Today we can lay a loved one to rest without worrying whether or not their body will be whisked away under the cover of darkness. This was not the case in the 18th and 19th centuries, which saw an insufficient number of corpses being supplied to medical schools (Parker 118). In 1540, Britain, Henry VIII gave barber surgeons the right to use 4 corpses a year from executed criminals, but this did not include unincorporated anatomists around the country (Parker 118). The Murder Act of 1752 said that criminals could be used after an execution took place, but this solution was still not ideal. Records indicate that between 1752-1832, only about 12 bodies were sent to England and Wales (Hurren). Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, used dissection as a way to craft his understanding of the human body, and anatomy students were desperate for their chance to learn.
(Photo Credit: Death, Dissection and the Destitute)
The demand for fresh corpses led to a very profitable business; body snatching. The men who performed the task of desecrating graves were nicknamed the “resurrection men,” and they often ran in gangs. One gang in Lambeth in 1795 was discovered to have at least 15 members in total (Parker 119). Teachers and students alike sought out the services of these men, often paying a high price. Stories of anatomists bringing the bodies of recently deceased loved ones to class, and students paying tuition with corpse offerings were not uncommon (Roach 42-43). In order to avoid the stench of rotting flesh, anatomy courses typically ran from October through May (Roach 44). If a family member were to expire during this time frame, the burial would be a high stress event because the body snatcher’s season would be in full swing. They would dress themselves to look like gravediggers and hang around in the shadows at funerals. These men could recover a body from its coffin in the matter of a few minutes. The body snatchers would dig up one end of the grave, pop the coffin top open with a crowbar, and use ropes to pull the fresh corpse from the opening they had made (Roach 44).
Of course, communities were shaken up by the disrespectful practice, and some made it a priority to hire graveyard patrols (Parker 119). Dissection was something that typically happened to the bodies of executed criminals, therefore, a social stigma remained about one’s body being studied by anatomists. Wealthy families went the extra mile to protect their precious carcasses. Mortsafes, or iron cages, covered the graves of the well-to-do, ensuring that no one could get close enough to uncover them (Parker 119). Patent coffins that were difficult to open were invented, and “dead houses”, locked buildings where a body would be left to rot to the point that it was useless, were also popular at the time (Roach 48). Body snatchers helped make funeral companies increasingly wealthy. In 1832, the Anatomy Act allowed all licensed anatomists to use unclaimed bodies for educational purposes, thus leading to the rapid decline and disappearance of the “resurrection men” (Parker 119).
(Mortsafe. Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History)
(Dead House. Photo Credit: Death, Dissection and the Destitute)
“If the horrid traffic in human flesh be not, by some means or other, prevented, the churchyards will not be secure against the shovel of the midnight plunderer, nor the public against the dagger of the midnight assassin”-Lancet 1829 (Richardson 52).
(If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will!)
Until Next Time:
- Hurren, Elizabeth. “Anatomisation & Dissection.” Criminal Corpses.” Accessed 4 December, 2018. http://www.criminalcorpses.com/anatomisation-dissection/.
- Parker, Steve. Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History. New York: DK Publishing, 2016.
- Richardson, Ruth. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. New York: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
- Roach, Mary. Stiff. New York: Norton & Company, 2003.