History repeats itself as the West’s demand for human skeletons resurrects the macabre practice of grave robbers scouring cemeteries in India. Their quest fuels a lucrative black market.
A constable jerks open the back door of a decrepit Indian-made Tata Sumo SUV—what passes for an evidence locker at this rustic police outpost in the Indian state of West Bengal. A hundred human skulls tumble out onto a ragged cloth covering a patch of mud, making a hollow clatter as they fall to the ground. They’ve lost most of their teeth bouncing around in the back of the truck.
Standing next to the truck, the ranking officer smiles. “Now you can see how big the bone business is here,” he says. I crouch down and pick up a skull. It’s lighter than I expected. I hold it up to my nose. It smells like fried chicken.
Before the authorities intercepted it, this cache was moving along a well-established pipeline for human skeletal remains. For 150 years, India’s bone trade has followed a route from remote Indian villages to the world’s most distinguished medical schools.
Skeletons aren’t easy to get. In the United States, for instance, most corpses receive a prompt burial or cremation. Bodies donated to science usually end up on the dissection table or their bones sawed to pieces. Sometimes they’re sucked into the more profitable industry of medical grafts. So most complete skeletons used for medical study come from overseas. Often they arrive without the informed consent of their former owners and in violation of the laws of their country of origin.
The constable grabs the cloth by its corners and gathers the evidence into a bundle. “You know, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “I hope I don’t again.”
A day later, I’m driving to the tiny village of Purbasthali—about 80 miles outside of Kolkata, the state capital, which was renamed from Calcutta in 2001. The village is the site of the processing plant where the police discovered their load of skulls.
When police arrived to investigate in early 2007, they could smell the stench of rotting flesh from nearly a mile away. Sections of spine strung together with twine dangled from the rafters, an officer told me. Hundreds of bones were scattered on the floor in some sort of ordering system.
This bone factory had been operating for more than 100 years when two of its workers, drinking at a bar, bragged that they were hired as grave robbers. Shocked villagers dragged them to a police station, where they confessed. The workers said a man named Mukti Biswas ran the factory. The authorities knew him well. In 2006 police had arrested Biswas as the kingpin of a grave-robbing ring; he was released a day later, news reporters said, “because of his political links.” The police took him into custody once again, but, in accordance with the precedent, he was let out on bail and has since taken flight.
I peek into the doorway of a wood-framed house. A family of four sitting on the dirt floor stares back at me.
“Do you know Mukti Biswas?” I ask.
“The bastard still owes me money,” replies Manoj Pal, a twenty-something man with a thin mustache. He offers to show me around, and we head out along the bank of the Bhagirathi River.
The processing plant is little more than a bamboo hut with a tarpaulin roof—one of more than a dozen bone factories Pal says he knows about. In April the authorities confiscated piles of bones, buckets of hydrochloric acid, and two barrels full of a caustic chemical they have yet to identify. All that’s left is a dirt floor with a large concrete vat sunk into the ground.
A third-generation bone trader, Biswas had no problem finding dead bodies. As caretaker of the village’s cremation ground, he claimed to have a license to dispose of the dead. But police told reporters that he was grave robbing instead. Biswas pilfered corpses from cemeteries, morgues, and funeral pyres; he would drag the deceased from the flames as soon as the families left. He employed almost a dozen people to shepherd the bones through the various stages of de-fleshing and curing. For this work, Pal says he earned $1.25 a day. He also received a bonus for keeping the bones from a given body together so they represented a biological individual rather than a mishmash of parts—a feature prized by doctors.
Pal explains the factory’s production process. First the corpses are wrapped in netting and anchored in the river, where bacteria and fish reduce them to loose piles of bones and mush in a week or so. The crew then scrubs the bones and boils them in a cauldron of water and caustic soda to dissolve any remaining flesh. That leaves the calcium surfaces with a yellow tint. To bring them up to medical white, bones are then left in sunlight for a week before being soaked in hydrochloric acid.
Biswas had customers across Kolkata. Many skeletons made their way to the grisly wards of the anatomy department at Calcutta Medical College, where local Doms, a traditional grave-tending caste, would pay him in cash. He also sold complete skeletons wholesale for $45 to a medical supply company called Young Brothers, which wired the pieces together, painted on medical diagrams, and sawed away sections of the skulls to reveal their internal structures. Then Young Brothers sold the bones to dealers around the world.
Mohammed Mullah Box, a gaunt man in his 70s, is the caretaker of a small burial ground in the village of Harbati. When the dead go missing, he’s the first person that grieving relatives come to for answers. Today he doesn’t have any answers or bodies. As he sits on the edge of an empty grave, a tear rolls down from one of his wrinkled eyes and spills onto his cheek.
