Resurrection Men: Stalking the Dead
Imagine being a resident of London during 1795. One fall morning word
gets about that three men were apprehended in the vicinity of the Lambeth
burial ground, a site where relations happened to be interred, and these
men were carrying sacks containing the remains of five human beings. What
would one's natural reaction to this news have been? To rush to the site
to determine if the relations remained properly buried? Probably. This
did, in fact, occur during the fall of 1795. Upon hearing the news a large
crowd of people descended on the Lambeth burial ground demanding entrance.
Parish officers were called out to keep the crowd at bay but were unable
to halt the flow of angry people. The crowd gained admittance and began
to dig frantically at the ground, unearthing many empty coffins. This caused
a reaction of those involved: "Great distress and agitation of mind was
manifest in every one, and some, in a kind of phrensy, ran away with the
coffins of their deceased relations" (Richardson, 1988, 78). This was characteristic
of a dark and gruesome period in the history of the United Kingdom termed
the resurrection times (Montgomery, 1989). Resurrection times spanned some
eighty years between approximately 1750 and 1832 when the passage of the
Warburton Anatomy Act brought an end to the period. During resurrection
times and especially during the latter thirty years of the era citizens
living in the major cities of the realm suffered from the very real fear
that no sooner than their friends and relatives were buried they were 'resurrected'
by thieves termed sack-em-up gentlemen, body snatchers, ghouls, or resurrection
men to be sold to the highest bidder (Montgomery, 1989). Those who paid
for these things were not Frankensteins, but surgeons, medical school administrators,
and teachers and students of anatomy. Rural churchyards were not immune
from this threat- if they happened to be located near a medical school.
The police were subtly encouraged to look the other way and could offer
little protection. The motive behind such monstrous acts lay originally
in humanitarian concerns because subjects were needed for scientific reasons.
But towards the end of resurrection times the motive became one less noble-
profit. In some cases profit drove body snatchers to murder.
The phenomenon was not confined to Great Britain. The young American colonies suffered the attentions of resurrection men. The rest of Europe did not share in the resurrection era, however, because the factors of popular animosity against dissection and political decisions reinforcing this animosity were not present. The other countries of the Continent established early laws dealing with anatomical subjects and did not share the abhorrence against dissection. In considering the social, economic and political climate of the resurrection era it was perhaps inevitable that the human corpse became a commodity. Popular opinion was decidedly negative towards the dissection of human remains. Not only did dissection offend religious beliefs, it offended the working class as the subjects of anatomical study were most often drawn from the ranks of the poor. The quest for medical knowledge led to a rise in the use of anatomy for education. Private medical schools opened attracting greater numbers of students. Subjects were needed to educate these students, yet the only legal source from which to obtain these subjects was the gallows. Again, most often those being executed were the poor. England had embarked on an industrial expansion during this time which advanced her economy in comparison with other countries. The wealth accrued from increased agricultural production, manufacturing, trade and finance was shared among the aristocratic and mercantile classes. Little trickled down to the working class. The population also expanded at a rapid rate, increasing from approximately six million during 1730 to twelve million by 1811 (Cooper, 1974). The cities swelled with people looking for employment, creating a new class of urban poor. Conditions were wretched for this class and food riots, looting and mob violence were commonplace. The wealthy upper classes reacted by urging the passage of harsher laws with more severe penalties against crime and by 1820 statutes defining crimes with capital punishments numbered over two hundred (Cooper, 1974). In the words of barrister Charles Phillips, "We hanged for everything- for a shilling- for five shillings- for five pounds- for cattle- for coining- for forgery, even for witchcraft- for things that were and things that could not be" (Cooper, 1974, 27). An act of Parliament during 1752 further outraged the public by making hanging in chains or dissection of those condemned to death for murder mandatory. While execution was bad enough the public was further outraged by the thought of the condemned being dissected and fought to keep the remains out of surgeon's hands. During 1788 a case of grave robbing was brought before a court where the court decided that as the body was not property the theft of human remains could not be considered a crime. This made prosecution of body snatchers futile and frustrated the efforts of police to halt the trade in human remains. While the public decried the work of resurrectionists police had their hands tied by the courts.
The business of opening graves to rob the dead of their jewelry and such can be traced back to Ancient Egyptians, with grave diggers sharing in the spoils with robbers (Adams, 1972). Exhuming bodies from graves for medical education purposes can be traced back to the twelfth century. The first documented case of body snatching occurred in Mondino, Italy, during 1319. Four medical students were apprehended and accused of resurrecting the body of an executed criminal from its grave and transporting it to the medical school to be dissected. Unfortunately no final disposition of the case is recorded (Lassek, 1958). Concern of grave robbing in England can be seen as early as 1615, evidenced by the epithet on William Shakespeare's tombstone: Good friend, for Iesus sake forebeare To digge the dust encloased heare. Bleste be ye man (that) spares these stones, And curste be he (that) moves my bones. (Richardson, 1988, 54).
