Bringing out the Dead: The Life of a Body-Snatcher

After I found a book on this subject at one of the local junk-shops, I thought that an article on the crime of body-snatching would make a fascinating little bit of morbid reading. It’s one of those old-fashioned crimes that we often read about in history books, like witchcraft or poisoning wells or being transported for stealing a loaf of bread. Body-snatching is one of those crimes and like all crimes, it makes people ask the question ‘Why?’ Why was it done? Why was it necessary? Why would you want to do it and who were the people who that committed crimes like this?

What Is Body-Snatching?

Body-snatching is the crime of disinterring a corpse. Or in layman’s speech…digging up dead bodies. Ain’t that cuddly? In the form that most people would understand it, body-snatching is the crime of digging up dead bodies which would then be sold. To medical colleges, teaching-hospitals, anatomical colleges, doctors and surgeons, to be precise. It was a crime prevelant in many countries in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the United Kingdom, especially, it was at epidemic proportions before the 1830s. If you’ve ever seen those old Georgian-era churchyards and cemetaries and seen the fenced-in burial-plots or those huge, wrough-iron fences with the adorable, razor-sharp spikes on top that are built around the perimeter of graveyards, those aren’t just there for morbid decoration. They were designed as a deterrent for body-snatchers, who would raid cemeteries at night to steal freshly-buried corpses!

For those of you who have heard of the saying of ‘doing the graveyard shift’, the crime of body-snatching was what made this shift so necessary. City watchmen and constables would perform the graveyard shift in churchyards and cemeteries at night to stop people digging up corpses! You can imagine how rife this must’ve been if the phrase ‘the graveyard shift’ has survived over two hundred years to be still used in the 21st Century!

Why would people want to Snatch Bodies?

As I’ve explained, ‘body-snatching’ is the crime of digging up freshly-buried corpses, and that this crime was particularly rife during the Georgian and Regency Era.

But why?

You have to admit that willingly wanting to break into a churchyard at night to dig up a dead guy is not something most people would want to do, hardened criminal or not. So why was this crime so popular?

Legislation is designed to prevent crime and aid humanity, but sometimes, and sometimes more often than not, it, aids crime and prevents humanity. In this case, legislation prevented humanity from learning all that it could about…humanity. And it aided criminals who were willing to help humanity better understand itself.

In the 18th century, medical science was advancing at a slow, if steady rate. Slowly, people were casting off the old-fashioned medical beliefs that had been taught and passed down for centuries since ancient times. Medical students were not interested in humors or blood-letting or spells and potions. They were interested in finding out how the human body was composed and how it worked. To aid curious and hungry growing medical minds, anatomical colleges and great medical teaching hospitals were created in the 17th and 18th and early 19th centuries. Doctors and surgeons or medical students flooded to these institutions so that they might learn more about how the human body worked and how they could better treat and cure it.

But for people to understand how the human body worked they first needed bodies.

An old operating or dissection theatre. If you’ve ever wondered why they were called ‘operating THEATRES’, it’s because these were the chambers where medical students would go to watch their lecturers put on a show about the human body and they were set out, quite literally, like theatres. Students would stand on the tiers above and around the central stage to observe the doctor or surgeon dissecting or operating on the body below (which would be on an operating or dissection table). The wooden rails were there so that students could lean on them and be more comfortable

The problem was, in 18th century England, bodies were notoriously hard to come by. The only bodies that could be given to such medical instruction schools for the purposes of studying anatomy were those of murderers, suiciders or the destitute who had died by execution, their own hand or through neglect and poor health. All well and good, but how many people are hanged each year? Or commit suicide? Or are found dead on the streets? Probably a fair few, but that was few enough. These were the ONLY way that such medical institutions could get their hands on bodies. Even if someone DIED and had stated in their WILL that they desired their remains to be left for the purposes of science and learning, this was against the law. There simply were not enough ‘state-provided’ corpses to be sent to medical colleges for professors and doctors to teach their students about the intricacies of the human body. They needed more bodies. And they didn’t really ask questions about where the bodies came from…if you get my drift.