A few weeks ago, grave robbers sneaked into the graveyard and exhumed the remains of one of his neighbors shortly after the body had been buried. By now, the skeleton is probably hanging in a Kolkata warehouse, ready to be shipped out to a dealer in the Western world.
I ask Box whether he fears what might happen to his own body when he dies.
“Of course,” he says.
The empirical study of human anatomy took off with Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches in the 15th century. As medicine advanced, physicians were expected to have a systematic understanding of the human body’s inner workings. By the beginning of the 19th century, Europe’s demand for human remains far outstripped the supply.
Throughout the 1800s, medical schools saw incoming classes with freshmen eager to get their hands dirty. But corpses—raw material for study—were scarce. The historian Michael Sappol notes in A Traffic in Dead Bodies that anatomy rooms were sites of camaraderie where doctors forged their identity as medical professionals. They learned and bonded in the labs as they reduced stolen dead bodies to component pieces.
Body snatching itself was a rite of passage. In 1851 the Boston Medical & Surgical Journal devoted 21 pages, almost its entire issue, to the career of Dr. Charles Knowlton. In that tract the author praised skullduggery, writing, “the risk of exhumation is to them trifling, when compared to the advantages of a labored investigation of the human frame by the dissection of the knife. Their thirst for the acquisition of knowledge is as ardent and craving as the appetite of a drunkard. It is to such spirits as these that our profession owes its elevated rank.”
Grave robbing didn’t go down well with the community at large, so doctors followed basic rules to keep complaints to a minimum. Except in rare cases corpses were not typically stolen from upper-class or primarily white graveyards. Where possible, they dissected black—or in a pinch, Irish—corpses, the lowest rungs on the American social ladder.
Authorities, however, were willing to overlook the crime of grave robbing by the medical community as a necessary evil. Doctors needed dead bodies if they wanted to make living ones healthy. Arrests were rare and only targeted the lowly grave robbers who did it for profit—not the medical schools who hired them or the medical student who dug up bodies for free.
With authorities unwilling to intervene on the plundering doctors, the public’s outrage turned to vigilante justice. Between 1765 and 1884 there were 20 anatomy riots across America. While each riot had slightly different roots, they were generally spontaneous public outcries prompted when body snatchers were caught in the act, or by chance when a visitor saw someone he knew on the dissection table.
It would take more than mobs of angry citizens to spark real government reform. That had to wait until two Irish immigrants in Scotland hatched a plan to supply an unlimited number of bodies to the University of Edinburgh.
William Hare owned a run-down boarding house in the town of West Port. Occasionally a tenant would die without paying rent and he would be left with cleaning up the mess. While he was carting the body of one of his recently deceased tenants to the graveyard, a doctor intercepted him and offered £10 for it. He also said he would offer a similar fee for any other body that Hare could turn up. Hare quickly enrolled the services of another tenant, William Burke, and the two embarked on a killing spree that lasted a year and claimed the lives of 17 victims.
Mostly in response to the Burke and Hare murders, England passed the Anatomy Act of 1832. The act severely limited body snatching in England by allowing doctors to claim any corpse left in a city morgue or hospital. Similar measures were adopted in America.
The act came just in the nick of time. Besides being study aids, by the turn of the century, anatomical skeletons were becoming popular decorations and status symbols for American and European doctors. They were presented as a sign of medical competence in the same way that stethoscopes and medical school diplomas are today.
According to Sappol, the skeletons either purposely lacked information about their provenance, or clearly indicated that hanging skeletons came from “executed negros,” to reassure patrons that the “funerary honor of members of the white community had not been violated.”
The only problem was that black executed prisoners were in short supply. So British doctors looked to their colonies. In India, members of the Dom caste, who traditionally performed cremations, were pressed into processing bones. By the 1850s, Calcutta Medical College was churning out 900 skeletons a year, mostly for shipment abroad. A century later, a newly independent India dominated the market in human bones.
In 1985 the Chicago Tribune reported that India had exported 60,000 skulls and skeletons the year before. The supply was sufficient for every medical student in the developed world to buy a bone box along with their textbooks for just $300.
If most of the merchandise was stolen, at least exporting it was legal. “For years, we ran everything above board,” Bimalendu Bhattacharjee, a former president of the Indian Association of Exporters of Anatomical Specimens, told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “No one advertised, but everyone knew it was going on.” At their height, Kolkata’s bone factories took in an estimated $1 million a year.
