Body-snatching was the secret disinterment of bodies from churchyards to sell them for dissection or anatomy lectures in medical schools. Those who practised body-snatching or grave robbing were often called resurrectionists or resurrection-men.

Body-snatching in the United Kingdom

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who were sentenced to dissection by the courts were often guilty of comparatively harsher crimes. While something like stealing food might get you a prison sentence, people guilty of murder may be sentenced to death and dissection. Even these punishments did not provide enough subjects for the medical schools and private anatomical schools (which required no licence before 1832). While in the 1700s, hundreds had been executed for trivial crimes, by the 19th century only 55 people were being hanged each year. However, with the expansion of the medical schools, as many as 500 were needed.

Before electric power to supply refrigeration, bodies would rapidly decay and become unusable for study. Therefore, the medical profession turned to body-snatching to supply the shortfall of bodies fresh enough for the organs, flesh etc to be examined.

Stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and was therefore only punishable with fine and imprisonment, rather than transportation or execution. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection, particularly as the authorities tended to turn a blind eye to what they considered a necessary evil.

Body-snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being violated. Iron coffins, too, were frequently used, or the graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes, well-preserved examples of which may still be seen in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh. In the Netherlands, poorhouses were accustomed to receiving a small fee by undertakers who paid a fine for ignoring burial laws and resold the bodies (especially those with no family) to doctors.

One method the body-snatchers used was to dig at the head end of a recent burial, digging with a wooden spade (quieter than metal). When they reached the coffin (in London the graves were quite shallow), they broke open the coffin, put a rope around the corpse and dragged it out. They were careful not to steal anything such as jewellery or clothes as this would leave them open to a felony charge.

The Lancet reported another method. A manhole-sized square of turf was removed 15ft to 20ft away from the head of the grave, and a tunnel dug to intercept the coffin, which would be about 4ft down. The end of the coffin would be pulled off, and the corpse pulled up through the tunnel. The turf was then replaced, and any relatives watching the graves would not notice the small, remote disturbance. The article suggests that the number of empty coffins that have been discovered "proves beyond a doubt that at this time body-snatching was frequent".

In 1827 and 1828, Edinburgh resurrectionists Burke and Hare shifted their tactics from grave-robbing to murder, as they were paid more for the very fresh corpses. Their activities, and those of the London Burkers who imitated them, led to the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832. This allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, and required the licensing of anatomy teachers, which essentially ended the body-snatching trade. The use of bodies for scientific research in the UK is now governed by the Human Tissue Authority.

Body-snatching in other countries

The practice was also common in other parts of the Empire, such as Canada, where religious customs as well as the lack of means of preservation made it hard for medical students to obtain a steady supply of fresh bodies. In many instances the students had to resort to fairly regular body-snatching.

While studying in Paris, Vesalius was accustomed to robbing the Paris graveyards with fellow anatomy pupils.

In Montreal during the winter of 1875, typhoid struck at a convent school. The corpses of the victims were filched by body-snatchers before relatives arrived from America, causing an international scandal. Eventually the Anatomy Act of Quebec was amended to prevent a recurrence, effectively ending medical body-snatching in Quebec.

Approximately 312 bodies are snatched per month from those hired to "body snatch".

Bodysnatching in fiction

Contemporary bodysnatching

There are also modern-day reports of body snatching, although this is very rare. One notorious case in the United Kingdom involved the theft of the remains of Gladys Hammond from Yoxall Churchyard near Lichfield in south Staffordshire. Mrs Hammond's remains were taken by animal rights extremists who were campaigning against Darley Oaks Farm, a licensed facility which bred guinea pigs for scientific research. Mrs Hammond was the mother in law of one of the farm's owners. After a four-year investigation by Staffordshire Police four leaders of the Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs campaign group (three men: Kerry Whitburn of Edgbaston, John Smith of Wolverhampton, John Ablewhite of Manchester; and one woman: Josephine Mayo of Staffordshire) were jailed for conspiracy to blackmail. The men received 12 years each and the woman received four years. The police said the conspiracy included the theft of Mrs Hammond's remains, which were recovered by police following information given by one of the four.

There is still a demand for corpses for transplantation surgery in the form of allografts, and modern body-snatchers feed this demand. Tissue such gained is medically unsafe and unusable. The broadcaster Alistair Cooke's bones were allegedly cut up by body-snatchers before his cremation

New Zealand

There were widely publicized body-snatching cases in 2007–2008. Jack Takamore died in August 2007. His partner of more than 20 years wanted to bury him in Christchurch. His relatives, however, took his body without permission from his partner and buried him in Kutarere, Bay of Plenty. In December 2007, Tina Marshall-McMenamin was supposed to be buried in Lower Hutt, but her biological father took and buried her near Ruatoria. In March 2008, Ivy May Ngahooro wrote in her will that she be buried Hamilton, but a daughter she hadn't seen in 20 years turned up during the funeral and took her to Taumarunui, planning to bury her there instead. After negotiations, she was brought back to and buried in Hamilton.

According to New Zealand law, a body cannot be owned, therefore, body-snatching is not illegal and the police cannot act.

Further reading

  • J B Bailey, editor (1896). The Diary of a Resurrectionist. London. Contains a full bibliography and the regulations in force in foreign countries for the supply of bodies for anatomical purposes, as of its date of publish.
  • Vieux Doc (docteur Edmond Grignon) (1930). En guettant les ours : mémoires d'un médecin des Laurentides. Montréal : Éditions Édouard Garand. Digitized by the National Library of Quebec. French language.
  • Burch, Druin (2007). Digging up the Dead: The Life and Times of Astley Cooper, an Extraordinary Surgeon. Chatto & Windus, London.
  • C W Herr, editor (1799). The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey. Mrs Carver. Gothic novel about the terror inflicted upon a young woman when she is locked inside a crumbling Abbey used by resurrection men and body snatchers. Published by Zittaw Press.
  • MacDonald, Helen Legal Bodies: Dissecting Murderers at the Royal College of Surgeons, London 1800–1832 - in Traffic: An Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Journal, No.2, 2003 pp.9-32 ISSN 1447 2538
  • Richardson, Ruth (2001). Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Contains excellent information regarding the Anatomy Act and the Resurrectionist's influence upon the urban poor.
  • Roach, Mary (2003). "''Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers". Contains humorous information regarding the study of anatomy before the Anatomy Act.
  • Wise, Sarah The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London (Metropolitan Books, 2004) ISBN 0805075372
  • In the collection of the Wellcome Library: Thomas Williams, John Bishop and James May, murderers: miscellaneous papers relating to murder of persons in Smithfield area and sale of corpses for dissection. 1831. (MS.7058).

See also


External links

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