Grave Matters: The Body-Snatchers Unearthed

It is half past two in the morning on October 10th, 1777. The new moon casts a bluish light over St George’s burial ground off Hanover Square in London. Two men, clad in dark clothes, enter the cemetery. They have been tipped off by the grave-digger who accompanies them that the body of Mrs. Jane Sainsbury was buried earlier that day.

Carefully, they navigate around the tombstones until they come to the freshly dug grave. With spades and shovels, they begin soundlessly removing the dark, damp earth, digging deeper and deeper into the ground. Within fifteen minutes, they hit a hard, solid structure: the coffin. One man readies a cloth sack while the other two pry the lid open. A terrible odour escapes: the smell of death. The woman’s eyes have sunk deep into her skull. Her jaw hangs open, stretching her lips into a ghoulish grin.

All three struggle to remove the rotting corpse from its wooden enclosure and strip it of its clothes and burial shroud. Slowly, the woman’s fleshy remains are stuffed inside the sack, limb by limb. One snatcher tosses the woman’s possessions carelessly into the coffin while another silently shuts the lid. All three begin to shovel dirt back over the gravesite, hoisting the sack up as the hole slowly fills.

The job is finished in less than thirty minutes. [1]

The word ‘body-snatcher’ conjures up all kinds of sordid images: crude men with fingernails caked in dirt; corpses crammed into sacks, bodily fluids leaking through the cloth; murder. But the truth is that relatively little is known about the men who stole away in the middle of the night to collect bodies for the anatomists and their students in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet, they are an important and integral part of the history of medicine.

During the 17th century, medical students in London were not required to study anatomy or physiology through clinical dissection. The act of cutting open dead bodies was generally believed to be ‘noe more able to direct a physician how to cure a disease than how to make a man’. [2] This is not to say, however, that medical students knew nothing of anatomy. Many attended public dissections conducted by the Barber Surgeons Company. There, they observed and watched, but did not participate.

This changed in the 18th century with the proliferation of private medical schools that gave students an opportunity to learn anatomy through dissection. To do this, however, bodies were needed. Lots of bodies.

From what little records exist, we know that body-snatchers required some level of moonlight in order to conduct their work in cemeteries, although not all bodies were obtained through exhumation. The clothes and burial shroud were sometimes removed, for stealing a body on its own was not considered theft since it had no value as property.

The body-snatchers might steal as many as six bodies in a single night and often worked in small gangs which fought each other for ‘a monopoly over the cadaver trade’. [3] This might involve desecrating a graveyard that supplied bodies to a rival gang in order to arouse fury from the local population who would then secure the cemetery, making it difficult for future attempts.

Cemeteries underwent dramatic makeovers as the public’s fear over body-snatching escalated. Mortsafes (right)—or iron grills—were placed over gravesites to prevent snatchers from disturbing the dead. Loose stones were put on top of surrounding walls, making it nearly impossible to scale. Churchyards became fortified with spring guns and primitive land mines. Cemetery ‘clubs’ were formed in which members would watch new graves until ‘decomposition rendered the cadavers useless for anatomical instruction’. [4]

In one instance, a father—grieving over the recent loss of his child—enclosed a ‘small box, [with] some deathful apparatus, communicating by means of wires, with the four corners, to be fastened to the top of the coffin’. As the child was lowered into the ground, he threw gunpowder into the box so that ‘the hidden machinery [was] put into a state of readiness for execution’. [5]

At the same time, people’s fears over being buried alive reached an all-time high. If the following account from 1824 is to be believed, the resurrection men sometimes acted in the role of saviours to those who might otherwise have suffered this terrible fate:

I had been some time ill of a low and lingering fever. My strength gradually wasted and I could see by the doctor that I had nothing to hope. One day, towards evening, I was seized with strange and indescribable quivering…I heard the sound of weeping at my pillow, and the voice of the nurse say, ‘He is dead.’

The man goes on to describe how he was unable to stir himself, even as he realised he was being buried alive.

I felt the coffin lifted and borne away. I heard and felt it placed in the hearse; it halted, and the coffin was taken out. I felt myself carried on the shoulders of men; I heard the cords of the coffin moved. I felt it swing as dependent by them. It was lowered and rested upon the bottom of the grave. Dreadful was the effort I then made to exert the power of action, but my whole frame was immovable. The sound of the rattling mould as it covered me, was far more tremendous than thunder. This also ceased, and all was silent.

Some time passed before he heard a noise. Mistakenly believing that his friends had returned, he soon realised that it was the body-snatchers who had come to steal his body.

They dragged me out of the coffin by the head, and carried me swiftly away. When borne to some distance, I was thrown down like a clod…Being rudely stripped of my shroud, I was placed naked on a table. In a short time I heard by the bustle in the room that the doctors and students were assembling. When all was ready the Demonstrator took his knife, and pierced my bosom. I felt a dreadful crackling, as it were, throughout my whole frame; a convulsive shudder instantly followed, and a shriek of horror rose from all present.

Despite the fact that the snatchers had allegedly saved this man from certain death, his tone when describing them is still laced with disapproval. They are ‘robbers’ who ‘plunder’ the graves of decent people’s loved ones, of ‘parents, and children, and friends.’ They treat the corpse ‘rudely’ when handling it. There is something inhuman about their behaviour. [6]

In newspaper reports from the 19th century, the snatchers are characterised as ruthless thieves with murderous tendencies. Although William Burke and William Hare were never body-snatchers, the fact that they murdered 16 people between 1827 and 1828 for the sole purpose of selling their bodies to the anatomists served to sully further the reputation of the resurrection men. Hysteria over ‘burking’ broke out amongst the general population. In cases where people went missing, body-snatchers were almost always suspected.