Social Factors Influencing the Resurrection Era
A Short History of
When contemplating the social factors surrounding the resurrection era it is important to note the history of dissection in Great Britain as it compared to the remainder of the Continent. The people of the United Kingdom had only negative feelings towards the cutting up of human cadavers for any reason. Religious beliefs fueled this resistance. Most devout Christians were convinced that any such mutilation of the corpse would interfere with the plan of Divine Resurrection, when the faithful would be bodily gathered around the heavenly throne (Montgomery, 1989). Destruction of the body after death could result in the loss of identity forever. The lingering dread was that on the last day of judgment when the dead were resurrected the dissected corpse would be seen wandering around searching for its lost parts (Walker, 1997). Dissection was socially unacceptable and the use of executed criminals served to exacerbate these negative feelings by equating dissection with crime and punishment. The history of dissection in the United Kingdom is far more complex than those of the other countries of the continent. Medical education was controlled not by the universities but by the guilds of Barbers, Surgeons, and Apothecaries (Frank, 1976). Legal recognition of the need for cadavers to advance medical knowledge was first recognized in Scotland during 1504, when James IV granted the Edinburgh Guild of Surgeons and Barbers the bodies of certain executed criminals for dissection (Lassek, 1958). In England King Henry VIII had an interest in medicine and was one of the first kings to allow human dissection. Parliament and King Henry granted a royal charter to the Companies of Barbers and Surgeons during 1540 which united the companies as a guild, and during 1541 they were granted the annual right of the bodies of four executed felons for anatomy. Queen Elizabeth I during 1565 granted four bodies annually to the College of Physicians and Surgeons and during 1663 Charles II increased Henry's original grant to six. This allowed the Barber-Surgeons Company and the College of Physicians to maintain a monopoly on dissection by provision of common law which kept the demand for anatomical subjects low. By the turn of the eighteenth century this monopoly began to lose strength, however, as Parliment realized British medical education had fallen far behind its Continental rivals. Aspiring doctors often went abroad to Italy or Paris for their medical training. They observed the methods in vogue in these countries which included hands-on anatomy by students (Lassek, 1958). To compensate for Great Britain's lack of progress Parliament dissolved the two-hundred year-old Barber-Surgeons Guild during 1745, allowing private medical schools to open and compete for executed criminals (Montgomery, 1989). The great London hospitals St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew also began to offer classes in anatomy (Lassek, 1958). Increasing numbers of students were drawn to the study of medicine. During 1793 there were only about two hundred medical students in London, but by 1823 there were over a thousand, all in competition for scarce legally allowed subjects (Frank, 1976). In Edinburgh there were some nine hundred medical students (Douglas, 1973). By 1760 it had become customary for students to dissect for themselves. In order to be granted a license from the former Barber-Surgeons Company, now the Royal College of Surgeons, a course in dissection was mandatory which increased the need for anatomical subjects to a height unable to be satisfied by execution (Frank, 1976). Legally the acceptable method to obtain subjects was still at the gallow's foot. Providing adequate numbers of subjects was not a problem in other countries on the continent which advanced their medical knowledge compared to Great Britain. In France cadavers were obtained from civil hospitals, prisons and alms houses after the bodies remained unclaimed for twenty-four hours. Germany allowed the bodies of those who had died in prison or committed suicide to be used by medical schools. Others made available were the bodies of those who had died as paupers and those who had been supported by the public provided friends or relatives did not come forward to claim the body. If the body was claimed the friend or family paid a sum to the schools in order to collect. Executed criminals could also be used by medical schools. This system functioned well enough to provide an adequate supply of subjects so exhumation was largely unknown. Australia also used unclaimed bodies to supply the medical schools after a wait of forty-eight hours. Most activity was in Vienna where subjects came from the general hospital. There was no need to resort to illegal means. Italian governmental regulations were the most liberal. All persons who died in the hospitals were automatically given up for anatomy unless someone came forward with the money necessary for burial. Body snatching was virtually unknown. As anatomizing began in these countries two centuries before, laws were enacted early which were modified and liberalized to fit the needs of medical schools. The use of executed criminals as the sole source of subjects was uniformly eliminated, thereby removing any infamy associated with dissection which adversely affected obtaining bodies. In 1790 France repealed laws allowing dissection of convicted murders, removing the stigma attached to the practice (Lassek, 1958). During the same time period residents of Great Britain were in a difficult situation. The rise in medical schools and increasing number of students created a demand for something the people were not willing to relinquish, and instead of attempting to remedy the situation the government made decisions which exacerbated the problem.
The penal practices of Great Britain had an unintended positive effect
on the advancement of medical knowledge and an intended negative effect
on the public morale which would eventually serve to outweigh the positive.
The common law allowing the bodies of up to ten executed felons per annum
was made statutory during 1752 by an act of Parliament and King George
II. This act, entitled 'An Act for better preventing the horrid Crime of
Murder', contained the preamble: "Whereas the horrid Crime of Murder
has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly and particularly
in and near the Metropolis of this Kingdom, contrary to known Humanity
and natural Genius of the British Nation: And whereas it is thereby become
necessary, that some further Terror and peculiar Mark of Infamy be added
to the Punishment of Death, now by Law inflicted on such as shall be guilty
of the said heinous Offense;..." (Radzinowich, 1943, 206). The motive
behind the Act was not in the interests of science but to horrify a public
who already had a deep-seated fear of dissection. The substance of the
Act gave the sentencing judge the discretion to either have the body of
the condemned delivered to surgeons for dissection or to be hung in chains,
but on no account was the body of a convicted murderer to be allowed a
proper burial unless dissected first (Radzinowich, 1943).
Hanging in chains was a gruesome way to dispose of a body. After the condemned was hung the body would remain suspended at the site until decomposed as a warning to the 'lower orders', often near places where crime occurred and occasionally in front of the criminal's house (Cooper, 1974, 1). Despite this humiliation criminals often preferred hanging in chains to dissection by surgeons. The fear of dissection was so great one condemned man sent letters to his former friends begging them to form a company to prevent the surgeons "...in their designs upon his body." He would rather have been hung in chains, and asked the court of justice for this sentence (Gatrell, 1994, 192). Failure to comply with the provisions of the Act was punishable. Gaolers who evaded the provisions could be punished by forfeiture of their office and a fine of twenty pounds. If one attempted to rescue the body of the felon before or after the execution of the sentence the punishment was transportation for seven years (Radzinowich, 1943).
