The reach TikTok has afforded Ferry — introducing the bones trade to a whole new audience of younger people — has also invited sharp backlash to his business and its moral implications. Other TikTok users have made videos questioning the legality and ethics of the human remains trade, which Ferry maintains he participates in for educational purposes.
Experts say buyers of human bones often do not look at them as educational tools; instead the bones are sometimes turned into jewelry, chandeliers made from scapulae and end up in homemade curio cabinets.
The last several years have seen a larger reckoning around the bones trade, as museums have begun announcing where the skeletons in their collections came from.
“The poorer you are, the more powerless you are, the further down the pecking order you are, the greater the likelihood that it’s your people that can end up being collected like this,” said Shawn Graham, a professor of digital humanities at Carleton University in Canada.
The human bone trade attracts anthropologists, collectors, artists and others who are curious about the skeletal system. The fraught industry is centuries old and has long sparked a host of morbid questions: What should become of the nameless dead?
And maybe more strikingly: How does a human being end up in a collection?
A modern slice of an age-old industry
JonsBones’ site says it only sells medical osteology, or bones specifically prepared to train medical students. Ferry says he’s recirculating bones that would otherwise collect dust in someone’s basement and offering valuable services to people who may otherwise never interact with real human bones.
But the origins of medical specimens are murky, with many believed to have been stolen from graves and forcibly brought into the educational field. These are not people who donated their bodies to science.
Ferry says despite their troubling beginnings, he believes the most respectful path forward is to continue selling the bones.
“It’s our goal to get these pieces and try to make sure that they’re preserved and used for the purposes that they were intended for,” he said.
Social media has allowed a trade once largely confined to oddity shops to reach a new market. And while some websites like Etsy and eBay have cracked down, banning the sale of human remains on their platforms, experts say purveyors just keep moving their wares to new sites. It’s an endless game of whack-a-mole.
People sometimes find the idea of buying and selling human bones nightmarish, but Ferry told The Washington Post he doesn’t think of it that way. He says he admires and respects the structure of bones.
When Ferry was 13, his father gave him an articulated, or fully assembled, mouse skeleton that piqued his interest in osteology. As he learned more about the medical bone trade, he identified what he considers a fundamental problem: People have bones they don’t know what to do with. Until just a few decades ago, it was common for medical students to keep a half or full skeleton in their closet for school.
Ferry says many families no longer want these bones, and he sees it as his job to find them appropriate homes.
His shop started small. Ferry moved to New York in 2018 and handed out business cards in Times Square every Friday for months, selling a few bones every now and then. He now works with a team of eight part-time contractors and said he sells between 20 and 80 pieces each month. Ferry is also a student at Parsons School of Design in New York, where he incorporates his knowledge of the skeletal system into his studies of product design. He said classmates know him as “the bone guy.”
Ferry says despite calls from experts and activists, identification of all remains is unrealistic, cremation is cost-prohibitive and replicas of bones still don’t compare to the real thing. So, he says, the only viable option for the literal skeletons in people’s closets is resale.
“It’s very easy to critique the history, but to then find a solution of what to do with it is a harder challenge,” he said.
Museums have recently begun to confront the same thorny question, with several issuing public apologies for collecting the remains of people believed or known to have been enslaved. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology announced a plan for the “repatriation or reburial of ancestors” after pressure last year from activist groups highlighting that the collection included the crania of more than 50 enslaved people.
The size of the human bone trade is almost impossible to pin down, experts say, but it has spanned centuries and was built largely through the theft of remains from Native Americans, enslaved people and oppressed groups from other nations.
The bones were often sourced from China and India, with the latter believed to have exported 60,000 skeletons and skulls to America in a single year, according to reporting in the Chicago Tribune when India outlawed the exportation of human remains in 1985. Experts say most of the remains were stolen from graves and then shipped overseas.
