The body-snatching industry of the 18th and 19th century

Hyperaxion Mar 7, 2020

Body snatching was a common practice in the UK due to the medical schools’ high demand for corpses.

In the past, tampering with a grave was considered just a misdemeanor and the person was punished with a fine and had to spend two days in prison.

There was no execution, nor was there any sentence. During the 18th and 19th centuries, theft of bodies, mainly in Europe, became a common practice and was directly linked to the voracious advances in medicine.

In the United Kingdom, before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only way to conduct studies on cadavers under the Act was to wait for the courts to send the bodies of people sentenced to death to medical schools.

However, while in the 18th-century thousands of people were sentenced to death all the time, usually for minor crimes, in the following century the percentage dropped to about 56 people each year.

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This reduction was in line with the significant increase in medical schools and the advanced study of anatomy around Europe. With few corpses and precarious refrigeration methods, the deficit of bodies for medical study ended up harming the thirst for knowledge.

Thus, the obscure market for stolen bodies began, supported by the doctors and teachers of the educational institutions themselves, who believed that everything was just a necessary evil and that it would be compensated through the future benefits that the anatomical study would bring to the world society.

The Resurrectionists

The Resurrectionists
(Credit: Historic UK)

While ordinary thieves used to break into tombs and mausoleums to steal jewelry, money and other goods that relatives used to bury with their owners, something changed when the corpse itself became valuable.

An industry specializing in stealing corpses was born out of the need to teach medical students, scholars in the field and also their inability to get their hands dirty in such a grotesque and awkward way, despite everything.

Criminals who were hired by universities sometimes ended up having problems in the process of removing and transporting corpses or even being caught by the police, which meant the loss of money and also the object of study.

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From this exacerbated demand, a real network of men began to specialize in the practice of stealing bodies, and for this reason, they were called “resurrectionists”.

Their job consisted specifically of rescuing fresh corpses from their graves, usually on the same day they were buried or at most the next day, as the demand for bodies in that state was greater by service contractors, as well as the value.

The exhumation of a crime

Body snatching.
(Credit: Perth).

It was always done during the night, usually in the middle of the night, and the executioners were almost always drunk, both to protect themselves from the cold and to numb the repulsion caused by the job. The harsh European winter caused an increase in trade, as the corpses took longer to start to decompose.

The task of resurrectionists usually started long before nightfall. They sent spies to funerals, usually in middle-class cemeteries, to check the graves and pass on data that would contribute to the removal of the bodies. Most of the gravediggers were paid, as were the local guards, who could end up being beaten if they refused.

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The men then went after the tombs already indicated by the spies. One of the methods that thieves used was to dig – with a wooden shovel, as it was quieter – at the end of the grave, where the soil was softer.

Criminals were fortunate that Europeans had the habit of making very shallow graves, which further reduced the time of exhumation. As they hit the coffin, they broke the lid, tied the corpse and hoisted it out. They left the jewelry, clothes and any goods that had been buried with the corpse so that they would not be at risk of being criminally charged.

Chaos in death

An interrupted dissection.
(Credit: The Pirate Empire).

Along with the body-snatching industry, the economic empire of protecting graves rose to be able to profit from the fear of losing loved ones to abominable laboratory tables. The wealthier people paid private watchmen to patrol the relatives’ graves, bought safer coffins, built stone slabs or metal barriers around the graves, the so-called mortsafe.

All this to hinder the work of resurrectionists on duty. Meanwhile, for the poor, it remained to stand guard during the burial and after the tomb had been sealed, until the corpse reached a state of decomposition that devalued it in the market. Some even invented homemade traps, since they could not purchase the ones that were sold.

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Police officers were tasked with guarding the city’s cemeteries, but were often bribed by specialized gangs or drunk by the spies who seduced them. Some local public policies to solve this problem that grew more and more, was to spread rewards for the arrest of grave robbers, aiming to minimize the practice, to mobilize the population and also to reduce the complaints and revolt of the people, which grew along with the black market.

The medical appropriation of bodies sparked a wave of popular resentment that led to riots and protests in front of courts and places where convicts were executed. Trying to calm the mood and also to reverse the situation of body snatching, the government of Great Britain passed the Death Act of 1752, which allowed anatomists to carry out the death penalty on people guilty of murder, all to create a greater demand for legalized corpses.

However, this still proved to be insufficient for doctors. Some of them started offering money to prison staff to encourage riots to cause death and generate more bodies for study.

The Burke effect

In 1788 in the United States, the population killed 20 medical students.
In 1788 in the United States, the population killed 20 medical students. (Credit: WHY).

The more public attention grew about body snatching, the more the industry molded itself to find ways to keep the business going. The Law was on the side of scholars, even though the world society was not, causing uprisings like 1788 in the United States, when the population killed 20 medical students.

Some body snatchers decided to take even more risks and started murdering people to meet medical needs. Wiliam Burke and William Hare were pioneers in this practice and ended up becoming the most notorious.

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Irish immigrants who have been in Scotland since 1828, they found that they could make money quicker this way than transferring people that were already buried. They accounted for 16 murders in just 10 months.

The method they used was suffocation, as it was one of the few types of death that could be called accidental or natural. Burke and Hare used to choose women because they were able to attract them with their charm, get them drunk and then choke them until they died.

William Burke and William Hare.
William Burke and William Hare. (Credit: Geri Walton).

The victims’ bodies were sold to anatomist doctor Robert Knox, or at least most of the orders were his, for use in his dissection classes and lectures. When the killing perpetrated by the two men went public in mid-1828, people began to stand in favor of using corpses for medical purposes, fearing for their own lives.

On trial, Hare testified against Burke and escaped conviction, while his partner was hanged on the morning of January 28, 1829, and handed over to an anatomist for dissection, as a way of proving his own poison and also because it was part of the Law.

After that, the Government saw no other option but to find a way for medical schools to obtain an adequate supply of corpses, without having to resort to such grotesque practices.

In 1831, with the capture of the London Burkers gang, a group of men who killed people to sell the bodies, the British parliament finished formulating the 1832 Anatomy Act, which came into force the following year.

The law aimed to authorize the dissection of unclaimed bodies after 48 hours and also ended the practice of anatomization as part of the death sentence for murder. Only then did the corpse trade decline, even though the practice would take years to reach the bottom of its own grave.


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