The Act, in effect, made the surgeon or anatomy student the executor of the sentence and linked dissection with the criminal justice system. In order to receive a body the receptor had to follow the criteria prescribed by law. The hangings were usually on Monday mornings at eight o'clock with the cut-down at nine. The body was placed on a cart, accompanied by the city marshal. The marshal was required to be in attendance and properly witness the anatomizing in order for the sentence to be lawfully completed. This witnessing was usually brief on the part of the marshal, who would stay long enough to see a superficial incision in the chest of the body. He would then ride back to report to his superiors that the procedure was properly discharged (Lassek, 1958).
Just as executions were public during this period so were some dissections. In many eighteenth century towns public anatomy lessons became social events which often drew fashionable yet voyeuristic audiences. After the execution of murderer William Corder in Bury St. Edmonds during 1828 his body was placed on public display in the shire hall. The half naked body was opened at the chest by a surgeon and lay with the internal organs exposed. People were as anxious to gain a peek at the mangled body as they were intent upon witnessing the actual execution (Gatrell, 1994).
The Court of King's Bench added another political encouragement to the resurrection era. During 1788 the case of Rex v. Lynn came before the court. Lynn was charged and sentenced for the offense of disinterring a corpse for purposes of dissection. His counsel submitted that the offense was solely of ecclesiastical concern but the court found the offense was criminal in that it was morally offensive. As English common law does not allow the body to have a property value the offense could not be construed as a theft, therefore provision was made to define it as a common misdemeanor punishable by fine and, at the court's discretion, a brief incarceration (Ross, 1976). The theft of grave clothes, however, was a felony. For this reason shrouds were returned to coffins. Such a sentence is astonishing considering that a conviction for theft of a fowl carried a sentence of transportation (Linebaugh, 1975).
Sentences for disturbing a grave handed down even before this decision were not severe. In the 1777 case of a grave digger, his assistant and an accomplice prosecuted for stealing an exhumed body the two principles were sentenced to six months incarceration and a whipping. The accomplice was dismissed (Bailey, 1896). It was also difficult to get a conviction as illustrated by a Hatton Garden Police Court case during 1814. Two men carrying seven dead bodies packed in sacks and baskets were apprehended by officers on a Tuesday. The men were arrested and committed to prison and the bodies deposited in a lock up house. By Thursday, despite the damning evidence, the men were discharged. Often cemetery keepers were reluctant to prosecute because this alerted the public to the situation, causing uproar (Bailey, 1896).
Several economic factors served to encourage the
resurrection era. As previously stated the growth of the United Kingdom's
economy during industrialization created a new class of urban poor. Unemployment
was widespread along with job lay-offs and wage decreases. Sudden destitution
from the insecurities of credit and the vagarities of the market was commonplace
(Linebaugh, 1975). The resurrection business was a better way to make a
living than turning to other types of crime when one could be hanged for
the theft of a peruke valued at seven shillings (Linebaugh, 1975). The
cost of providing burial to paupers was another consideration. Records
of the 127 parishes situated in London, Westminister, Southwark and the
immediate vicinity during 1827 show that out of 3,744 persons who died
in workhouses 3,103 were buried at parish expense, and of those about 1,108
were not attended to the grave by any relations (Bailey, 1896). Resurrection
men claiming to be relatives of those who died in workhouses must have
been somewhat welcome. To reduce these costs pit burial of the poor became
common practice throughout London and in inner city areas all over Britain.
"Such graves are dug by orders of parish officers and others and are frequently
kept open for many weeks, until charged nearly to the surface with dead
bodies." (Richardson, 1988, 61). Such graves encouraged body snatching
as they were seldom guarded by police and therefore easily looted.
The cost of obtaining bodies legally available also began to rise as public opposition to dissection of the condemned escalated. Surgeons had to bribe the Sheriff and his officers, tip their assistants for each body seized at Tyburn, and pay constables to protect them and their halls when a body was delivered. When surgeons attempted to prosecute those who rescued bodies the costs exceeded fifteen pounds (Linebaugh, 1975). It became far less expensive to pay resurrection men for subjects.
Methods: How To Snatch A Body
During the early years of the resurrection era body snatching was predominately the work of anatomy students, school administrators and teachers, and surgeons, hence the term "sack- em-up gentlemen" (Montgomery, 1989). A 1721 clause of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons prohibiting students from engaging in the practice suggests that students probably had been robbing graves for subjects. It was also said that in Scotland students could pay tuition in corpses rather than money (Richardson, 1988). In some schools students were encouraged to form a physician-apprentice relationship with their teachers, and it seems almost a rite of passage that the student supply a subject for dissection (Schultz, 1992).
The methods employed by students were often clumsy and involved the use of spirits, therefore easily detected. In an account given by a young medical student during 1751 the student related that after passing an evening drinking in the anatomy room a party decided to resurrect the body of a woman executed for theft the day before. At half past twelve the student, along with several other students and an assistant of the school's administrator set out with spades and grappling hooks. The party arrived at the graveyard where the woman's body was interred yet had some difficulty finding the correct grave. After one of the students literally fell into the correct grave while sitting on the ground the body was snatched and stuffed into a foul smelling sack. The students then fled the graveyard without attempting to cover their actions and the next morning drew lots to determine the disposal of the various parts of the corpse (Gray, 1937). This activity carried the danger of disease transmission. In locating the grave the students inadvertently dug up a coffin which when opened "did prove to contain an old woman very foul...I pray with all my heart...so that we caught not some enervating distemper..." (Gray, 1937, 35).
