A Philadelphia man was scavenging for metal on a freezing cold day in March 2003 when he discovered a Black man face down in an abandoned row house. The man was dead. When police arrived, they rolled over the dead man’s corpse and found a long incision from his throat to his pelvis. The man’s heart, liver and other major organs, along with his rib cage and sternum, had all been removed by what appeared to be the trained hands of a surgeon.
According to the New York Post, the Philadelphia police described the eviscerated Black man as “about 5-foot-7, with a small build and between 30 and 40 years old.” Christina Mason, a neighbor whose home was situated close to the abandoned row house, told the Post, “When you live in the ghetto, anything that happens is just something else. You can go in and out, in and out and no one can see you. To someone who wants to do bad things, this place is a palace.”
Still, Philadelphia PD homicide captain Charles Bloom sounded thoroughly baffled when he was asked about the nature of the crime: “There’s a really sick person out there who wants to keep somebody’s internal organs. Or is there a market for this?”
The second possibility is rarely discussed when a Black man is discovered with his vital organs neatly excised. It’s more cinematic to imagine that these organ-harvested Black men were unlucky victims of a real-life Hannibal Lecter. But in reality, it’s far less likely that they crossed paths with a serial killer “who wants to keep somebody’s internal organs.” It’s far more likely that the dead Black man’s missing organs were sold to a body broker to make some fast cash.
Because there is, in fact, “a market out there for this.”
To that end, a now-defunct Arizona company called Biological Resource Center (BRC) used to sell products like a “whole body with no shoulders or head.” On the company’s price sheet, there was a list of body parts for sale. Such as:
- Torso with head: $2,400
- Whole spine: $950
- Whole leg: $1,100
- Whole foot: $450
- Knee: $375
- Pelvis: $400
Ostensibly, BRC was a medical supplier for research facilities, university organizations and hospital training facilities. There is a clear-and-present need for fresh body parts for surgeons to practice on and for researchers to test their new products and materials on. The now-shuttered company promised its industrial and academic customers that it was a respectable source that offered a clean supply of body parts. But as the FBI discovered in a bucket of unlabelled severed penises, that promise proved to be a lie.
Per a stunning 2017 Reuters exposé of BRC and the body trade industry in the U.S., when FBI Special Agent Mark Cwynar entered the company’s Phoenix facility, he was aghast at the piles of jumbled body parts. There were sawed-off heads, amputated legs and arms, feet, fingers and genitalia, all piled up like war dead, strewn about with “no apparent identification to indicate what bodies they came from or to whom they belonged.” In sworn testimony, Cwynar said that he personally observed a “cooler filled with male genitalia” and a “large torso with the head removed and replaced with a smaller head, sewn together in a ‘Frankenstein’ manner.”
Such mayhem was the work of college interns. BRC hired them and taught them to use bone saws and chainsaws to remove the heads from corpses. “I was really surprised when I got the internship because I didn’t have any experience,” 20-year-old Arizona State University junior Emily Glynn, a nutrition major, told Reuters. “Just went in the first day and learned things on the job.”
On that first day, Glynn learned how to remove fingernails from a dead person’s digits using a pair of pliers. Later, she was taught how to use a chainsaw to separate a man’s head from his shoulders. “It wasn’t a full-on chainsaw like you’d see in a horror movie, but it was a smaller version. Then I just went for it,” Glynn recalled. The corpse was that of an elderly woman. “I was expecting lots of blood, but there wasn’t much to it. It came right off.”
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When organs can be sold at premium prices on the black market and when they’re even in high demand in legitimate medical spaces, capitalism can whisper its dark incentivizes as it tries to convince hospital staff to greedily violate their Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” urging them to view their patients as a resource and fresh commodity.
And when you add racism to that mix, guess whose bodies are most often the source for organ harvesting? The same people who are most likely to be denied medical care by hospital staff, or to be put in an emergency room by police violence — Black Americans.
