Resurrecting the Body Snatchers: The Halloween Edition

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I’ve written about body snatchers several times on this site, and each time, readers ask for more. Given that it’s Halloween, I thought I would give into that request and return to the subject in a longer, more comprehensive article about these fascinating creatures from the early 19th century. Happy Halloween!

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]

_100The words ‘body snatcher’ conjure 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 our medical past.

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 (see above, dissected skull from Museum of London Archaeology).

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.

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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 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. 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.

_100Cemeteries underwent dramatic makeovers as the public’s fear over body-snatching escalated. Mortsafes (left)—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’. [3]

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’. [4]

During this period, a human corpse did not legally constitute property, and therefore punishment for stealing one was not nearly as severe as the general populace thought it should be. In 1832, two medical students in Inversek—a village just outside Edinburgh—were caught trying to steal a body from a local churchyard. After being kept in a private house over night, they were moved to a prison at their own request because they believed it was a ‘place of greater security from the threatened vengeance of the outraged citizens.’ The next day:

…a crowd of several hundreds assembled round the gaol, provided with axes and other implements to break it open, and do execution upon the offenders, who … had been previously remitted to the sheriff. [5]

_100The general population abhorred body snatchers and the surgeons who employed them, and went to great lengths to prevent their loved ones from ending up on the dissection table. Coffin collars, like the one seen on the right, were invented to thwart the inexhaustible efforts of the resurrection men. These was fixed around the necks of a corpse and bolted to the bottom of a coffin, making it nearly impossible to remove the body from its grave.

Cemetery guns, as well, were designed to keep body snatchers at bay. These were set up at the foot of a grave, with three tripwires strung in an arc around its position. Those unfortunate enough to stumble upon one in the dead of night may find themselves in a grave of their own.

As ingenious as these devices were, they only protected the dead whose families were wealthy enough to purchase them. It is not a surprise, then, that many of the bodies that ended up in the hands of the surgeons were those of the poor. Making the jobs of the body snatchers even easier was the fact that many paupers were buried in pits which would remain open, sometimes for several weeks. One resurrectionist wrote:

I like to get those of poor people buried from the workhouses, because, instead of working for one subject, you may get three or four; I do not think, during the time I have been in the habit of working for the school, I got half a dozen of wealthier people. [6]

Historian Ruth Richardson points out that the depth of pits varied ‘depending on land available, soil type, and the pecuniary interests of those involved in graveyard “management.”’ [7] Some pits were as deep as twenty feet. In St Botolph’s, Aldgate, two men died at the bottom of one such pit from asphyxiation after stumbling into it in the 1830s.

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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. 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’. [8]

But, of course, body snatchers were hugely important to medical schools at that time. Their presence could not be avoided. On 8 October 1793, James Williams—a 16 year-old surgical student—described his living quarters in John Hunter’s anatomy school to his sister living in Worcester. He wrote:

My room has two beds in it and in point of situation is not the most pleasant in the world. The Dissecting Room with half a dozen dead bodies in it is immediately above and that in which Mr Hunter makes preparations is the next adjoining to it, so that you may conceive it to be a little perfumed. There is a dead carcase just at this moment rumbling up the stairs and the Resurrection Men swearing most terribly. I am informed this will be the case most mornings about four o’clock throughout the winter. [8]

Before the discovery of anesthetics, surgery was a brutal affair. The patient had to be restrained during an operation; the pain might be so great that he or she would pass out. Dangerous amounts of blood could be lost. The risk of dying was high; the risk of infection was even higher. The surgeon was so feared that in many cases, patients waited until it was too late before approaching one for help.

Dead bodies, on the other hand, could not scream out in agony, nor would they bleed when sliced open. In this way, the novice could learn how to remove a bladder stone or amputate a gangrenous arm at his own leisure, observing the anatomical structures of the human body as he went along. Ultimately, this prepared the student to operate on the living (see 19th-century dissection table below from the Science Museum, London).