Students were also in danger of violent response from the watchers of graves. In an account from Glasglow, Scotland students on a snatching expedition accidently tripped the wire of a booby-trap, killing one. The remaining two students fled, fearing scandal, bringing the body back to their lodgings. The following morning they presented the death as a suicide (Adams, 1972). The sack-em-up gentlemen were a brave lot to risk themselves for science. But fearful of the dangers of resurrection teachers and students began to rely on others to provide services and subjects for a fee. This created a market for corpses and a willing work force to fill the needs of that market. By the turn of the century London anatomists appear to have delegated the procuration of subjects entirely (Richardson, 1988). Some resurrected on a part-time basis while others made body snatching a criminal profession and were able to make a comfortable living at their trade (Richardson, 1988). The average price for bodies was about four pounds for adults. "Smalls", meaning children, were sold at so much per foot. Teeth were also valuable as dentists used them in making dentures. One enterprizing resurrection man by the name of Murphy gained entry to a vault on the pretense of selecting a burial place for his wife. He was able to leave an entry way opened, and returned later at night. He collected enough teeth make sixty pounds (Bailey, 1896).
There was a difference between grave robbing and body snatching in that the former involved opening a grave while the latter involved subterfuge in obtaining a corpse. In the early days of resurrection the grave was opened and the body wrenched from the shattered coffin. The raiders would then flee leaving the grave disturbed, which quickly led to the discovery of the act.
As resurrection evolved into a criminal profession and gangs began to operate in cities such as London and Edinburgh snatchers learned to restore graves to their original state as closly as possible- not out of respect to families of the dead but to insure future return for more loot. The speed with which bodies were removed was remarkable. Professionals learned through experience and developed techniques enabling the removal of the contents of a grave in less than an hour depending on the number of men involved (Adams, 1972). The tools of the trade included lanterns, ropes, hooks, sometimes a firearm, and shovels. Grave robbers favored short wooden spades which made less noise and would not cause a chink of metal against the occasional stone. Sacks were used to contain the bodies, and in later years a cloth tied crossed corners was used (Adams, 1972).
There has been some controversy over the method employed in robbing a grave (Bailey, 1896). What follows is probably close to the method most often used. After a funeral a spy would mingle with mourners to take note of any obstacles such as markers or booby-traps. The winter hours were best, and in Scotland snatchers worked between six and eight o'clock as night fell early and police did not come on duty until after eight (Adams, 1972). Any markers would be removed, along with any booby-traps such as spring-guns. A hole was then dug down only to the top of the coffin, about where the head and shoulders lay. Canvas was spread to catch the loose soil. When the head of the coffin was reached two hooks or a crowbar would be used to pry up the lid, snapping it off against the weight of earth covering the other two-thirds of the coffin. Sacking could be used to deaden the noise of tearing wood. Using hooks to pull the body out it was then stripped of its shrould, doubled in half, and shoved into a sack. The soil was then replaced on the grave along with any markers and booby-traps (Adams, 1972). One former student who had accompanied professional snatchers described this method, stating "A considerable force was required, and this was mainly exerted round the neck by means of a cord and other appliances. Now, withdrawing the contents of a coffin by a anrrow aperture was by no means an easy process, particularly at dead of night and whilst the actors were in a state of trepidation. A jerking movement is said to have been more effective than violent dragging" (Adams, 1972, 35).
Another method involved the excavation of a long sloping tunnel beginning some fifteen to twenty feet from the grave. Through this tunnel the coffin would be pulled to the surface, opened, robbed, then pushed back into the grave. Such a method would require a considerable amount of time and digging and leave robbers open to the eyes of potential witnesses, suggesting this method was part of
a myth (Bailey, 1896).
One sucessful resurrectionist by night, grave digger by day told a different story. He would take the body out of the coffin prior to burial and place it in a sack on top. While burying the coffin it was easy to pull the sack up as the soil level rose. At the top of the grave the body would be covered with a thin laver of soil, easily removed when he returned for the body under cover of night (Bailey,1896).
Corpses were also obtained before burial. Snatchers watched the crowded lodging and workhouses in cities, paying careful attention to news of sickness and imminent death. As soon as death struck snatchers could appear claiming to be grieving relaatives of the deceased. Merry Andrew, a member of an Edinburgh resurrection gang, would present himself as a relation of the departed and after mourning over the body would depart- ostensibly to arrange the funeral. He would quickly return with a horse and hearse, often accompanied by another gang member called Praying Howard. Howard, dressed as a minister, prayed over the body before the two took their leave with the corpse and with the confidence of the residents (Douglas, 1973). Body snatchers were also known to have hired women to pose as grieving relatives at workhouses to claim the bodies of dead paupers. Usually little was done to verify these claims because giving over these bodies represented one less funeral at public cost (Richardson, 1988). Unclaimed bodies and those awaiting inquest were always targets as they had to be stored somewhere (Bailey, 1896). Even private homes were not safe from snatchers. It was customary that after a family member died the body would be watched in a room of the house for a time before burial. A London police officer responsible for the recovery of more than fifty bodies burgled from private homes was rewarded with a silver staff by grateful citizens (Richardson, 1988).
