Resurrecting the Body Snatchers: The Halloween Edition

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I’ve written about body snatchers several times on this site, and each time, readers ask for more. Given that it’s Halloween, I thought I would give into that request and return to the subject in a longer, more comprehensive article about these fascinating creatures from the early 19th century. Happy Halloween!

It is half past two in the morning on October 10th, 1777. The new moon casts a bluish light over St George’s burial ground off Hanover Square in London. Two men, clad in dark clothes, enter the cemetery. They have been tipped off by the grave-digger who accompanies them that the body of Mrs. Jane Sainsbury was buried earlier that day.

Carefully, they navigate around the tombstones until they come to the freshly dug grave. With spades and shovels, they begin soundlessly removing the dark, damp earth, digging deeper and deeper into the ground. Within fifteen minutes, they hit a hard, solid structure: the coffin. One man readies a cloth sack while the other two pry the lid open. A terrible odour escapes: the smell of death. The woman’s eyes have sunk deep into her skull. Her jaw hangs open, stretching her lips into a ghoulish grin.

All three struggle to remove the rotting corpse from its wooden enclosure and strip it of its clothes and burial shroud. Slowly, the woman’s fleshy remains are stuffed inside the sack, limb by limb. One snatcher tosses the woman’s possessions carelessly into the coffin while another silently shuts the lid. All three begin to shovel dirt back over the gravesite, hoisting the sack up as the hole slowly fills.

The job is finished in less than thirty minutes. [1]

_100The words ‘body snatcher’ conjure up all kinds of sordid images: crude men with fingernails caked in dirt; corpses crammed into sacks, bodily fluids leaking through the cloth; murder. But the truth is that relatively little is known about the men who stole away in the middle of the night to collect bodies for the anatomists and their students in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet, they are an important and integral part of our medical past.

During the 17th century, medical students in London were not required to study anatomy or physiology through clinical dissection. The act of cutting open dead bodies was generally believed to be ‘noe more able to direct a physician how to cure a disease than how to make a man’. [2] This is not to say, however, that medical students knew nothing of anatomy. Many attended public dissections conducted by the Barber Surgeons Company. There, they observed and watched, but did not participate (see above, dissected skull from Museum of London Archaeology).

This changed in the 18th century with the proliferation of private medical schools that gave students an opportunity to learn anatomy through dissection. To do this, however, bodies were needed. Lots of bodies.

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From what little records exist, we know that body snatchers required some level of moonlight in order to conduct their work in cemeteries, although not all bodies were obtained through exhumation. The body snatchers might steal as many as six bodies in a single night and often worked in small gangs which fought each other for a monopoly over the cadaver trade. This might involve desecrating a graveyard that supplied bodies to a rival gang in order to arouse fury from the local population who would then secure the cemetery, making it difficult for future attempts.

_100Cemeteries underwent dramatic makeovers as the public’s fear over body-snatching escalated. Mortsafes (left)—or iron grills—were placed over gravesites to prevent snatchers from disturbing the dead. Loose stones were put on top of surrounding walls, making it nearly impossible to scale. Churchyards became fortified with spring guns and primitive land mines. Cemetery ‘clubs’ were formed in which members would watch new graves until ‘decomposition rendered the cadavers useless for anatomical instruction’. [3]

In one instance, a father—grieving over the recent loss of his child—enclosed a ‘small box, [with] some deathful apparatus, communicating by means of wires, with the four corners, to be fastened to the top of the coffin’. As the child was lowered into the ground, he threw gunpowder into the box so that ‘the hidden machinery [was] put into a state of readiness for execution’. [4]

During this period, a human corpse did not legally constitute property, and therefore punishment for stealing one was not nearly as severe as the general populace thought it should be. In 1832, two medical students in Inversek—a village just outside Edinburgh—were caught trying to steal a body from a local churchyard. After being kept in a private house over night, they were moved to a prison at their own request because they believed it was a ‘place of greater security from the threatened vengeance of the outraged citizens.’ The next day:

…a crowd of several hundreds assembled round the gaol, provided with axes and other implements to break it open, and do execution upon the offenders, who … had been previously remitted to the sheriff. [5]

_100The general population abhorred body snatchers and the surgeons who employed them, and went to great lengths to prevent their loved ones from ending up on the dissection table. Coffin collars, like the one seen on the right, were invented to thwart the inexhaustible efforts of the resurrection men. These was fixed around the necks of a corpse and bolted to the bottom of a coffin, making it nearly impossible to remove the body from its grave.

Cemetery guns, as well, were designed to keep body snatchers at bay. These were set up at the foot of a grave, with three tripwires strung in an arc around its position. Those unfortunate enough to stumble upon one in the dead of night may find themselves in a grave of their own.

As ingenious as these devices were, they only protected the dead whose families were wealthy enough to purchase them. It is not a surprise, then, that many of the bodies that ended up in the hands of the surgeons were those of the poor. Making the jobs of the body snatchers even easier was the fact that many paupers were buried in pits which would remain open, sometimes for several weeks. One resurrectionist wrote:

I like to get those of poor people buried from the workhouses, because, instead of working for one subject, you may get three or four; I do not think, during the time I have been in the habit of working for the school, I got half a dozen of wealthier people. [6]

Historian Ruth Richardson points out that the depth of pits varied ‘depending on land available, soil type, and the pecuniary interests of those involved in graveyard “management.”’ [7] Some pits were as deep as twenty feet. In St Botolph’s, Aldgate, two men died at the bottom of one such pit from asphyxiation after stumbling into it in the 1830s.