18th/19th century wooden dissecting table from the Doctors, Diss

In this way, body snatchers were crucial to the advancement of medicine. Unfortunately, historians find it difficult to track them 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 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. 114.
4. J.B. Bailey, The Diary of a Resurrectionist: 1811-1812 (1896), p. 80.
5. True Sun, 29-5-1832. Originally qtd in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1987),
6. Ibid., p. 60.
7. Ibid.
8. 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.
9.Qtd in Jesse Dobson, John Hunter (1969), p. 178.

1 Million Hits!

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I’m thrilled to announce that The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has just surpassed 1 million hits. Wow, what a journey it’s been! I’m constantly surprised by the interest this site generates each and every year, and am deeply grateful to you, my readers, for your continued love of medical history. In honour of this milestone, I’ve put together some fun stats about The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice.

Incidentally, if you enjoy this site and want to help support the free content I provide here so that I can continue doing so in the years to come, please consider becoming a patron by clicking here. I am ever so grateful for your support.

Total Hits: 1,006,092

  • Best Day: July 27, 2014 (33,163 hits)
  • Best Month: July, 2014 (82,555 hits)

Top 5 Most Popular Articles

  1. Death’s Doll: The World’s Most Beautiful Mummy (88,525 hits)
  2. Behind the Mask: The Plague Doctor (58,042 hits)
  3. Losing One’s Head: The Frustrating Search for the Truth about Decapitation (54,132 hits)
  4. Books of Human Flesh: The History behind Anthropodermic Bibliopegy (53,911 hits)
  5. Let’s Talk about Sex: Victorian Anti-Masturbation Devices (32,059 hits)

Social Media

  • Twitter Followers: 10,350 (Click here to follow)
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Total Words Written: 79,952

Number of Countries & Territories Who’ve Read the Blog: 202.

  • Some of the most unusual include Cuba, Micronesia, Iran, Tajikistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Vatican City, and my favourite, Antarctica.

Top 3 Countries by Continent:

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Most Popular Search Terms: Guillotine, Plague Doctor, Neurofibromatosis, Vivisection, Corpse Medicine, Sweeney Todd, Barber-Surgeon, Syphilis.

Most Engaged Reader: J Stephen Carbone (15 comments)

 

 

Disturbing Disorders: Cotard’s Delusion (Walking Corpse Syndrome)

C4In 1880, a middle-aged woman paid a visit to the French neurologist, Jules Cotard (pictured below), complaining of an unusual predicament. She believed she had ‘no brain, no nerves, no chest, no stomach, no intestines’. Mademoiselle X, as Cotard dubbed her in his notes, told the physician she was ‘nothing more than a decomposing body’. She believed neither God nor Satan existed, and that she had no soul. As she could not die a natural death, she had ‘no need to eat’.

Mademoiselle X later died of starvation. [1]

Although this peculiar condition eventually became known as ‘Cotard’s Delusion’ the French neurologist was not the first to describe it. In 1788—nearly 100 years earlier—Charles Bonnet reported the case of an elderly woman who was preparing a meal in her kitchen when a draught ‘struck her forcefully on the neck’ paralyzing her one side ‘as if hit by a stroke’. When she regained the ability to speak, she demanded that her daughters ‘dress her in a shroud and place her in her coffin’ since she was, in fact, dead.

[T]he ‘dead woman’ became agitated and began to scold her friends vigorously for their negligence in not offering her this last service; and as they hesitated even longer, she became extremely impatient, and began to press her maid with threats to dress her as a dead person. Eventually everybody thought it was necessary to dress her like a corpse and to lay her out in order to calm her down. The old lady tried to make herself look as neat as possible, rearranging tucks and pins, inspecting the seam of her shroud, and was expressing dissatisfaction with the whiteness of her linen. In the end she fell asleep, and was then undressed and put into bed.