Enter: The Ressurectionist. Also called ressurection-men or ‘body-snatchers’, these men would break into churchyards and cemeteries under cover of darkness to dig up corpses that had been recently buried, and send them off to doctors and surgeons who could use them to teach their students about the human body. There was big business in body-snatching. Of course, doctors have always been wealthy people, and they could…and would…pay generously for a really nice ‘specimen’. This led to the rise of the body-snatcher in the 18th century.

How was Body-Snatching Done?

It was just as well that stealing bodies paid really well (or well enough, at least), because stealing them in the first place was pretty damn hard. To begin with, you needed to find a graveyard. Having found it, you had to get over the numerous obstacles that protected it. Gates were locked at night, bars couldn’t be squeezed through and it could be tricky climbing over the sharp, wrought-iron railings. Coupled with that, there were often watchmen or police-constables on patrol, doing “the graveyard shift”. There were even watch-towers in larger cemeteries!

The tower in the middle of this cemetery (round, white building) was built for watchmen to stand guard in, and keep an eye out for body-snatchers at night

If you got past all these obstacles and barricades, you still had to dig up the body. And there was a lot of digging. To be ‘six feet under’ isn’t just a euphamism for death, it was also quite literally how deep a coffin was buried under ground! At a rough calculation, you would have to dig out about 72 cubic feet of soil with nothing but a shovel, by lamplight, risking discovery with each shovelful of earth. And once you found the coffin, you had to get it open. Coffins were often nailed shut and would have to be forced open with a crowbar. Having gotten the coffin open, you had to get the body out (a dead weight of say, 200lbs, less or more, depending on the individual) and then you’d have to close the coffin and then bury the empty coffin all over again in an operation that could take over an hour! And even then you still had to smuggle the corpse out of the cemetery!

Body-snatching, rather obviously, was against the law. Punishments for body-snatching ranged from fines to terms of imprisonment. Occasionally, body-snatching even resulted in execution. The famous body-snatchers, Williams Burke and Hare, who were Irish immigrants in Scotland, would actually murder people so that they could sell the corpses to Dr. John Knox, who ran an anatomy school in Edinburgh, Scotland. Burke was hanged for murder in January, 1829, after Hare testified against him. Hare was never prosecuted for murder and went free, but Burke’s body, as with all bodies that were hanged…was donated to a medical college for dissection. A rather fitting end.

The End of the Body-Snatchers

The crime of body-snatching, in the United Kingdom, at least, ended in 1832. The Burke and Hare murders had highlighted to the population that there was a serious and legitimate need of dead bodies, by medical instruction colleges. Doctors, surgeons and anatomists needed dead bodies if they were to teach medical students about their own bodies. In order to further the cause of medical science and to prevent further cases of body-snatching, the British parliament passed the Anatomy Act in 1832.

Under the Murder Act of 1752, only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for medical dissections. By the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, Parliament allowed, amongst other things…

— People to donate their remains to science in their wills (unless the family objected, and if they did, then the body would be interred).
— Doctors and surgeons the legal right to claim any unclaimed corpses from prisons or workhouses, for the purposes of medical science.
— For proper regulation of anatomical teachers (who were thereafter required to register a license as a lawful teacher of human anatomy).


Pen Profile: Waterman #12 ‘Secretary’ eyedropper (1904)

From the 1890s until the 1950s, the Waterman Pen Company was famous for manufacturing awesome fountain pens. Their vintage pens are among the most famous and collectable in the world. I’ve always wanted one, especially one of their lovely Red Ripple hard rubber (also called ‘Woodgrain”) pens…but that was not to be.

Until recently.