In the golden era of the skeleton trade, the export houses were among the most prestigious employment options in the city. The industry was supported by the city, which issued licenses to skeleton dealers. Not only were they taking care of the unclaimed dead, they were providing a valuable revenue stream for a city that the rest of India thought was past its heyday.
But the profits couldn’t last without covering up a dirty secret. Simply collecting the corpses of destitute people and from the local morgues wasn’t enough, and attempts for a willed donation program were too slow and unreliable. A company that worked like that could take years to get a particular skeleton, while fresh bodies were being set into soil and were ripe for the taking. History was about to repeat itself.
The West’s unquenchable appetite for skeletons meant that West Bengal’s graveyards were being picked clean, and the lure of ready money soon attracted criminal elements. In an event that mirrored the murders by Burke and Hare, the industry shuddered to a halt in March 1985, when a bone trader was arrested after exporting 1500 children’s skeletons. Because they’re relatively rare and illustrate transitional stages in osteological development, children’s skeletons command higher prices than the adult ones. Indian newspapers claimed that children were being kidnapped and killed for their bones.
Panic spread with news of the arrest. In the months after the indictment, vigilantes combed the cities searching for members of the alleged kidnappers’ network. In September of that year, an Australian tourist was killed and a Japanese tourist beaten by a mob after rumors spread that they were involved in the conspiracy. A few weeks earlier, India’s Supreme Court interpreted the national Import/Export Control Act to prohibit the export of human tissue.
In the absence of competing suppliers in other countries, the court’s decision effectively shut down the international trade in human skeletons. Medical schools in the United States and Europe begged the Indian government to reverse the export ban to no avail.
In the United States some institutions turned to plastic replicas. But artificial substitutes aren’t ideal. “Plastic models are reproductions of a single specimen and don’t include the range of variations found in osteology,” says Samuel Kennedy, who stocks the anatomy program at Harvard Medical School. Students trained on facsimiles never see these differences. Moreover, the models aren’t entirely accurate. “The molding process doesn’t capture the detail of a real specimen,” Kennedy adds. “This is especially critical in the skull.”
Tucked away on a side street between one of Kolkata’s largest graveyards and one of its busiest hospitals, Young Brothers’ headquarters looks more like an abandoned warehouse than a leading distributor of human skeletons.
It wasn’t always this way. The building was bustling with activity in 2001, according to the former Kolkata Health Department chief and head of West Bengal’s opposition party Javed Ahmed Khan. At the time, neighbors complained that the Young Brothers offices stank of death. Huge piles of bones lay drying on the roof. Part Eliot Ness and part Ralph Nader, Khan is the sort of politician who has no patience for police inaction and is happy to take the law into his own hands.
In 2001, when the police refused to file a case against Young Brothers, Kahn raided the building with a posse of bamboo-wielding heavies, which prompted the police to arrest Young Brothers’ owner, Vinesh Aron. He spent two nights in jail, but just like Mukti Biswas, he was released without charges.
In Canada, Osta International sells human bones throughout the United States and Europe. The 40-year-old company offers to fill orders immediately. “About half of our business is in the States,” says Christian Ruediger, who runs the business with his father, Hans.
Ruediger admits that Osta stocks bones from India, presumably smuggled out of the country in violation of the export law. Until a few years ago, he got them from a distributor in Paris, but that source dried up in 2001—around the time Javed Khan raided Young Brothers. Since then, he has bought his stock from a middleman in Singapore. He declines to provide the name. “We want to keep a low profile,” he says.
One Osta customer is a firm called Dentsply Rinn, which offers a plastic model head containing a real skull, used for training dentists. “It’s very difficult to procure human bones,” marketing manager Kimberly Brown says. “Our requirements stipulate that the skulls must be of a certain size and grade and without certain anatomical defects. But we have no requirement for their origin.” The skull is a bestseller in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
Indian authorities express a similar lack of concern. Although the international bone trade violates the national export law and local statues against grave desecration, officials look the other way. “This is not a new thing,” says Rajeev Kumar, West Bengal’s deputy inspector general of police. “There’s no evidence that they were killing people.” The police took an interest in Biswas only because the bodies of a few important people went missing. “We are trying to implement the law based on the stress society places on it,” he adds. “Society does not see this as a very serious thing.”
The need to study human bones in medicine is well established. The need to obtain the information consent of people whose bones are studied is not. The reemergence of India’s bone trade reflects the tension between these requirements.
Meanwhile, the grave robbers of Kolkata are back in business.
Scott Carney is an investigative journalist with a decade of experience living and researching in India. He is also a contributing editor at Wired. Follow him online at scottcarney.com and on Twitter @sgcarney. Excerpted from his latest book The Red Market, published by William Morrow (2012), an imprint of Harper Collins.