10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade

Shannon Quinn - June 26, 2018

Years before modern machinery was invented that could reproduce an accurate replica of a human skeleton, the only options was to use the real thing. Doctors, researchers, and science teachers everywhere wanted to get their hands on a complete set of bones for their classrooms and offices. Considering that the only way to get a complete skeleton was to take it from someone who had passed away, these were (and still are) very expensive investments for medical professionals. For the people who sold bones, it was an opportunity to make a ton of money in a relatively short period of time.

However, there’s just one problem- these skeleton sellers need to get dead bodies that they can sell, and in most cases, they most likely had zero empathy or respect for the dead. For hundreds of years, the skeleton trade has gone through a creepy transformation. Doctors learned how to bleach and sterilized bones, and experts became wealthy from becoming skilled at a process that few people were willing to perform. Just like any other business, the competition grew as time went on, and money-hungry people competed in profiting from the dead.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade

Grave Robbers

In modern times, some people agree to donate their bodies to science after they pass away. These are known as “cadavers”, and medical students will perform operations on these bodies in order to practice and learn more about internal organs without the obvious risk of practicing on a live human being, which would likely result in injuring or killing someone. From the 1700’s through the very early 1900’s, medical schools needed human corpses for the same reason, but there wasn’t a system in place like there is today that could provide cadavers to the medical industry.

Unfortunately, this demand for fresh cadavers lead to a string of criminals body snatching people from freshly dug graves. Doctors were rich, and if they were conducting experiments that required multiple bodies, sometimes, they would personally pay grave robbers to keep fresh cadavers coming in. Grave robbers usually had a female accomplice who would show up to a funeral, so she could cry and pretend to be a friend of the family. Later, she would tell her male grave robbing partners in crime exactly where to find the fresh grave, to make it easier for them to find it in the middle of the night. People were so afraid that their loved ones would be robbed, that the came up with some creative methods of protect their bodies. Families who could afford to take precautions to prevent grave robbery paid for cemetery guns, coffin torpedos, mortsafes, and more.

For some grave robbers, they didn’t just sneak into cemeteries to dig up fresh graves. They would look for older graves, hoping to find decomposed bodies in order to sell the skeletons. During the 1800’s, the skeletons that were taken from the United Kingdom were shipped over to the United States and the British colonies in the West Indies.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
Medical students dissect cadavers in order to learn about surgery. Credit: YouTube

Unclaimed Bodies

In the late 1800’s, there had been a significant effort to cut down in the amount of body snatchers in Europe, and it was far less common in the United States. There were enough unclaimed bodies left behind in morgues and hospitals that doctors could use, instead. If someone died, and no friends or family member showed up to claim them, they would be listed as a Jane or John Doe, and used as cadavers for medical students to practice with.

Obviously, the tragic part about this was that anyone who was lost, homeless, or an immigrant who did not have any family nearby to claim their body were used and dismembered down to their bones. It is extremely likely that many of these people never heard from their loved ones again, and they would never know that they were used for medical experiments. An unfair amount of people from low-income communities were being targeted for the skeleton trade. Since a lot of the industry was kept secret, and there was no way of telling what ethnicity a person was from just their bones. So there is no way of knowing if this was also racially targeted in some way, as well.

In Paris, they had a much better method of acquiring bodies and skeletons. The bodies of criminals were used by students instead of unidentified John and Jane Does, because if you’re going to dissect someone’s body, it might as well be a murderer! At least they were getting a dose of karma in the afterlife. Today, these practices would be totally unheard of for people living in the United States and Europe, and bodies are no longer dissected without getting permission from that person, or their family, first.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
Illustration of how skeletons became deformed when women wore corsets. Credit: The Mutter Museum

Judging the Quality of a Skeleton

Of all the things people feel self-conscious about with our bodies, the last thing that would cross our minds is the quality of our bones. A “first class” skeleton, or “case of bones” would cost $300 in the late 1800’s, which is closer to $8,000 today, after inflation. A skeleton was considered to be “first class” if all of the bones could be assembled from the same person, and they were in good condition without any kinds of deformities or abnormalities. However, there were times when a dead person’s body parts may have been missing from an amputation, and bones would have to be swapped out and exchanged from other people.If someone’s body was deformed in some way, but not enough to be considered a medical abnormality, it was considered to be far less valuable than a perfect skeleton. For example, when women wore corsets, their ribcages would become deformed. These imperfect skeletons were only worth half $150, or $4,000 in today’s money.

During the early 1900’s, bone collectors became a bit more educated about what to expect from the quality of their skeletons. They no longer wanted to buy the bones of British people, because they were often stunted from malnutrition, and usually had a yellow tint. The French, on the other hand, could be cleaned to be sterling white, and usually grew just fine. Proper nutrition and working conditions contribute to the quality of someone’s skeleton. The methods in which the skeletons were preserved also made a huge difference in the quality, and the French had perfected the morbid art form.