The body-snatchers continue to live in the public’s imagination as criminals of the lowest form, partly because so little is known about them. As evidenced above, reports about their alleged activities are often exaggerated in newspapers and literature from the period. In 1824, the surgeon, William Mackenzie, complained that a week rarely passed without ‘the circulation of exaggerated stories of atrocities in the procuring of subjects for dissection’. [7]

Even more frustratingly, historians find it difficult to track body-snatchers as they often use numerous aliases to hide their true identities. One snatcher may appear in multiple court records under half a dozen names. There is simply no way to know.

It is unlikely that many body-snatchers were also murderers. The punishment for stealing a body was too low; the punishment for murder was too high. The payout for a body was the same no matter how one procured it. Yet undeniably, the resurrection men are a part of the medical profession’s dark and sordid past—a past that for the most part has received only cursory acknowledgement.

Still, we must ask ourselves where we would be today without the body-snatchers and the bodies which they stole.

1. Based loosely off a true account. The three body-snatchers were eventually apprehended. One was acquitted while the other two were sentenced to six months imprisonment. They were paraded through the streets and whipped publicly. L. Benson, The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters (1872?).
2. Probably the fragment of 1668, Anatomie, most of which is in John Locke’s hand. Originally quoted in Andrew Cunningham, ‘The Kinds of Anatomy’, Medical History (1975), p. 3.
3. Ian Ross and Carol Urquhart Ross, ‘Body Snatching in Nineteenth Century Britain: from Exhumation to Murder’, British Journal of Law and Society (Summer, 1979), p. 113.
4. Ibid, p. 114.
5.J.B. Bailey, The Diary of a Resurrectionist: 1811-1812 (1896), p. 80.
6. Ibid., pp. 65-68.
7. MacKenzie, ‘An Appeal to the Public and to the Legislature, on the Necessity of Affording Dead Bodies to the Schools of Anatomy, by Legislature Enactment’, Westminster Review (1824), pp. 83-86. Originally quoted in Ross and Ross, ‘Body Snatching in Nineteenth Century Britain’, p. 113.

25 comments on “Grave Matters: The Body-Snatchers Unearthed

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  2. […] Grave Matters: The Body-Snatchers Unearthed  […]

  3. jveazue says:

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  4. […] This grim trade in turn spawned a variety of security measures. The favored dead were defended by fences, watchtowers, and human lookouts. But nothing could eliminate the industry. […]

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  6. […] Grave Matters: The Body Snatchers Unearthed (The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice)  […]

  7. […] Grave Matters: The Body Snatchers Unearthed (The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice)  […]

  8. David Kaye says:

    I’m wondering if you are familiar with the novel by James McGee entitled The Resurrectionist.
    Here is a description: “The setting is Regency London. Robbing fresh graves to supply the city’s anatomy schools and hospitals is a profitable business; illegal, reprehensible, but necessary if medical knowledge is to advance. Gangs competing for control of the trade are not above murder and mutilation to warn off rivals. Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood is ordered to probe into just such a vicious killing.” Its a good read.

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  10. […] Grave Matters: The Body Snatchers Unearthed (The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice)  […]

  11. […] Grave Matters: The Body Snatchers Unearthed (The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice)  […]

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  14. [...] also hosted Charlotte Mathieson’s work on traveling bodies. These works (and that of Chirurgeon’s Apprentice and Dose contributor Lindsey Fitzharris) testify to the fact that the body may be a strange [...]

  15. [...] into existence in the first place? What about the executioner’s role in medical history? Or how body-snatchers dealt with the physical and emotional realties of their grim [...]

  16. [...] Naomi Wolf’s Vagina); Hillary Rosner (on the evolution of colour); Lindsey Fitzharris (on 18th/19th century bodysnatchers); Maria Konnikova (on a history of standardi(s/z)ation); Michelle Nijhuis (on flaws and uncertainty [...]

  17. [...] the thrifty costumer, teeth extracted from the mouths of the dead proved cheaper. According to one resurrectionist, ‘It is the constant practice to take the teeth out first…because if the body be lost, the [...]

  18. [...] Fitzharris of The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice brings us the anatomists much disparaged partners the body snatchers, writes about the autopsy 18th century suicide of Mary Hunt, and on methods to prevent premature [...]

  19. Jeb says:

    This is was and I suspect probable still is a live belief among the travelling community. Would be interesting to see if there is any relationship between oral material and newspaper reports.

    The travellers view that they were deliberately targeted by Burkers, relationship with identity and tensions with the settled community play a role in the formation of these stories.

    A wide number of recordings from the archive at Edinburgh University can be found here

    http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/results

    Start of No 37 I find particularly interesting. Burkers or Noddies are often identified as Doctors or Students. Stanley Robertson who frequently came along to the Edinburgh campus to take part in recordings describes how his mother had been attacked when he was young by ‘students’ and his fear of walking around a university campus as an adult; before exploring the relationship of the Burkers with the Devil.

    The oral material is an important resources in regard to these matters and some of the wider issues surrounding the development of this belief.

  20. [...] A history of body snatchers. [...]

  21. pascoe says:

    Great post! Wish I had more of this info before my TEDxBoulder talk in 2010 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ-fhf1gBek

  22. [...] have read some of the posts and really like them. For example this post about Grave Matters: The Body-Snatchers Unearthed. Lots of good stuff about the theft of bodies, people mistakenly being buried alive and the [...]

  23. The Burke and Hare case was what ultimately brought the entire bodysnatching industry into public view. It also thoroughly ruined the medical career of Dr. Robert Knox whose house was destroyed by an angry mob and ultimately chased out of Scotland.

    http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2009/09/the-resurrection-men.html

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