The body snatching gangs that evolved during the era were of a lower moral order than the early robbers because their motive was profit. The Borough gang operated in London between 1802 and 1825 to supply some of the biggest anatomical schools including that of Sir Astley Cooper. Members included former hospital porter Ben Crouch and Joseph Naples. Naples kept a kind of diary during 1811 to 1812 describing the activities of the gang which was later published. Typical entries include: "Tuesday 24th. At twelve at midnight a party went to Wyngate got 3 small, came back and got 2 large at Newington, came home and settled with Ben, each man's share L.8, 16s. 8d., at home all night."..."Friday 27th. Went to look out, came home met Ben and Dan at 5 o'clock, went to Harps, got 1 large ...", "Saturday 28th. At 4 o'clock in the morning got up, with the whole party to Guy's and St. Thomas's crib (burial ground), got 6 took them to St. Thomas. Came home and met at Thomas's again, packd up 3 for Edinbro...", "Monday 10th. Met. went to St. James. got 9 large & 4 small, took them to Barthol." "Tuesday 11th. Went to Barthol. Moved the things. Home all night." (Bailey,189 6).
Before each term a gang member would haggle with school administrators to decide how much they were to be paid for each subject, the amount of "starting money" needed for bribes and agree upon the amount of "finishing money" that would be paid at the end of the term. This "finishing money" served as a bonus for a successful session at the school (Frank, 1976, 402). These gangs competed fiercely for 'contracts' with schools, and would sabotage each other. If one gang had knowlege that a rival gang was raiding a particular cemetary evidence of resurrection would be left there, drawing the attention of citizens and police. This would spoil that area for robbing for some time, and frustrated the rival gang. If a member discovered a free-lance operator this man could be denounced to the police, thereby putting him out of business for a while (Frank, 1976). The anatomy schools were at the mercy of such gangs, who could punish them for low prices or dealing with other gangs by leaving putrid corpses on their doorsteps, causing public outrage against the school. If a school bought bodies from free-lance operators the gangs would break into the school and sabotage the subjects (Frank, 1976). Teachers responded to this extortion by forming an anatomical club, and through this attempted to cooperate amongst themselves to hold prices down by fixing a set price and then agreeing not to pay any more for subjects. Prices increased, however, demonstrating the agreement was not kept (Bailey, 1896).
As the police and public attention on gang activity increased so did the prices demanded for subjects. The average price of four pounds and change increased to some seven pounds by 1812 (Montgomery, 1989), and to between nine and ten pounds by 1828 (Frank, 1976). When gang members got into trouble with the law it was not uncommon for their patrons to take care of them and their families financially. Sir Astley Cooper bailed his procurors out of jail and paid them for time served.
During 1827 a gang from London, including one of Cooper's men Vaughan, rented a house located near a churchyard in Varmouth. With the help of the local grave digger the gang operated for two months, stripping the churchyard of bodies and packing them up to be sent to London before being discovered by the local police. Three members, including Vaughan, were apprehended but only Vaughan was sent to London for trial. Cooper sent bail money, and paid Vaughan an allowance during the six month prison sentence he received (Richardson, 1988).
Bodies could also be imported and exported. Many bodies came from mpoverished Ireland due to famine, and the cost of obtaining them was low. Bodies were packed into innocent looking containers labeled 'books' or 'pianos' and sent across the Irish Sea in steamboats. During 1813 an Irish sloop berthed at Glasgow with a shipment of bales. The man who was to receive this shipment refused delivery because of high freight charges, so the bales were left on the quayside in a shed. In the next few days an evil stench swept the dock, causing complaints. When the city guard cut open the bales decomposing bodies of men, women, and children tumbled out (Adams, 1972). During 1826 three casks consigned for shipment to Edinburgh were left on a Liverpool dock overnight, and the next day the stench attracted attention. The police were notified and investigated, finding eleven bodies packed inside the casks (Lassek, 1958).
The high price commanded by subjects eventually led some people to create their own supply through murder. John Wilson, an Edinburgh resident, allegedly mixed arsenic with snuff which he would then offer to unsuspecting travelers. He was supposed to have spent two or three years as a killer, making a considerable sum of money (Bailey, 1896). Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie, also residents of Edinburgh, shocked the country during 1752 by stealing and killing a child, the body of which they sold to an anatomist for a small fee and the price of a dram (Adams, 1972).
The worst case of murder for anatomy was that of Burke and Hare, also occuring in Edinburgh. William Burke immigrated to Scotland from Ireland during the 1820s to find work as a laborer on the Union Canal. He made a friend of a fellow countryman, William Hare, who had also immigrated in the hope of finding work. Hare and his common-law wife, Lucky Logue owned a flophouse and rented a room to Burke and his female companion Helen McDougal. The four spent a lot of time drinking together and not much time working. When one of the residents of the flophouse died they decided to sell his body to the anatomists. After all, the dead man owed money to Hare and money was needed for expensives such as liquor. They made seven pounds from the sale, which was far more than could be made from honest work, and were told to come back anytime with more bodies. When another lodger became ill the two were more than happy to sit with the sick man. When the sick man slipped into a coma Burke finished him off by smothering him with a pillow. They were paid ten pounds this time, and were so pleased with this easy money that they went on to kill fifteen more people. Their victims were lured to the flophouse with shelter and liquor. Once the victim became stupefied with liquor Hare held the victim while Burke smothered him or her to death, hence the term 'burking'. Their career was cut short, however, when a visitor to the flophouse spied a victim before the body could be transported to the anatomy school. When the public discovered the murders they were so enraged that the judges believed there could not be a fair trial unless incontrovertible evidence was obtained. The bodies of the first fifteen victims were gone, so the judges gave Hare immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession implicating Burke. Burke was tried and executed for the crimes, and his body dissected. Dr. Knox, the anatomy teacher who paid for the bodies, was not charged with anything but the incident ruined his career (Douglas, 1973).