_1Hoping to break her spell, a physician attended her bedside and administered a ‘powder of precious stones mixed with opium’. Eventually, the woman did awake from her delusional state; however, she continuously redeveloped her paroxysm every three months for the rest of her life. During the periods when she thought that she was dead ‘she talked to people who had long been dead, preparing dinners for them and hosting the occasion somberly and constantly’. [2]

Today, the condition is sometimes referred to as ‘Walking Corpse Syndrome’. Although rare, people are still diagnosed as suffering from nihilistic delusional beliefs that they are dead and no longer exist. Occasionally, the condition is characterized by a belief that one is missing essential body parts or organs, as in the a case of a 28-year-old pregnant woman who thought her liver was ‘putrefying’ and that her heart was ‘altogether missing.’

In 2013, New Scientist interviewed a man named Graham Harrison, who had attempted suicide 9 years earlier by taking an electrical appliance with him into the bath, and awoke in the hospital believing he was dead. He said:

When I was in hospital I kept on telling them that the tablets weren’t going to do me any good ’cause my brain was dead. I lost my sense of smell and taste. I didn’t need to eat, or speak, or do anything. I ended up spending time in the graveyard because that was the closest I could get to death.

It was his brain which had died. He had fried it, or so he thought. Doctors tried to rationalize with him, but to no avail. Eventually, Graham was referred to Dr Adam Zeman, a neurologist at the University of Exeter, and Dr Steven Laureys, a neurologist at University of Liège. They used positron emission tomography (PET) to monitor his metabolism. What they found was unsettling.

‘Graham’s brain function resembles that of someone during anaesthesia or sleep. Seeing this pattern in someone who is awake is quite unique to my knowledge’, Dr Laureys told New Scientist. ‘I’ve been analysing PET scans for 15 years and I’ve never seen anyone who was on his feet, who was interacting with people, with such an abnormal scan result’. The below image shows the areas of Graham’s brain which are underactive (coloured in blue) in comparison with a healthy person.

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Graham is the only patient with Cotard’s Delusion to have undergone a PET scan, and therefore scientists can draw few conclusions about the results since they have no basis for comparison. The condition has been tentatively linked to bipolar disorder in young people, as well as severe depression and schizophrenia in older patients. Treatment of the condition is varied. Typically, those suffering from it are put on a combination of anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs, although electroconvulsive therapy has also been known to be successful.

For Graham, psychotherapy and drug treatment has helped ebbed the symptoms of Cotard’s Delusion, though it’s been a long, hard journey. Over the past decade, he could often be found sitting in local graveyards in an attempt to get closer to death. ‘The police would come and get me, though, and take me home’, he said. [3]

Graham is one of the lucky ones. Many who have suffered from the condition in the past have died from starvation, and some have even resorted to pouring acid on themselves in an effort to stop being one of the ‘walking dead’. One thing is for certain: Cotard’s Delusion, or ‘Walking Corpse Syndrome,’ illustrates just how little we still know about the human brain in the 21st century.

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1. Berrios G.E & Luque R, ‘Cotard’s Delusion or Syndrome: A Conceptual History’, Comprehensive Psychiatry, 36:3 (May/June, 1995), p. 218.
2. Hans Forstl and Barbara Beats, ‘Charles Bonnet’s Description of Cotard’s Delusion and Reduplicative Paramnesia in an Elderly Patient (1788)’, British Journal of Psychiatry (1992), p. 417.
3. Helen Thomson, ‘Mindscapes: First Interview with a Dead Man’, New Scientist (23 May 2013).

Under The Knife – Episode 1: The Clockwork Saw

In the first episode of Under The Knife, I discuss the clockwork saw–a 19th-century medical instrument which failed on a massive scale. Make sure you watch to the very end as we have a few little surprises in store for you!

If you enjoy the video, please remember to subscribe to our YouTube Channel for updates. When we hit 1,000 subscribers, we’ll be raffling off the googly eyeball from the title sequence of the series! And really… who wouldn’t want to own this?!

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Ten Terrifying Knives from Medical History

I’m excited to announce that I’ve just finished filming the first episode of my new YouTube series, Under The Knife, and will be releasing it very soon (please subscribe to my channel for video updates). Unsurprisingly, that got me thinking about, well, knives. Here’s a list of some rather terrifying knives from our medical past.

