Whiskey And Grave Robbers, The Weird History Of ‘A Stiff Drink’

Do you still find yourself carrying sanitiser wherever you go, or maybe washing your hands a little bit more often than you did before the pandemic? Congratulations, you’re a product of recent medical developments. Sometimes people think of medicine as a field where progress only happens behind closed doors and in test tubes, but more often than not, it’s everyday events that shape scientific progress and how we learn more about the medical field. But sometimes, the route we take to get there isn’t always as palatable as we might hope.

One such example can be found in the story behind the phrase ‘a stiff drink’  The phrase has become a common expression in our everyday vocabulary, often used to describe a strong alcoholic beverage. However, the origins of this phrase can be traced back to a rather peculiar and macabre practice that took place in mid-19th century America. It involves a dark chapter in history where grave-robbing, medical research and extra-large barrels of whiskey all collide.

The Grave Snatching Era

During the 1800s, American universities faced a shortage of bodies for their anatomy classes. With limited options available for obtaining cadavers legally, a clandestine industry emerged, where grave robbers—ranging from janitors to doctors—were employed to exhume corpses from burial sites. Graveyards often turned a blind eye to this illicit trade, allowing the snatchers to carry out their operations undisturbed. In fact, everyone was so in agreement that the benefits of obtaining these bodies for research outweighed the robbery itself that in many states the sentence was lowered to being a ‘misdemeanour’ and the grave robbers often walked free. In fact, many of them got paid (under the table of course) to ferry more bodies to training hospitals and research centres.

Preserving the Departed

Unfortunately for them, smuggling bodies isn’t so easy when the ‘product’ is so…perishable, and grave robbers were tired of confining their activities to states which were always cold enough to preserve their goods. They decided the newly minted train system was their best bet to get bodies from one end of the country to another and increase their profits as a result. But there was still the issue of the smell. They needed a solution to preserve the corpses during long journeys, mask the smells and also offer a means of travelling under the radar. The answer to this problem lay in the use of alcohol. The grave thieves would place the bodies in barrels and fill the remaining space with liquor, which effectively masked the decomposing odour and helped preserve the bodies. 

From Preservation to Profit

After reaching their destination, the enterprising grave snatchers sought to capitalise further on their grim trade. Initially, they would pour out the alcohol after the bodies had been handed over to the relevant facilities and then the barrels would return empty for the next batch. But then the enterprising smugglers saw a new revenue stream, waiting to be tapped. They would sell the alcohol, now infused with the macabre essence of the corpses, at a discount, to the public eager for a buzz and almost always completely oblivious to its true origin. For those in the know, a sip from one of these barrels became known as ‘a stiff drink’ and if you heard the code, it was a sign to avoid any libations for the evening.

Modern Day Medicine

Despite the dubious origins of 'a stiff drink,' it is important to acknowledge the unintended positive consequences that emerged from this dark era. The scarcity of legally available bodies for scientific study prompted the establishment of state Anatomy Boards, which distributed unclaimed cadavers for educational and research purposes. These developments contributed to significant advancements in our understanding of the human body, even if the knowledge was acquired from bodies obtained against their dying wishes.

Fortunately, times have changed, and today we no longer rely on grave snatching to fulfil the demand for bodies in medical research and education. The focus has shifted to encouraging voluntary body donation for scientific purposes and a much more advanced relationship with technology to pursue new developments in the medical field. While the phrase 'a stiff drink' retains its historical connotations, it now serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come, and to never accept a glass of whiskey from an unmarked barrel.