10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
The OddFellow society used paper mache skeleton bones like this in the 1800’s. Credit: Pinterest

Artificial Bones

Years before plastic or plaster skeletons were created, some people decided to save money by creating skeletons out of paper mache. These replicas were often modeled after real skeletons in museums and doctor’s offices. These fake skeletons were sometimes made by the same bone experts who were busy cleaning real bones, and they were sold for half price. While doctors would not want to purchase a fake skeleton, these paper mache skulls were known to be used in meetings for a secret fraternity called The Oddfellows and the Freemasons. They held these “skulls” up to new recruits as a reminder of their mortality. Of course, this would spook them, but thankfully, they were not created from a real human head.

In the late 1800’s, these fake skeletons were sold anywhere from $75 to $150. While it was still very expensive, people could buy a replica of a “first class” quality skeleton for less than half the price. Unfortunately, this backfired for at least one customer. In New York City, a man was traveling on the train with a large suitcase that was filled with the paper mache bones. The suitcase accidently popped open, and all of the bones spilled out onto the floor of the train. They were so realistic, everyone thought they were actual human bones. When the main failed to produce a medical license or reason for him to own the bones, they thought he had committed a murder, and they arrested him, until they could clear up the misunderstanding.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
Amateur skeleton preparers would boil the bones. Credit: Heba Saleh from K9Instinct.com

Preparing the Bones

It turns out that preparing human bones for display is a lot like taking meat off of any other animal. Grave robbers and newbie skeleton preparers would boil the limbs so that the flesh would fall off. However, this was considered to be very sloppy workmanship, and it damaged the bones, leaving them to turn yellow over time. Skeleton experts could tell when they had been boiled, and it made them less valuable. The French had a far superior method of putting the limbs in acid, and leaving them for three months until the flesh disintegrated enough to slide off. This process also left the bones bleached and milky white, instead of yellow.

Apparently, bones will still smell like rotting flesh, even if they have been cleaned. It turns out that there are oils inside of bones that will continue to smell, unless the are drained, and fully dried out. While the Europeans had perfected the craft of creating skeletons, Americans during the 1800’s were struggling to keep up. In New York City alone, 500 bodies were transformed into full skeletons each year, but there was a struggle to make sure their quality me the standards doctors and scientists were looking for.

In the 1800’s, there was only one American man who knew how to fix this problem, and his name was Maitre Mazzur, and he studied the art of bone preparation in Paris. Due to this knowledge, he was a go-to expert on draining bone oil. Mazzur was careful not to let his secrets out in the public. He did not allow anyone inside of his workshop on Bleeker Street, for fear that he would lose his corner in the market of the industry.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
Joseph Merrick’s skull is still on display in London today. Credit: BBC

The Weirder, the Better

If you thought a “first class” skeleton was expensive, it could even more money for a medical researcher to get his hands on an abnormal skeleton. In 1891, The Baxter Spring News reported a story about a woman who had a disease where her bones never stopped growing. When she died, so many scientists wanted to own her skeleton, there was a bidding war to get their hands on it. It sold for an undisclosed amount, but it was likely worth tens of thousands of dollars.

John Merrick was known as “The Elephant Man”, because he had a bone disease that completely disfigured his face. When he was alive, he lived in a workhouse, but his condition only got worse and worse. He was put in a freak show, until a doctor came along and began treating him. After he died at 27 years old in 1890, his skeleton was purchased by the Queen Mary Medical School in London. Since then, it has continued to be on display, and everything that could possibly be learned about his deformity has already been discovered.

In 2014, there was a petition that Joseph Merrick’s skeleton should finally be laid to rest. The school responded that they believed further study could possibly be done with his bones to help with cancer research, but if Merrick’s family requested it, they would bury him. While it may seem politically incorrect to some people, the Queen Mary Medical School is not the only institution who is doing this. The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia also has similar displays of real human skeletons and bodies.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
This wall of human skulls is on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Credit: Bone Broke

Professional Obsession

It’s hard enough to imagine being a professional mortician (unless you are one), but becoming a professional bone preparer is on a whole other level of creepy. In 1891, the Helena Independent newspaper reported a story of a French man called M. De Robaire lived in Philadelphia. He was a professional skeleton salesman by trade who had prepared over 5,000 skeletons during the course of his career, and he kept dozens of specimens for himself.

He lived alone in a house in the poor section of Philadelphia, and his skeleton collection was hanging out in literally every single room in his house. At the time the story was reported, he had already been living like this for over 20 years. Instead of paintings hanging on the walls, real human skulls were tacked like art pieces. A skull was turned into a lamp, and dried human skin hung from the ceiling like curtains.

While it’s hard to imagine ever wanting this job in the first place, there was a big payout once a skeleton actually sold. De Robaire told the reporter from the Helena Independent that the field was actually very competitive, so he had to struggle to make money and find clients when he first got started. He was afraid he would get shut down by the police, so he set up a storefront to make his home look like a pharmacy.

Eventually, he became well-known for his work, and he was able to save a fortune. We will never know the true amount of money this man made, but after dissecting over five thousand bodies at the modern-day equivalent of $8,000 each, that is like netting $40 million. This was more than enough to allowed him to retire early and maybe get married and start a new career. However, he genuinely enjoyed taking people apart. This guy may or may not have been a serial killer. Or, maybe his obsession with bones satiated his desires. He chose to continue making human skeletons over having a normal life.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
A scene of a woman identifying her husband in a morgue in New York City during the 1800’s. Credit: BoweryBoysHistory.com.

