Structural Inequality and Postmortem Examination at the Erie County Poorhouse
Kenneth C. Nystrom, Joyce Sirianni, Rosanne Higgins, Douglas Perrelli, and Jennifer L. Liber Raines
During the nineteenth century, two processes merged that resulted in the structural inequality of the poor and institutionalized: the reformation of social welfare and the passing of anatomy acts. In the increasingly industrialized United States, high unemployment rates and poverty strained the existing social relief system, fostering the widespread establishment of poorhouses. While ostensibly created to help alleviate suffering, in many instances the conditions experienced by inmates only served to reinforce social and health inequalities. Simultaneously, the nascent medical profession was struggling to professionalize and legitimate itself (see Chap. 6). The sine qua non of medical education at this time was the study of anatomy and in an effort to secure a steady supply of anatomical specimens to meet growing demand, and to alleviate the public anxiety associated with grave robbing, anatomy laws were passed that granted medical schools the right to dissect unclaimed bodies. It is argued here that these processes reflect the institutionalization of inequality and manifestations of structural violence.
In 2012, the skeletal remains of 376 individuals were recovered from the Erie County Poorhouse (henceforth ECP) cemetery, 20 of whom exhibited evidence of either dissection or autopsy. While it was a poorhouse cemetery, the unclaimed  
remains of people that died at the Erie County Hospital (henceforth EC Hospital) were also buried there. Therefore, this chapter doesn’t focus on the role the poorhouse itself may have played in supplying cadavers for anatomical dissection but rather on the inequality inherent in the formulation and realization of anatomy legislation that made it legal to dissect unclaimed bodies which were predominantly from the poor.
-  K.C. Nystrom (*) Department of Anthropology, State University of New York at New Paltz,