As the CDC noted in its recent report on disparities in medical care: “About one-quarter of black only persons (26.2 percent) and Hispanic persons (23.6 percent) lived in poverty compared with 10.1 percent of non-Hispanic white only persons and 12.0 percent of Asian only persons in 2014. Non-Hispanic black only children and Hispanic children were particularly likely to live in poverty (37.3 percent and 31.9 percent, respectively, in 2014). However, Hispanic individuals are often found to have quite favorable health and mortality patterns in comparison with non-Hispanic white persons and particularly with non-Hispanic black persons, despite having a disadvantaged socioeconomic profile — a pattern termed the epidemiologic paradox.”
In other words, despite experiencing similar levels of poverty, Black people were far more likely to be denied medical care than other ethnicities (e.g., non-Black Hispanic Americans).
Along these same lines, a ground-breaking 2002 study from the Institute of Medicine called “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care” made common the awareness that “race and ethnicity remain significant predictors of the quality of health care received.” Case in point: Another study (from December 2018), “Revisiting Death: Implicit Bias and the Case of Jahi McMath,” examined brain-death determinations and how they shape health outcomes. It focused on the case of a Black girl (McMath) who went to an Oakland hospital for a tonsillectomy and died due to the hospital’s negligent care. It was an elective surgery, a simple cut and snip. McMath, however, didn’t want to go in for the surgery. She even asked her mother to reschedule it. She asked her doctor if he was qualified to perform it. He promised her he was. But then, after he performed the tonsillectomy to help cure her sleep apnea, McMath was left brain dead.
Her family had to fight to keep the hospital from pulling the plug on her life support. The hospital didn’t care that her body showed signs of life — she was, for example, still menstruating. To the medical staff, she was “brain dead.” To her family, on the other hand, there remained a slim hope she might emerge from her coma. (It’s best to harvest organs while a patient is still alive; thus, the ideal candidate is brain dead; thus, the quick trigger finger to declare patients brain dead.)
In the analysis of how McMath’s race was a determining factor in her medical care and resulting death, one glaring statistic jumps out: “Sadly, one of the few areas where black patients received ‘more’ care than whites is amputations. Black patients are nearly twice as likely to have a limb excised from their bodies than are their white counterparts.”
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At the moment, there’s a lawsuit working its way through the New York courts that highlights what happens when both the market and desperate people have designs on other people’s organs and how brain death gets used to help meet that demand. Former Air Force captain and combat veteran Patrick McMahon, 50, worked as a transplant coordinator for the New York Organ Donor Network. He’s filed a lawsuit claiming he was wrongfully fired for acting as a whistleblower. In his suit, McMahon alleges that the New York Organ Donor Network pressured hospital staff to rush to declare patients as brain dead while they were clearly still alive so that their organs could be harvested. What he describes is ghoulish. It all hinges on what he calls The Note.
For organ donor networks, The Note is a consent form that next-of-kin is asked to sign that allows the hospital staff to legally harvest organs for donation. In his court filing, McMahon cites four examples when hospital staff rushed to rip organs from patients who, in his opinion, weren’t brain dead. According to Medical Daily, “One of the examples cited details of a 19-year-old man injured in a car crash who was still struggling to breath and showed signs of brain activity when doctors at Nassau University Medical Center declared him brain dead under pressure from the donor-network officials, including Director Michael Goldstein, who allegedly said during a conference call: ‘This kid is dead, you got that?’”
Often, they don’t even bother to tell the aforementioned next-of-kin what’s going on either. Take the case of another Black man, 51-year-old Vance Anderson. He died in the hospital from a rare lung condition. The hospital presented his grieving mother — Mary Anderson, a respected local pastor in West Philadelphia — with a consent form. The paperwork allowed them to schedule an autopsy to determine Vance’s cause of death.