No I didn’t get a woodgrain pen…but I did get something just as interesting:

This is a Waterman #12 ‘Secretary’ pen from 1904. Like all pens from the era, it’s made from hard rubber, and like almost all pens from the era, it’s an eyedropper. I like eyedroppers. Messy as they are to use, they are, nonetheless, idiotproof. Unscrew the pen-barrel, squirt in the ink, screw the barrel shut…and write! What could be more idiotproof than that?

Apparently people were stupider back then because the original box, which comes with the original instructions, have written on those instructions rather detailed steps about how to use an eyedropper pen. Although it’s probably not surprising that instructions were made that detailed – fountain pens were like iPads in 1904 and were only just becoming a commercial viablity.

I bought this pen for a variety of reasons, at the 2010 Melbourne Pen Show. The first reason is I didn’t own a vintage Waterman at the time and especially not one as cool as this. Second…I’ve never owned a pen this old that came with its original packaging and instructions! Third, it has a really sweet superflexible nib (also called a ‘wet noodle’) which oozes characteristics that most pens today would strip their gold to have.

Reading the advertising material on the box is a wonderful step into history, seeing just how Waterman marketed its products. The underside of the box is entirely devoted to warning the customer about fake Waterman fountain pens, instructing them to “make sure when buying a Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen, to see that our trademarks are stamped on every gold nib and on every holder”. I think it’s also very telling of how revolutionary the idea of a portable reservoir pen was at the turn of the century, when you read the instruction (that has shown up on every single pre-1910 pen-box that I’ve ever seen), that says (all in big, bold, underlined capitals):


When Waterman was advertising to a public which had only ever grown up using steel dip-pens with easily-broken, rusty nibs which had to be removed and replaced every few months, this instruction was very important, and again shows just how new the novelty of the fountain pen was. The pen itself is rather simple. Black, chased hard rubber with two gold bands around it. The nib is a New York Waterman’s #2 nib in 14kt gold, which is about as flexible as you could get. The pen fills easily (if messily) and writes smoothly. I love it!

Eyedropper pens such as this lasted until about 1915, when more practical self-fillers, such as Conklin’s crescent, Sheaffer’s lever and Parker’s button-filler began to replace them and become more popular with writers. But that doesn’t make those pens any better writers, just better fillers, and fountain pens of this vintage are as much fun to use as those made decades later.


Kung Hei Fat Choi! Happy Chinese New Year, Everybody!

Despite the pressure of being the “Model Minority” and being expected to know four instruments, three different sciences, being able to kick butt with your arms in a straitjacket and having a quintillion relations…being Chinese does have some benefits.

Such as being able to celebrate TWO new years. Isn’t that just grand?

The dating of this post is important. The Third of February, 2011. Chinese New Year and the start of the Year of the Rabbit, something that I have been waiting for, for a long time…

Why? Mostly because I am a rabbit. And rabbits are supposed to be artistic, family-oriented, creative, loving, compassionate, peaceful and sincere.

Who doesn’t like a fat, fluffy, cuddly wabbit?

D’awwwwwwww…!!! Wook ad dah widdle wabbitywobbitywibbitywoobbity!…

Amazingly, this article is not about rabbits. Or about animals at all. Or it might be. No. This article is about Chinese New Year. More specifically, it is about the legends, myths and traditions that surround the Chinese New Year. And there are a great many of them. Enough, in fact, for me to write up a long, boring article about them which you are now compelled to read.

What’s the Deal with the Freakin’ Animals?

The most famous aspect of Chinese New Year, apart from the fact that it never seems to take place on the same date each year, much to the confusion of Westerners…is the fact that Chinese people celebrate their new years according to animals, not dates. We don’t have 1945 or 1984 or 2012. We have the year of the Rabbit, Dog, Pig, Ox, Snake and the Giant Polka-Dotted Sea-Turtle (okay I made up that last one).

There are twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac. In order (yes, there IS an order to this), they are:

Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. A fascinating and mismatched bunch of animals. And so begins our first legend.