A similar case occured in England during 1831. John Bishop and James May, two well known resurrectionists, offered a body for sale to King's College at a unusually high price. The men assured the porter with whom they haggled that the body was worth the price as it was very fresh. Once the price was set the men left to fetch the body and returned with a colleague, Thomas Williams. When the porter actually saw the body he became suspicious, as there were marks of violence on the head. The anatomy demonstrator agreed, and surrepticiously sent for the police. Bishop, Williams and May were told the reason for the delay was to get change for a fifty-pound note, and so they waited for their fee. The police arrived instead of money and took the men into custody. Upon investigation it was revealed that both Guy's Hospital and Grainger's Anatomical Theatre had refused the body. The body was identified as that of a well- known street urchin who had been seen in the company of the three men two days previously. The police searched Bishop's home and found tools bearing fresh blood. Bloodstained clothing belonging to the victim was found at May's. Williams confessed that he and Bishop were responsible for the murder, and of the murders of a woman and another boy earlier. Their method was simple-Bishop and Williams offered liquor laced with laudanum to the victim. As the drug took effect the men would lower the victim head first into a well in Bishop's garden. Bishop and Williams were convicted for the crimes but the evidence was inconclusive against May, so he was reprieved. The two were executed four days after the verdict and their bodies were given to the surgeons for dissection (Douglas, 1973).
Public Response versus Official Response
The response to the resurrection era depended on
one's station in life. Wealthy people could afford to maintain private
cemeteries surrounded by walls topped with broken glass, loose stones,
or sharp spikes. The entrance gate would be large, strong, and padlocked
at night. Watchmen might be hired by night and paid by relatives to keep
the bodies of loved ones safe (Lassek, 1958). In addition, watch-houses
were often erected to house guards and any persons suspected of resurrecting.
Constables would arrive at first light to take charge of any prisoner (Adams,
1972). These were not insurmountable obstacles to resurrection men. Watchmen
and cemetery sextons could be bribed, usually on a piecework wage basis.
It was easy enough work to leave a gate unlocked then receive a fee of
so much per body raised (Lassek, 1958). Watchmen were not supposed to drink
spirits on duty, but did resort to alcohol to pass the time as evidenced
by an incident in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. A medical student was captured
by watchmen and imprisoned in the watch-house. The student's friends did
not desert him, but instead returned to ply the unsuspecting guard with
a jug of whisky. As they drank and exchanged stories the imprisoned student
burrowed his way through the roof of the house and escaped. The drunken
guard spent the rest of the night guarding an empty room (Adams, 1972).
Wealthy people could also afford to build private tombs in burial grounds where bodies could be kept under lock and key (Adams, 1972). Public vaults also appeared during this time where, for a fee or subscription, bodies could be housed until they were putrid and of no use to resurrection men. Such a house is still standing at Crail, near Aberdeen, Scotland with an inscription over the entrance which reads, "Erected for securing the Dead" (Bailey, 1896, 80).
The official response to the era was also divided
along class lines. During the early 1800s a large group of people had become
dependent on resurrectionists for several reasons. Surgeons, having wealthy
clients, needed subjects upon which to practice operations before subjecting
their patients to life threatening procedures (Frank, 1976). Anatomy school
teachers and administrators needed subjects to attract students, and dentists
needed teeth from cadavers to use in dentures for the wealthy (Richardson,
1988). This group was socially closer to the upper classes. As public officials
came from this class they tended to side with anatomists by being lenient
with cases of body snatching and on occasion connived with them in their
quest for subjects.
Sir Astley Cooper, professor of anatomy at St. Thomas hospital, was a member of this protected class. During 1801 the gang supplying his subjects adopted a plan whereby bodies packed in large baskets were left at night in the courtyard in front of his house, awaiting transport to the hospital by coach. On one occasion this procedure was interrupted by a police officer who demanded to speak with Cooper. Cooper claimed to have no responsibility for anything left in his courtyard as the gates were left open until eleven o'clock. The officer left, stating his intention to report the incident to the Lord Mayor of London on the following morning. Cooper preempted the officer by arranging a meeting of his own, and during breakfast recounted the incident himself to the Mayor. The Mayor assured Cooper that he would not be bothered by police again (Lassek, 1958). Bransby Cooper, nephew and biographer of Sir Cooper, wrote: "There was nothing singular in the conduct of the Lord Mayor on this occasion. At the period when the event occurred, magistrates, fearful of obstructing the progress of medical education, and of unnecessarily exciting and exasperating popular feeling and prejudice, always avoided taking cognizance of the reception of subjects by surgeons for purposes of dissection, unless attended by some flagrant breech of propriety; and hence arose the prevailing opinion of the members of the profession, that they were legally justified in such proceedings." (Cooper, 1843, 344). This statement epitomized the relationship between physicians and high ranking officials. It was even said that Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel had gone out of his way to avoid prosecuting surgeons or resurrectionists (Douglas, 1973).