Afterward, the hospital transferred Vance’s body to a funeral home, where his corpse could be prepared for burial. That’s when Mary discovered what the hospital had done to her boy. The funeral home contacted her, and as she recalled, “They told me they took his eyes, heart, brain, pancreas. They took every organ he had in his body out of him. I said, ‘Why? Why? I thought they were going to take a piece of his lung to see what he died from.’”
Down in the fine print of the consent form that hospital staff had urged Mary to sign so they could perform an autopsy, there was an important caveat. If she gave her consent to the hospital to perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death, the grieving mother also consented to allow the hospital to “retain tissue for medical research.” That five-word phrase meant the hospital could rip out any body parts it wanted and sell them into the body trade market. “Ain’t no way in the world, if they explained to me they’re going to take my son and experiment with him and throw his organs in the trash, that I would’ve consented to that,” Mary angrily told the media.
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That dystopian sales pitch is from an advertisement for a Chinese body broker who spoke with The Guardian back in 2012. He offered as much as $3,335 to customers for one of their kidneys. He promised that the removal surgery could be scheduled and performed in less than two weeks.
Per The Guardian, patients seeking overseas transplant surgeries, “can pay up to $200,000 for a kidney.” The source for the transplanted organs is usually “gangs who harvest organs from vulnerable, desperate people, sometimes for as little as $5,000.” But in China, to satisfy a growing need for organs to transplant, the state takes body parts from prisoners, especially imprisoned members of the repressed religious group Falun Gong. The practitioners are considered criminals because the religion is deemed illegal by the state. “Human rights lawyers estimate 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners have been killed for their organs since 2001,” reports Australian news outlet Quartz.
Which brings us back Stateside, and to the story of Everett Palmer Jr.
In April 2018, the 41-year-old was on his way to visit his sick mother in New York. She was scheduled to have an operation. The Black married father of two was an Army veteran, a paratrooper, who, in post-military life, worked as a physical trainer. The reason Palmer chose to stop along the way, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was to do the right thing: He wanted to take care of a DUI that was still on the books from 18 months earlier. Palmer stepped into the police station to get right with the law. Instead, he was arrested by the Lancaster police, who held him on a $5,000 bail, detaining him at a local prison.
Two days later, the New York Times reported, “At around 4 a.m., Mr. Palmer was seen striking his head on his cell room door, cutting and puncturing the back of his head and leaving bloody traces on the door. An officer ordered him to lie down and put his arms behind his back. When Mr. Palmer failed to comply, an officer used a Taser on him — twice. Five officers then entered his cell, and a 23-minute scuffle ensued. Mr. Palmer kicked and bit the officers who tried to pin him down.” (There was supposedly video of the beating; however, according to the Times via the coroner, it “‘didn’t give a clear picture’ of everything the officers did to restrain Mr. Palmer,” which sure seems convenient.)
More hideous yet, when the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections turned over Palmer’s body to his family for burial, his throat, brain and heart were missing. No reasoning was given, and no consent was required to seize his organs.
The York County Coroner’s Office insists that Palmer’s missing organs aren’t mysterious or evidence of foul play, but rather, standard and routine. The county coroner told CNN, “The lab that does our autopsies has the organs. Coroner’s offices don’t always have a morgue or a forensic pathologist. We contract those services out. We utilize a team in Allentown. That’s who retains the specimens. They don’t always tell us what they retain. We made that clear to the family from the beginning.”
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Ever since Black people were first brought to this continent to be enslaved as livestock, our bodies have long been treated as both expendable and a market commodity. But now, instead of slave owners, it’s hospitals, prisons, biomedical resource companies and organ donation networks, that view us as a raw resource. Our value is still essentially measured by how our Black bodies can materially improve the finances or extend the lives of others.
As such, doctors will rush to declare Black car accident victims brain dead just so they can harvest their valuable organs. Similarly, a Black person can step into a police station to get right with the law, and days later, their dead body can be returned to their family without its brain, heart and throat. It’s all perfectly legal, too. This IRL, Black body-snatching reboot of Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a truly grim spectacle.
But since it’s completely real, it’s way more horrifying.