I found a very interesting piece by Robert Chambers from 1869 about body snatching. When I find a grave I just try to take away the story. But in the past there was a much more sinister trade – the work of the body snatchers, or as they were sometimes known, The Resurrectionists.
And yet it was a very contradictory sort of practise, since the crime supported research and an attempt to understand the body which facilitated medical training and advancement. Everyone knew about it. It featured in literature – Jerry Cruncher in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is a Resurrection Man.
The surgeons themselves accepted it as a necessary evil and would often pay the fines the body snatchers incurred or support their families whilst they were in prison. The Resurrectionists were described as being the worst characters imaginable, apart from the watchmen of the cemeteries themselves who let them in and received a percentage.
They were very skilful in what they did, of necessity working very quickly. They would clear away the earth above the head of the coffin only, which they forced open “with a very strong crowbar, made of a peculiar form for the purpose.” The body was dragged out. Nothing else was taken or they might face a charge of theft for which the penalties were greater. It was a cut-throat business (sorry). Tales of turf wars (as it were) were common.
It is also clear that “the lower class of undertakers” were drawn into the supply chain. They would often supply bodies before they were buried. “Often a clergyman read the funeral service over a coffin filled with brick-bats or other substitute for the stolen body.” There was a demand and there was a profit to be made in servicing it.
The bodies that came in from the country came apparently in hat crates or casks or wrapped in “green baize cloth”. Sometimes the anatomy students would keep them in their lodgings. Now I have been to a few student houses in my time and the possibilities for hiding a dead body there are many and varied.
In my experience, you could hide anything in there.
However, without proper refrigeration not even a student could keep a dead body for long so sometimes they would have to take it to the dissecting rooms by hackney carriage. Chambers tells a good story about this. It doesn’t have to be true.
“Sometimes the driver was exorbitant in his demands and was sometimes ingenious in enforcing them: a pupil was conveying a body by coach to his hospital was astonished by finding himself in front of the Bow Street Police office, when the coachman, tapping at the front window, said to the affrighted youth, “Sir, my fare to so-and-so is a guinea, unless you wish to be put down here.” The reply, without any hesitation, was, “Quite right my man. Drive on.”
Before the Anatomy Act of 1832 the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. But there weren’t enough bodies for the medical schools, especially since in the nineteenth century there was a significant decline in those being executed.
Simple supply and demand was in operation. High demand from the expanding medical schools came up against low supplies at a time when the lack of refrigeration meant that the “Best Before Date” was always pretty close. Low supply and high demand always increases prices.
When a new university term started the Resurrectionists were out there, doing deals. The basis for negotiation appeared to £50 as a retainer to guarantee an exclusive supply, plus nine guineas a corpse. As in all markets as we are always reminded, prices can go up as well as down. Sometime they developed particular specialisms. There was for example a flourishing trade in front teeth.
It was started by a “licensed sutler” (i.e. a camp follower who sold provisions to soldiers) who had originally drawn the teeth of those who fallen in the Peninsular War. Chambers tells us that “with the produce of these adventures, he built a large hotel at Margate.” He later died a drunk apparently, though this is not unusual in Margate.
The trade in bodies, whether intact of in portions, was so lucrative that it was not unusual for people to offer their own bodies for dissection after death.
Of course the only way to guarantee really fresh corpses was to diversify from grave robbing into murder, as Burke and Hare did in Edinburgh.
Body snatchers were always imaginative.
Bodies could be obtained from poor houses and infirmaries by Resurrectionists pretending a relationship with the deceased and claiming the body for burial. Chambers tells a story of the sale of a drunken man in a sack as a subject to “Mr. Brookes the anatomist”, which is clearly a vile calumny designed to besmirch a man with a fine surname. He goes on then with a different observation.
A man who was long superintendent to the dissecting room at St. Thomas’ hospital, was dismissed for receiving and paying for bodies sent to his employer and re-selling them at an advanced price, in Edinburgh; he then turned Resurrectionist, was detected and imprisoned, and died in a state of raving madness.
Therein perhaps is a lesson for us all.
Yet all of this bizarre trade existed to extend understanding and for the greater good of the people. So an unpleasant conspiratorial trade evolved.
For the market to operate, it was essential that the authorities turned a blind eye as much as they could if demand was to be fulfilled. So really there was an unholy conspiracy which could only be resolved by a change in the law. It couldn’t go on as it was. All the existing law did was merely to keep the price high and extend criminality – which is interestingly similar to the argument used today about the drugs trade. Dissection had to be legalised and a licensing system was developed in the Anatomy Act of 1832.
“This new system has much raised the characters of those who are teaching anatomy, as well as the science itself, in the estimation of the public.”
That is certainly good to know.
I have some sympathy with the grave robbers. Because by writing my stories perhaps I am in reality nothing more than a modern day Resurrection Man, recovering items of value from graves and passing it on to others.
There is a very good story by one of my favourite American authors, Ambrose Bierce, which deals with grave robbing. It is very short but very good and a fine introduction to the work of this remarkable and overlooked writer.
Appropriately he defined the grave in his wonderfully twisted Devil’s Dictionary as a place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student….