Exactly how the Chinese came up with this Dirty Dozen of the Barnyard Variety happened, as it always does, back in the old days. Before people had figured out how to date years, a legend tells that one of the Chinese gods had set a competition. A Chinese Zoological Olympic Games that would rival the Beijing Olympics. It went like this:

To try and put names to the years, the Jade Emperor, a Chinese God, decided that on his birthday, there would be an Amazing Race. All the animals in China were to compete in a race through the woodlands. The first twelve animals to cross the river (and therefore, the finishing-line) at the end of the race, would be honoured for all time by having years named after them.

And so, training began. Now I’d like to say that there was an Ancient Chinese drugs-scandal and that the Panda was disqualified for testing positive to Gentically-Modified Bamboo Extract or something, but historical and mythological records don’t mention this. But what happened was the following:

The rat and cat were great friends. They liked to party a lot together. When the race came, they asked the Ox to help them across the river at the end of the race. The Ox agreed. The other animals, deciding they didn’t need help, went off on the race alone.

The Rat won first place in the race because, being a crafty rat as rats always are, he kicked the cat into the river and jumped onto the bank before everyone else. The cat lost and the Ox won second place.

Next came the Tiger, who swam across the river and arrived, exhausted but triumphant, in third place.

The rabbit, being a creative fellow, decided that swimming was SOOOO last year (whenever that was!) and decided to go leap-frogging, and jumped from rock to rock, acoss the river. Impressed with the Rabbit’s ingenuity, the Jade Emperor awarded him fourth place.

Next, came the Dragon, who took advantage of the great tailwinds and flew in to land without mishap on the riverbank. The emperor knew that the Dragon was an awesome creature who could do great things, and asked him why he didn’t show up first. Well the Dragon was the original Rainmaker, and said that he had to make rain for the farmers on the way over. He also sent wind down to accompany the rain, and also to help Rabbit, who had hopped onto a log after the last rock, and who was blown ashore by the dragon’s breath. Touched by the Dragon’s sportsmanship and generosity, the emperor granted him fifth place.

Next came the snake and the horse, claiming sixth and seventh places, respectively.

Next came Goat, Monkey and Rooster, floating on a raft. The emperor granted them eighth, ninth and tenth places.

Last came Dog (eleventh) and finally, Pig, in the last and twelfth place.

But what happened to Cat? Well the legend says that Cat came out of the river last. As 13 is an unlucky number to some people, the emperor did not grant the Cat a place in the winning ranks. Enraged that he had been tricked out of a chance of fame and immortality, the cat chased the rat until the end of time, which is why cats chase rats today.

Things that go Bang in the Night

Lighting firecrackers is a fun, noisy and potentially dangerous new year’s tradition that has existed in China (and other parts of the world) for centuries.

The legend of firecrackers is that in Ancient China, a young warrior was travelling through a village on New Year’s Eve. He was grabbed by an elderly villager and pulled into his cottage whereafter the old man barred the door. He told the warrior that there was a ferocious beast who lived in the forest nearby, and who came out each New Year’s Eve to eat anybody who was caught outside after sundown.

The warrior told the villagers to tell him where the beast lived. Unafraid, he unsheathed his sword and went into the jungle to slay it. Although the beast was gone, the villagers, who had previously used gunpowder and red paper to scare the beast away, were scared that its spirit might come back to haunt them. To this end, Chinese people hang (and light) firecrackers outside their houses, and red cards with lucky sayings on them, to scare off evil spirits and to bring good luck during the New Year.

Hong Bao

Chinese words literally meaning “Red Bags”, Hongbao are the red envelopes filled with money that are passed around during Chinese New Year. They are given to children and unmarried adults to wish them luck and prosperity in the year ahead.

Wearing Red

It’s a Chinese tradition to wear something red during celebrations, but especially during Chinese New Year. This is because Red is the Chinese colour of celebration. It comes from the legend of the New Year’s monster (see above) who terrorised the villagers. People wore red clothing and stuck red posters on their doorframes to scare away the monster and to bring them good luck. That tradition is continued to this day.