Medical Malfeasance

Digs & Discoveries July/August 2024


Archaeologists uncovered two coffins during excavations of a nineteenth-century cemetery in Quebec City that provide evidence of the illicit practice of diverting corpses for the study of human anatomy. One of the coffins contained two large logs on a bed of straw, while the second, which was child-sized, was empty. Both were nailed shut.

The cemetery, which was used between 1835 and 1871, was associated with Marine Hospital, which treated sailors and newly arrived immigrants. It was also the city’s first teaching hospital. Starting in 1847, medical students were required to have practical experience studying human anatomy, but legal options to procure cadavers were limited, and, thus, bodies were often stolen. The logs, which together weigh around 90 pounds, would have ensured that the adult-size coffin didn’t arouse suspicion, says archaeologist Stéphane Noël, team leader for the Quebec Tramway Project. “It’s evidence for a crime committed almost two centuries ago,” he says. “You can see the efforts this person went through to hide their illegal act.”

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