Orders were also passed down to police officers to turn a blind eye to the thefts of pauper bodies from public burial grounds. The rank and file officers were closer socially to the working class and tended to take their side. This created a conflict between the officers' private beliefs their and commitment to law and order. Officers could be ordered not to be overzealous in seeking out who was responsible for or the whereabouts of stolen bodies. Officers who disobeyed could loose their positions (Richardson, 1988).
The relationship between physicians and high ranking officials is also reflected in the way the courts disposed of body snatching prosecutions. The activity was rarely prosecuted, although Southwood Smith stated that there had been fourteen convictions in England during 1823. Mr. Twyford, a magistrate at the Worship Street Police Court recounted that he had not seen more than six cases prosecuted in as many years (Bailey, 1896). This appears to be a very small number considering how prevalent the practice was. Resurrectionists were occasionally handed down light sentences for their actions. One man who was convicted of removing the body of a child from its' coffin received a sentence of six months imprisonment (Bailey, 1896). Three Aberdeen robbers were caught red-handed by a watchman during 1813. The sheriff fined both twenty pounds (Adams, 1972). Penalties became stiffer with the passing years. During 1815 a body snatcher received a two- week jail sentence and a hundred dollar fine for robbing an Aberdeen grave (Adams, 1972). The courts were inconsistent in their sentences and until the late 1820s only the resurrectionists bore any criminal responsibility for the activity.
Those who purchased or used the product of this activity were not touched by law until the 1828 prosecution by the Lancaster Assizes of John Davies and Edward Hall. Davies, a medical student, and Hall, a surgeon, were brought up on charges after removing a body from a chapel yard. The indictment contained fourteen counts which included conspiracy and unlawfully procuring and receiving a body. The two principles were found guilty- not of violating the grave or stealing the body but of receiving and possessing a body knowing it to have been unlawfully disinterred. Fines of some twenty-five pounds were given (Bailey, 1896). The precedent set by this case was of paramount importance as it opened the door for future prosecutions against
The Warburton Anatomy
Several sources attribute Parliament's decision to consider an act regulating the supply of human cadavers for education purposes to have been in reaction to the public's fear of being murdered for dissection (Douglas, 1973, Montgomery, 1989, Adams, 1972). But this was only one influence. As the cost of obtaining subjects continued to increase, during 1810 a small Parliamentary body began to ineffectively campaign for reform but Parliament was reluctant to legislate on such a controversial matter. The Home Secretary at the time told a deputation that "There was no difficulty in drawing up an effective bill; the great obstacle was the prejudice of the people against any bill...this impediment had not been trifling." (Bailey, 1896, 89). After the precedent allowing prosecution for possession of unlawfully obtained bodies was set the physicians and teachers became more adamant about a bill, and as they were backed by men in high places they interested certain distinguished individuals such as Henry Warburton, a member of the House of Commons. Through the influence of this group a select committee was formed during 1828 in the House to make inquiries into the matter (Lassek, 1958). The people who gave evidence before the committee included eminent physicians such as Sir Astley Cooper and Thomas Wakely, founder and editor of The Lancet. The committee must have been horrified to hear Cooper's statement "There is no person, let his station in life be what it may, whom, if I were disposed to dissect, I could not obtain...The law only enhances the price, it does not prevent the exhumation." (Frank, 1976, 407). Cooper and other physicians testified with facts and figures describing the shortage of subjects and reminded the committee that subjects were necessary as the surgeon was required to know anatomy. Three members of the gang supplying Sir Cooper with subjects also gave evidence before the committee, including Naples, author of the diary. Naples quoted statistics to show the number of bodies he had lifted, referring to his "little book." (Douglas, 1973, 148).
Despite this damning testimony the committee's report was filled away and nothing was done. The Burke and Hare murders brought the subject back to the attention of Parliament during 1828, and Warburton introduced a bill into Parliament during 1829 "for preventing the unlawful disinterment of human bodies and for regulating Schools of Anatomy." (Douglas, 1973, 149). The Bill passed successfully through the House of Commons but was blocked by the House of Lords. No further action was taken until the Bishop and May case came to the attention of the public during 1831. Less than a week after the two were executed the College of Surgeons presented a new petition to the Home Secretary which stated: "The large prices which have of late been given for Anatomical Subjects have operated as a premium for murder." (Douglas, 1973, 153). Warburton introduced a new Bill, better than the first, for regulating the schools and this time it passed through both houses. The Bill permitted persons having lawful possession to give up bodies for dissection after forty- eight hours after death, unless the person had expressly stated otherwise. This gave those in charge of workhouses and similar institutions the right to assign unclaimed bodies to the anatomists. Inspectors of anatomy were to be appointed to oversee the operation. The Bill also abolished the practice of dissecting the bodies of executed criminals, removing the age- long association between anatomy and crime (Douglas, 1973). By 1832 the resurrection era was over in Great Britain.
While the resurrection era was a morbidly fascinating
period of history it is significant for reasons other than entertainment.
Not only does the period provide an excellent illustration of the class
hatred felt by the wealthy towards the poor it provides an example of how
the government can actually create crime through poor legislation and legal
precedent. And as the social abhorrence against dissection and the use
of executed felons for anatomical subjects followed the early settlers
to America the situation was recreated. Class hatred in Great Britain was
demonstrated by the increasing numbers of statutes punishing crimes of
theft with death that were enacted as the wealthy sought to protect their
possessions from an increasingly large poor and working class. The upper
classes were aware of social stigma associated with dissection because
they feared it themselves. To include dissection as part of the already
severe sentencing practices was a way to further humiliate and degrade
the lower class. While the Anatomy Act did end the predation of snatchers
on the bodies of the poor it did not end the practice of exploitation of
the poor by the wealthy. By relying on the bodies of unclaimed paupers
to fill the need for subjects the Bill expected the poor to accept being
singled out for what had before been an extreme criminal punishment solely
on the basis of social class. Donation of one's own body was permitted
by the Bill but the public was slow to accept this. Enlightened thinkers
such as Jeremy Bentham were the first to donate their remains, helping
to overcome the stigma (Montgomery, 1989). Proper legislation could have
prevented the black-market in human corpses that developed between the
surgeons and the resurrection men. It is no wonder that many turned to
selling human remains because there was so much profit to be realized.