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The body snatchers continue to live in the public’s imagination as criminals of the lowest form, partly because so little is known about them. Reports about their alleged activities are often exaggerated in newspapers and literature from the period. In 1824, the surgeon, William Mackenzie, complained that a week rarely passed without ‘the circulation of exaggerated stories of atrocities in the procuring of subjects for dissection’. [8]

But, of course, body snatchers were hugely important to medical schools at that time. Their presence could not be avoided. On 8 October 1793, James Williams—a 16 year-old surgical student—described his living quarters in John Hunter’s anatomy school to his sister living in Worcester. He wrote:

My room has two beds in it and in point of situation is not the most pleasant in the world. The Dissecting Room with half a dozen dead bodies in it is immediately above and that in which Mr Hunter makes preparations is the next adjoining to it, so that you may conceive it to be a little perfumed. There is a dead carcase just at this moment rumbling up the stairs and the Resurrection Men swearing most terribly. I am informed this will be the case most mornings about four o’clock throughout the winter. [8]

Before the discovery of anesthetics, surgery was a brutal affair. The patient had to be restrained during an operation; the pain might be so great that he or she would pass out. Dangerous amounts of blood could be lost. The risk of dying was high; the risk of infection was even higher. The surgeon was so feared that in many cases, patients waited until it was too late before approaching one for help.

Dead bodies, on the other hand, could not scream out in agony, nor would they bleed when sliced open. In this way, the novice could learn how to remove a bladder stone or amputate a gangrenous arm at his own leisure, observing the anatomical structures of the human body as he went along. Ultimately, this prepared the student to operate on the living (see 19th-century dissection table below from the Science Museum, London).

18th/19th century wooden dissecting table from the Doctors, Diss

In this way, body snatchers were crucial to the advancement of medicine. Unfortunately, historians find it difficult to track them as they often use numerous aliases to hide their true identities. One snatcher may appear in multiple court records under half a dozen names. There is simply no way to know.

It is unlikely that many body snatchers were murderers. The punishment for stealing a body was too low; the punishment for murder was too high. The payout for a body was the same no matter how one procured it. Yet undeniably, the resurrection men are a part of the medical profession’s dark and sordid past—a past that for the most part has received only cursory acknowledgement.

Still, we must ask ourselves where we would be today without the body snatchers and the bodies which they stole.

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1. Based loosely off a true account. The three body snatchers were eventually apprehended. One was acquitted while the other two were sentenced to six months imprisonment. They were paraded through the streets and whipped publicly. L. Benson, The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters (1872?).
2. Probably the fragment of 1668, Anatomie, most of which is in John Locke’s hand. Originally quoted in Andrew Cunningham, ‘The Kinds of Anatomy’, Medical History (1975), p. 3.
3. Ian Ross and Carol Urquhart Ross, ‘Body Snatching in Nineteenth Century Britain: from Exhumation to Murder’, British Journal of Law and Society (Summer, 1979), p. 114.
4. J.B. Bailey, The Diary of a Resurrectionist: 1811-1812 (1896), p. 80.
5. True Sun, 29-5-1832. Originally qtd in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1987),
6. Ibid., p. 60.
7. Ibid.
8. MacKenzie, ‘An Appeal to the Public and to the Legislature, on the Necessity of Affording Dead Bodies to the Schools of Anatomy, by Legislature Enactment’, Westminster Review (1824), pp. 83-86.
9.Qtd in Jesse Dobson, John Hunter (1969), p. 178.

By | 2014-10-31T12:58:17+00:00 October 31st, 2014|Casebooks|12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. J Stephen Carbone October 31, 2014 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    I love James Williams’ description of his boarding house. My dorm in med school was nothing like that (although it may, in fact, have smelled similarly).

  2. jacqueline S October 31, 2014 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    Excellent gruesome history. Now intrigued about the men who did this as a ‘career’.

  3. […] By The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice […]

  4. tbaird1 October 31, 2014 at 4:36 pm - Reply

    Well done, once again! And Happy Halloween to you, too.

  5. […] Read about body snatchers here. Listen about them here: […]

  6. Barb Drummond October 31, 2014 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    Some of the body snatchers were medical students. See my blog for a few cases. Ditto grave robber stones were placed on fresh graves then moved when corpse was rotten. Body only used when fresh. Also, don’ t think cemeteries existed before 19th century. Mostly church yard burials.

  7. sandvick October 31, 2014 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    For Halloween the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has posted an article on Body Snatchers. In the 18th Century, doctors needed bodies for dissection. Body snatchers were hired to illegally steal bodies from graves for medical schools. The article explores the gruesome practice of grave robbing in 18th century London.

  8. […] The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice: Resurrecting the Body Snatchers: The Halloween Edition […]

  9. Lia December 4, 2014 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    This is very interesting and makes more sense for the iron bars and collar than what I had previously seen these exact same pictures used for an article about how they kept vampires from rising using these devises

  10. […] Resurrecting the Body Snatchers  […]

  11. Pakar Seo August 24, 2016 at 8:33 am - Reply

    Thank you for every otther fantastic article. Where else may anybody get that type off info
    in such an ideal manner of writing? I’ve a presentation next week,
    and I’m at the look for such information.

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice August 24, 2016 at 8:34 am - Reply

      Thanks Pakar! If you look through my site, you’ll find footnotes to many of my articles with further suggested reading. There are some good books out there about the bodysnatchers. One of my favorites is: Digging up the Dead by Druin Burch. Good luck!

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