likely loaded the corpse in a wagon. Unknown to the residences in Mattapoisett, they may have carted the body of Mr. Hall through the streets of the village to Dr. Southworth’s office on Water Street. Somehow word of the corpse stealing spread. Shortly thereafter, the three were arrested and charged with unlawfully disinterring of a body. They were ordered to stand trial at the next Plymouth County Court of Common Pleas.

As it turns out, their case may have never gone to trial. Dr. Jones claimed that he had permission from the selectmen of Rochester to take the body of Luke Hall.

Newton Southworth continued to practice medicine after the incident. Sometime in the 1850s, he headed west with his family to Minnesota. His home still stands at 5 North Street and his office is located at 12 Water Street. His son Eli served with the Fourth Minnesota Infantry during the Civil War. When he came home he became a druggist. The Minnesota Historical Society holds a rich collection of the Southworth family papers.

Very little is known about Dr. Jones. His first name is unknown and no physicians by the name of Jones appear in the US census living in the Tri-Town area during the mid nineteenth century.

William Sparrow graduated with a medical degree from Yale in 1847. Apparently his reputation was not tarnished by the body snatching incident. In 1856, he was appointed Deputy Postmaster of Mattapoisett and then later became the Postmaster until 1893. He also served as a member of the local board of health and the school committee. He owned a drug store in Mattapoisett that was taken over after his death by his employee, Ellis Mendell.

During the Civil War, he served as acting assistant surgeon. He continued to practice medicine in Mattapoisett for the rest of his life where he was known for his skills and experience. There is no doubt that acting as a surgeon during the war added to his skills as a surgeon. However, he may have added to his experience before the war by digging up more local graves and carting corpses home to study.

William Sparrow's service noted as surgeon during the Civil War.

Article Written and Researched by, Kyle DeCicco-Carey, museum President.

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