Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Carol Jarboe and Jake Book, September 3, 2016

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Introducing Carol Jarboe and Jake Book, who portray resurrectionists

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Partial Transcript: Uh, this is an unrehearsed oral history interview for the Living History Oral History Project. My name is JD Carruthers. Today is September the 3rd, it's Saturday, 2016.

Segment Synopsis: Carol Jarboe says that they are portraying "resurrectionists" or "body snatchers" or "ghouls." She distinguished this activity from grave robbing, which involves stealing property from a grave. She says their occupation is taking only the body for medical specimens for students to dissect. Book says his interest in interpreting this occupation derived from his interest in historical crime. He talks about court records providing information for his portrayal, and he refers to Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist" as providing inspiration. Jarboe and Book agree that many pieces of fictional literature of the late 18th and 19th centuries featured body snatchers as characters. Book says that the reason he is speaking with a British accent is because his interpretation is in a first person voice designed to create a "wall" which represents a separation of time periods between the interpreter and observer. Jarboe adds that using the first person voice helps to address the horrifying issues of body snatching while minimizing the possibility of offending an observer. She says first person voice allows a more practical or matter of fact presentation. Book says first person voice creates an impression of realism that avoids a lecture and is more engaging. Jarboe emphasizes the importance of visual presentation to living history interpretation.

Keywords: "Body snatchers"; Cadavers; Charles Dickens; Constables; Experiential learning; Fair at New Boston; First person voice; Ghouls; Grave robbers; Pedagogy; Periodization; Resurrectionists; Robbery; Thieving; Third person voice

Subjects: Body snatching.; Crime.; Grave robbing.

00:04:49 - Artifacts from graves

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Partial Transcript: Now tell me about some of the artifacts you have here.

Segment Synopsis: Jarboe talks about how doctors and medical students did not care about hair or teeth on a cadaver. She says body snatchers would have sold hair to wig makers and pulled teeth to give to dentists to make dentures. She says the eye teeth and front teeth were the most valuable. She says hair and teeth provided extra income, and that often body snatchers would obtain written permission to follow armies to scavenge hair and teeth from casualties. She shows a pair of pliers that would have been used for pulling teeth. Jarboe also talks about her occupation as professional mourner. She says professional mourners added to the prestige of a dead person and the family, but it also presented the opportunity to gather intelligence for her body snatching companion. She says she would keep the teeth and hair to sell, and her companion would sell the body. Book talks about the process of stealing a body from a grave, which only required digging up part of the grave. He says once half of the grave is opened, the coffin lid could be broken open with pry bars and the body extracted with hooks. He says the grave goods were stripped and returned to the grave to avoid a criminal charge of stealing which could lead to hanging. He says the grave would be reburied. He talks about the practice of placing traps on graves, including explosives, to prevent raiding. Jarboe adds that part of her work as mourner was to spy on traps or other preventative measures. She says body snatchers used wooden shovels to minimize noise and avoid traps.

Keywords: Caskets; Crowbars; Dentists; Dentures; Eye teeth; Front teeth; Graves; Les Miserables (Book); Professional mourners; Teeth; Tools; Wigmakers; Wigs; Wooden shovels

Subjects: Body snatching.; Crime.; Grave robbing.

00:11:35 - Research sources for robbing graves

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Partial Transcript: Now, wh--I'm interested in the research portion. Where did you get all this information? What, what source materials did that come from?

Segment Synopsis: Jarboe talks about her research into British culture of the 18th and 19th century leading her to discover resurrectionists, which led to deeper research. She says that medical literature discussing cadaver procurement is common, and period journals written by doctors and resurrectionists provide details. She says her research began in Britain, and she discovered there was more activity in the United States. She talks about the relationship between body snatching and the establishment of medical schools in the U.S. She says that taking a dead body was not considered stealing since it was not property, that it was only a misdemeanor which involved a fine that would be paid by the doctors. She says the activity involved a legal grey area because medical specimens were needed to train doctors, especially during times of war. She says the public was more opposed to the activity and posed more of a risk to body snatchers and doctors than the government. Jarboe says she has been a public high school teacher of creative writing and literature for sixteen years, and a reenactor for thirteen years. She says her interest is in unique occupations that are not often discussed. She adds that in the medical profession this topic is often discussed and there are many dissertations on the subject.