  1. VALENTIN KNIFE, 1838. This knife was one of the few able to cut slices of organs and soft tissues for microscopic examination. The double-bladed knife worked best when the blades were wet – best of all when submerged in water. Named after its inventor, Professor Gabriel Valentin (1810-1883), a German-Swiss physiologist, the knife was invented in 1838. This example, however, dates from 1890.

  2. BISTOURY CACHÉ, c.1850. Invented in the mid-19th century, bistoury caché literally translates from the French as ‘hidden knife’. The device was used to cut internal organs or to open cavities, particularly during the surgical removal of a bladder or kidney stone – a practice known as lithotomy.
  3. CIRCUMCISION KNIFE, c.1775. Circumcision – the removal of the foreskin of the penis – is practised across the world often for cultural and religious reasons. In some countries it is also promoted for reasons of hygiene and health. This knife dates from the late 18th century.
  4. CATARACT KNIFE & NEEDLE, 1805. Georg Joseph Beer (1763-1821), an Austrian professor of ophthalmology, invented this cataract knife and needle around 1805. Cataracts cause blurred vision as the lens becomes cloudy and if left untreated can cause blindness. These instruments allowed for the surgical removal of some of the cloudy mass and, if necessary, part or all of the lens itself. Prior to effective anaesthetics, this was an excruciatingly painful process. This particular example dates from 1820.
  5. ORTHOPEDIC KNIFE, 1855. William Adams (1820-1900), an English surgeon, invented this type of knife for his new procedure called periosteotomy in 1855. This involved un-fusing the bones of the hip joint by cutting the neck of the femur (upper leg bone). He affectionately called it ‘my little thaw’, because the knife was used to cut through and ‘melt’ fused bones.
  6. LISTON KNIFE, c.1830. Robert Liston (1797-1847), a Scottish surgeon renowned for his speed and precision in surgery, invented this double-edged amputation knife in the 1830s. This particular example is made of steel with a nickel-plated handle. Nickel plating was introduced in the 1890s and meant that the knife could be boiled without it rusting and was therefore ideal for aseptic surgery. It was made by Down Bros, a leading surgical instrument maker, in the 1920s.
  7. SYRIAN SURGICAL KNIFE, c.900 AD. Most of the blade of this ancient surgical knife is rusty and part of it is broken. The steel blade is slotted into a brass handle. The loop at the end may have been used as a finger hole for gripping. This knife dates to a period when the Islamic world became a major centre for medical study and practice.
  8. PLAGUE LANCET, c.1600. Plague epidemics ravaged Marseilles in France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Lancets, such as the copy shown here, were used to open buboes in order to relieve pressure and also remove poisons from the body – an unsuccessful attempt to cure the patient. The lancet would have been stored in a brass case.
  9. DOUBLE BLADED LITHOTOME, 1812. This object was used to cut the bladder in order to remove stones – a practice known as lithotomy. Baron Guillaume Dupuytren (1777-1835), a French surgeon and pathologist, invented this double bladed lithotome for the bi-lateral lithotomy procedure he developed in 1812. This procedure became widely used from the 1850s onwards, and this example dates from 1825.
  10. FALCIFORM AMPUTATION KNIFE, c.1700. The curved shape of this amputation knife was common in the early 1700s. Amputation knives became straighter once the practice of leaving a flap of skin to cover the limb stump became the preferred amputation method. Ebony was a common material for handles as it is a hard-wearing wood. This knife was probably made by Eberle in Germany, as indicated by the inscription on the silver blade.

     

Disturbing Disorders: Sirenomelia (Mermaid Syndrome)

The sea king down there had been a widower for years, and his old mother kept house for him…she was an altogether praiseworthy person, particularly so because she was extremely fond of her granddaughters, the little sea princesses. They were six lovely girls, but the youngest was the most beautiful of them all. Her skin was as soft and tender as a rose petal, and her eyes were as blue as the deep sea, but like all the others she had no feet. Her body ended in a fish tail.