While federal law requires that the remains of Native Americans be returned to tribes or descendants who request them and a smattering of states have laws restricting the sale and ownership of human remains, most permit the practice.
“There might not necessarily be a federal law that says, ‘Thou shalt not own human beings,’ but I don’t think that’s necessary,” Graham said.
Graham said when people talk about the sale of human remains publicly, their language often betrays that they understand it’s morally dubious on some level. He said conversations are dressed up in language about the educational value or inherent beauty of the remains — what he called a clear ploy to divert attention from the ethical land mine that is owning a piece of a deceased person.
‘These were humans’
The JonsBones website says it sells “responsibly sourced human osteology.” Its stated mission: “Destigmatize a stigmatized industry.” Ferry argues that his bones, some of which can be purchased for less than $20 by anyone whose state does not restrict the sale of human remains, are making education more accessible to people who might not otherwise get to study remains up close.
Bones available for purchase range from loose femurs to articulated spines to fetal skulls and beyond. An individual rib goes for $18, while what’s known as an exploded skull — a preparation where the bones are spaced out, appearing to be suspended in midair — would cost you nearly $6,000.
While Ferry said he could not disclose his buyers due to privacy reasons, he said the company sells to several universities for classrooms or museums and law enforcement agencies that use individual bones to train cadaver dogs. The website is open to the public and also sells to artists and anyone else interested.
Ferry said he tries to “lead by example” and advises customers to treat the bones “with the utmost respect,” but JonsBones does not have control over what people do with the bones once they leave the showroom in New York.
This collection is not even the tip of the human remains iceberg, according to Damien Huffer, an adjunct research professor at Carleton University in Canada. Collectors across the world have much larger collections than JonsBones, he said, and the trade far predates TikTok.
“There are people buying now who never would have been aware of the option before,” said Huffer, who is also a research associate in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Human remains stretch far beyond the sanitized bones that belonged to the medical community. Organs are an even more specialized trade, Huffer said, and some collectors have brains and fetuses sealed in jars.
Bans of the sale of human remains across platforms like Facebook, Etsy, Instagram and eBay are toothless and poorly enforced, Huffer said. And when a page does get shut down, he said, it just pops up on a different website.
As JonsBones gained fame on TikTok for videos showing his collection, viewers started to draw comparisons to a Tumblr account from 2015 of a purported witch who allegedly sold human bones and was accused of being a grave robber. The saga was deemed “Boneghazi.”
Ferry has repeatedly rejected the comparison and assured viewers that his bones are only bought from people who have medical specimens they no longer want or have use for.
He said medical bones can be distinguished from others by the telltale signs of medical preparation, and he tries to get as much information as possible about the bones’ origins when he makes a purchase. That information is typically kept private unless a future buyer requests it, he said, and little can be discerned about the past of many of the pieces.
“A lot of these skulls are inherited or they come from yard sales and estate sales,” he said. “The majority of skulls in the market are inherited from previous owners, so tracking down authentic origins is extremely challenging.”
He said despite the blowback he’s received from publicizing his business, he’s just happy people are talking about the medical bone trade.
“I really believe in trying to educate the next generation of anthropologists, doctors and educators,” he said. “I don’t think that destroying these pieces are a solution.”
Graham said the idea that these bones will go toward educational purposes doesn’t make sense, because without the context that could have been provided by ethically sourced bones whose origins were known, there is little educational value.
People who donate their bodies to science are assured of the respectful way they will be disposed of after bodies have served its educational purpose, he said. It’s a consent-based process.
Graham, of Carleton, said every human bone that changes hands through this industry is a piece of an ancestor who “is not where they’re supposed to be.”
“Nobody can object to buying and selling antiques or specimens, but these were humans,” he said. “And certainly not a single one of these people ever consented to their bodies being treated this way or being bought and sold like this.”
And he said while the human bone trade can be disguised as education or art, Graham thinks there’s a different draw.
“In my darker moments, I think it’s the power to control,” he said.