Keywords: Cadavers; Dissections; Doctors; Grave goods; Medical schools; Periodization; Resurrectionists; Surgeons

Subjects: Body snatching.; Crime.; Grave robbing.; Medicine--History.; Surgery--History.

00:16:58 - Living history as a lifestyle

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Partial Transcript: I'm interested in finding out how there's an educational opportunity, a very, clearly uh, there's a primary and secondary level and a public education, but, uh, I'm interested in, in seeing how this could be applied to--the, living history could be applied at the higher education level.

Segment Synopsis: Jarboe talks about the satisfaction she derives from educating the public about some aspect of the past of which they were previously unaware. Book says he normally works as a musician when he is not doing living history. He says his father became involved in living history during the American Bicentennial and that he has been involved since infancy. He says he did dress in period attire at living history events when he was a youth. He talks about his interest in military reenactment in several time periods. He returns to discussing his living history interpretation of criminals and the social lessons that can be learned. Both Book and Jarboe discuss how quickly body snatchers had to act, within three days in the summer, because doctors would not pay for decomposed specimens. Jarboe points out that body snatchers were more likely to raid the graves of the poor because wealthy families could retaliate if they were caught. They both describe a time when there was less government policing and more self-help in response to crime.

Keywords: Booby traps; Constables; Homeschooling; Reenacting; United States Bicentennial

Subjects: Body snatching.; Crime.; Grave robbing.; Reenactment history

00:22:16 - Public interest in living history events

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Partial Transcript: What are your impressions as far as, uh, the public interest in, uh, living history? I mean, uh, this is a pretty big event, there's been several thousand people out here today.

Segment Synopsis: Book says that on an individual level, interest in history is mixed, but generally speaking he has seen a growing interest in history. He attributes that growing interest to television programming on history, particularly with the BBC and programs like "Peaky Blinders." He suggests that a renewed public interest in history might be attributable to a feeling of disconnection that results from a digital society. Jarboe says that a recent surge in public interest in genealogy contributes to intensification of public interest in history. Book says that living history helps observers to visualize the reality of the past in a way that enhances imagination.

Keywords: Artillery; Electronic identification; Experiential knowledge; Historical dramas; J.R.R. Tolkien; Peaky Blinders (Television program); Periodization; Public interest; Social history; Theater; Virtual reality

Subjects: Genealogy & local history; Genealogy.; Reenactment history

00:26:45 - Favorite memory from a living history event

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Partial Transcript: I don't want to keep you from, uh, doing your, uh--attending your, uh, visitors and such, but I always like to, uh, conclude my interviews with what I call the capstone question.

Segment Synopsis: Jarboe says that her favorite memory as a living history interpreter was in another persona she has as an indentured servant from Ireland. She says that during one presentation, she was approached by a woman weeping in the crowd who said her grandfather had sold her mother at the age of 17 to a stranger in exchange for a rifle. The woman said she never understood why her mother behaved the way she did until seeing Jarboe's living history presentation on a person who was owned by another. Jarboe says it was terribly affecting to know how her presentation connected in such a personal way. Book says that his favorite memories involve what he calls "time travel moments." He relates an experience he had as a reenactor in a group mounting an attack on Fort Ticonderoga during the rain and thick smoke. He says he had a moment of transportation in time and realism while crossing a band of abattis while under heavy simulated fire. He relates how it was an emotional experience.

Keywords: Abattis; Indentured servants

Subjects: Fort Ticonderoga (N.Y.); Reenactment history