Hans Christen Anderson, The Little Mermaid, 1837.

Mermaids have teased our imagination for thousands of years. One of the earliest tales originated in ancient Assyria, where the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. Homer called them sirens in the Odyssey, and described them as beautiful singing creatures who lure sailors to their deaths. Throughout history, these seductive beings have been associated with floods, storms, shipwrecks and drownings. They have been depicted in countless mediums: in Etrurian sculptures, in Greek jewelry, and in bas-relief on ancient Roman tombs. Christopher Columbus even reported seeing these mythical creatures on his voyage to the Caribbean in 1493.

But could our concept of what a mermaid looks like actually have originated from a real medical disorder?

M2Sirenomelia is a lethal condition characterised by rotation and fusion of the legs, resulting in what often looks like a fish tail (left). It occurs when the umbilical cord fails to form two arteries, thus preventing a sufficient blood supply from reaching the fetus. As a result, the single artery steals the blood and nutrition from the lower body and diverts it back up to the placenta. Due to malnutrition, the fetus fails to develop two separate limbs.

Sirenomelia, also known as ‘Mermaid Syndrome’, is extremely rare. It affects 1 in 100,000 babies and is 100 times more likely to occur in identical twins. Usually, those born with this condition die within days.

Over the course of my research, I’ve found very little about  the disorder’s history. There are snippets here and there which claim that fetuses born with sirenomelia were sometimes preserved in jars and put on display in ‘freak shows’ during the 19th century—but these sources are frustratingly vague. There is brief mention of the condition in a four-volume atlas published in 1891 titled Human Monstrosities, but nothing that hints at how medical practitioners understood sirenomelia in earlier periods.

Perhaps because the disorder is so rare, it’s also been hard for me to locate specimens in anatomical collections. My search in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London came up cold. I did, however, find an early 20th-century example at the National Museum of Health & Medicine in Washington D.C. There are also three fetuses in the Anatomical Museum of the Second University of Naples, which have undergone 3D bone reconstructions (two pictured below).

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By far the largest number of fetuses comes from the Vrolik Museum in Amsterdam, which consists of more than 5,000 specimens of human and animal anatomy, embryology, pathology and congenital anomalies. The collection was founded by Gerardus Crolik (1755 – 185) and his son, Willem Vrolik (1801 – 1863), who both wrote extensively on anatomical deformities in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Vrolik Museum has both wet preparations and skeletal remains, all of which are on display to the public today.

Unlike the first disorder I examined in this series—Harlequin Ichthyosis—sirenomelia is extremely fatal. There are no accounts of anyone with this condition surviving in the past. Most died within days of being born due to kidney and bladder failure. Even today, the odds are against those with sirenomelia, though there are a handful of examples of children living past infancy.

In 1988, Tiffany Yorks underwent surgery to separate her legs before her first birthday. She continues to suffer from mobility issues due to her fragile leg bones, and compensates by using crutches of a wheelchair to move around. At the age of 26, she is the longest-surviving sirenomelia patient to date.

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Under the Knife – Sneak Peek!

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In my new YouTube series, Under the Knife, I will take you on journey into a curious past—one which is riddled with blood-sucking leeches, spring-loaded knives and rotting corpses. Together, we will visit a world where surgeons and executioners share a common goal; where colluding with murderers and thieves is a pre-requisite for gaining entrance into the dissection theater; and where ‘well-bred’ families are horrified at the thought of one of their own becoming a surgeon.

Thanks to the inexhaustible efforts of my talented friend, Alex Anstey, I’m thrilled to release the opener to Under the Knife. I know a lot of you have been waiting patiently for me to unveil this project. I hope you’ll agree it’s been worth the wait!

Please remember to subscribe to our YouTube Channel so you can receive updates when we post new videos. The first episode will be released once I hit my goal on Patreon – so kindly consider supporting my content.

Most importantly, please tweet, post and share this video so we can get people buzzing about Under the Knife! My friends and I can’t wait to show you more!

Click HERE to view video.