Annie Cheney began writing her book, Body Brokers, a gruesome look at the shady American trade in body parts, at about the time, two years ago, when UCLA workers were busted for dicing up and selling donated bodies on the open market. Now it’s hitting bookstores on the heels of a scandal much closer to Cheney’s Manhattan home—the indictment of a city body broker and funeral-home director (both of them in her book) for selling off the parts of the deceased without their consent, including the legs of Alistair Cooke.
You credit New York with being the only state that regulates the trade in bodies—for both transplant and medical research. So why did this happen here?
While I knew about those guys back in 2003, I didn’t know they were actually doing anything criminal. And that tells you something. Even after all the research I’d done and the way I saw that you could get away with this stuff, I found it hard to believe that, in the transplant field, they could succeed at stealing parts.
Why didn’t investigators catch on earlier?
They’re looking for health hazards, they’re not looking for fraud, they’re not recognizing that this is a billion-dollar business and it’s easy to pull off a crime like this. Michael Mastromarino [the accused broker] was reporting to the Health department that the funeral director was his major supplier. And he was listed in FDA documents as having an M.D., and he doesn’t. So I don’t know how closely they were looking.
But these scandals should bring things out in the open, right?
Anytime there’s a scandal, people get excited. Everybody is intrigued and horrified by dead bodies. But people are interested and then they turn off. I got so many calls about the UCLA scandal. Those guys, meanwhile, are still out and about. If you look back to nineteenth-century newspapers in New York City, these stories were always in the headlines. They always got a lot of attention for a short time, and then they died away.
The history of doctors looking the other way while taking bodies from shady middlemen seems
to go back centuries—to English grave robbers.
There were a lot of old letters that I read describing “ghouls,” and the Daily News just used that same word. And they were similar to the kind of ghouls you see today—enterprising people who were maybe not that well educated, didn’t have a lot of opportunity, and wanted an easy way to make a lot of money. This is such a horrible topic, but there was something very comforting and sweet about how little has changed. We have these huge corporations, but they’re really very similar to the eager anatomist at King’s College in the eighteenth century who just wanted to check out the anatomy of the spinal cord. It excited me.
And these big companies—like Johnson & Johnson—hold training seminars, sometimes in posh hotels, using flash-frozen corpses. That seems hard to picture.
To be perfectly honest, when I was flying down to Miami to this conference, part of me thought, What if I get there and there are no torsos? Because who in their right mind is going to let some guy lay out some torsos in a banquet room in a new hotel? That can’t happen, not in this country. When I got in there, and I saw the gurneys and the bodies, I just thought, This can’t be real. You talk about body brokering, people think about selling a kidney in India.
How did your friends react when you told them what your book was about?
My friends were incredulous—and then, at a certain point, everyone just started to not want to hear about it anymore. But I find it endlessly fascinating.
Have you seen the “Bodies” exhibit here? What do you make of the exhibition of preserved human body parts?
I haven’t seen it, but I’ve certainly seen a lot of bodies. I think it’s a good thing. The fact that we don’t want to think about death is what’s going to allow this to continue. Body snatchers in the past had to wait until the body was in the ground, because the family was so intimately involved in the burial process. And now it’s much, much easier. People go to this exhibit because they want to learn more about what they look like inside. If it doesn’t gross you out, I think everyone should see it.