You Could Sell Your Own Bones

One of the biggest bummers of imagining a skeleton trade is that strangers were profiting off of dead people’s bones, and yet the person who died never got to enjoy any of the money. This lead to a small corner of the industry where people who were dying in the hospital agreed to sell their bones to their doctor in exchange for cash.

In a story from The Maitland Daily Mercury in 1907, a young man in his 20’s had tragically been in an accident just two months after getting married, and the doctors at the hospital told him that he was not going to live. When he heard this, he asked if he could sell his body to science, and give the money to his young wife. They paid him $50, which is the modern-day equivalent of roughly $1,200. This may have been just enough to pay for his funeral, and to help her cover expenses immediately following his death. The doctors got a skeleton for a fraction of what they would normally pay, and they would have sent the body to a bone cleaner.

Today, a similar system is in place, but it is now illegal in the United States to pay for human bodies. Funerals are very expensive, and can cost up to $10,000. Cremations are a much cheaper option, but even that costs between $600 and $3,000. In the United States, people have the option to donate their body to science when they die. After one to two years, the body will be cremated for free.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
In 2007, hundreds of these skulls were seized by police while being smuggled from India. Credit: Reuters.

Supply and Demand

In the medical field, obtaining a real skeleton became a necessary tool of the trade, so schools, hospitals, and private practices were trying to buy one whenever they could. The increase in demand, combined with buckling down on using the bodies of people in Europe and the United States lead to seeking skeletons from overseas. In the 1940’s, The Royal College of Surgeons began to collect skeletons from all over the world in order to see if there were any differences in skeletal structure between races. After decades of abuses in the skeleton industry, countries around the world began to create laws to prevent buying and selling human remains, but the industry still finds a loophole.

Unfortunately, nations with extreme poverty are the easiest targets for this kind of abuse. Today, the vast majority of human skulls come from Calcutta, India. Grave robbing still goes on there, as bodies are dug and and sold to buyers overseas. People were even getting murdered by bone sellers.

NPR did an investigation on the issue, and they interviewed a woman who used to work for a company that gathered human skeletons. Her employers were willing to do absolutely anything to get human bones, because each skeleton can fetch upwards of $3,000. They fished dead bodies out of the river whenever someone drowned, and stole bodies out of the morgue on a regular basis. Residents of Calcutta say that they can smell rotting flesh throughout the entire town, and neighbors witnessed human body parts being boiled in giant cauldrons. People knew that when they died, their bodies would be stolen and sold overseas, as well.

Exporting bones is illegal in India, but the local police force in Calcutta does not have the resources to enforce the law. In the instances when the police did actually stop bone smugglers, they were traveling with at least $70,000 worth of bones. It’s illegal to export human bones in the U.S. and Europe, but it’s not illegal to import them. So, even to this day, grave robbers get away with it.

10 Bone-Chilling Facts About the Skeleton Trade
The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Disneyland had real skeletons on display. Credit: Flickr Anna Fox, aka “HarshLight”

Skeletons in Disneyland

Doctors and scientific researchers are not the only ones who needed to use real human skeletons to do their jobs. Disneyland was built in the 1950’s, and the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction was built in 1967. Artificial paper mache and plastic skeletons looked very fake, and Walt Disney himself wanted to spare no expense, especially after he realized that fake skeletons on display would not stand the test of time. So they decided to purchase real human skeletons from the UCLA medical department, which were scattered all over the ride and dressed in pirate costumes.

Decades later, technology has improved so that it is possible to create a very life-like fake skeleton without needlessly dissecting a human being. When the knowledge that they used real people’s bones became known to the public, there was an outcry that these humans deserved proper burials. The Disney corporation responded that they removed the real skeletons, returned them to their respective countries, where they were given proper burials. Considering how the skeleton trade works, it’s questionable if this is actually true, since most of the identities of the bones are undocumented.

There is a rumor that some of the real skeletons are still on the ride to this day. The trouble is, no one can tell the difference, except for the mega-fans who claim that some of the skeletons are clearly more yellowed and appear to be made of different materials than the majority of the bones that now exist on the ride.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Call for Leicester’s Elephant Man to be Buried After 120 Years. BBC. 2014.

Are There Still Real Skeletons in Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean? Cara Giaimo. Atlas Obscura. 2015.

Skeletons Cheap for Cash. Baxter Spring News. 1891.

Bodysnatchers: Digging Up The Untold Stories of Britain’s Resurrection Men. Suzie Lennox. Pen and Sword. 2016.

The Helena Independent. September 16, 1891.

Skeleton Manufacturers From The New York World. The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle. 1876.

Skeleton Factory. The Maitland Daily Mercury. 1907.

How to Save Money By Donating Your Body to Science. Jim T. Miller. The Huffington Post. 2013.

Into the Heart of India’s Underground Bone Trade. Scott Carney. NPR. 2007.

Packing Up Human Skulls in 1948. RareHistoricalPhotos.com