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.
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).