The London borough gang was credited with having supplied some four hundred
bodies to the schools during the term of 1811 to 1812 alone. If the majority
of these bodies were of adults in prime condition and the average price
seven pounds, each member of the gang could have grossed about five hundred
pounds that year alone. This would have amounted to around 40,000 dollars
in today's money (Montgomery, 1989). Even excluding the sale of teeth resurrection
was a very lucrative business. The practice of handing down lenient sentences
by the courts for body snatching during a time of severe penalties for
the smallest theft reinforced the idea that resurrectionists were above
the law. Light penalties did nothing to deter body snatching, they only
increased the price of subjects. The public knew how leniently body snatchers
were treated by the courts and this knowledge allowed many a burglar to
escape arrest by claiming to be "only a body snatcher." (Frank, 1976, 403).
As resurrectionist activities increased the ruling class could have legislated for a solution to the problem of supply and demand but because they were better able to protect themselves from resurrectionists they chose not to address the problem. Most of the bodies being stolen were from public cemeteries containing the remains of paupers so the wealthy were able to ignore the problem. When Sir Cooper informed the select committee of his ability to obtain the body of any person despite their station in life it must have come as quite a shock to the wealthy Members of Parliament. And while some have attributed the passage of the Bill to the murders committed for subjects it must be remembered that the worst case, that of Burke and Hare, occurred during 1828 yet the Bill did not pass until 1831. The victims in the 'burking' cases were from the lower classes, not from the ruling class.
The legal status of dissection in the American colonies, and then in the states, was similar to that of Great Britain. Early New England was governed by the common and statutory laws of England, laws which provided no penalty for the exhumation of a human body. Removal of a shroud or any garment, however, constituted a felony (Lassek, 1958). Bodies of executed murderers were available for dissection shortly after the first settlers arrived. The demand for bodies never rose as high in the States as it did in Great Britain as aspiring doctors often traveled to Europe for their medical education. The need for subjects did not create a problem until after 1762 when Doctor William Shippen offered the first organized medical instruction in the colonies (Frank, 1976). The number of medical schools increased from one during 1765 to 159 by 1901 (Lassek, 1958). As the number of schools increased so did the need for anatomical subjects. The grave robbing that took place was undertaken predominantly by medical students and porters which caused the public fury that developed as a result to be directed towards this group and the schools they attended (Frank, 1976).
Public outrage took the same form as in Great Britain. Riots occurred, teachers and students were attacked and schools were vandalized. Between 1765 and 1852 at least thirteen riots occurred within the United States (Lassek, 1958). Bodies were obtained from public cemeteries as in Great Britain, but with one difference- black bodies were more frequently stolen than white. Medical colleges used black janitors and porters to obtain the bodies of other blacks. The Medical College of Georgia even purchased a man to do this job. Grandison Harris was bought at auction for seven hundred dollars by the college during 1852. At this time it was illegal for a slave to be taught to read and write yet faculty members taught Grandison so he could follow the obituaries in the newspapers. He snatched his subjects from a black cemetery and when word got out to the black community about the use of their dead it almost caused a riot. When Grandison died of heart failure at age ninety-five he was buried in the same cemetery that he had robbed for years (Hunter, 1997). Cadavers were also imported and exported between the states via the rail system, similar to the use of steamships by British resurrectionists (Shultz, 1992).
The wealthy were not immune to body snatching. When John Scott Harrison, father of Benjamin Harrison, was buried during 1878 it was noticed that a nearby grave was disturbed and the body interred there had disappeared. Because of this discovery extra precautions were made to ensure the safety of Harrison's body by placing it in a metal coffin encased in cemented marble slabs. A search for the missing body ensued, leading to the Ohio Medical School where the body of Harrison was found instead, hanging upside down in a shaft, stolen a few hours after burial despite the extra precautions (Shultz, 1992).
The riots that occurred as a result of resurrection activities were as violent and destructive as those occurring for any reason, and first appeared in America during 1765 when William Shippen begin to lecture on anatomy. The public was opposed to dissection and a mob stoned the house where the lectures were given several times, smashing all the windows. Shippen was forced to flee the house through a private alley (Shultz, 1992).
During 1788 a riot occurred in New York as a result of the silly antics of a medical student. His waving of a dismembered arm from an upper story window attracted the attention of a group of children below, who brought over a ladder to get a better look. Peering inside the window they saw the interior of the anatomy room which contained many cadavers, both black and white, in various stages of dissection. The news reached the public and an angry mob formed, stormed the New York Hospital, and threatened students and teachers for several days. The hospital was raided of its' collection of rare pathological specimens which were burned in the street. Eventually the New York militia dispersed the mob (Shultz, 1992). Baltimore was host to a similar riot during 1807, when boys looking into a dissection room spread the word of what they saw. A mob soon formed and destroyed the anatomy hall and other buildings that had been erected at the expense of Doctor John Davidge. As a result of the mobs' actions the school remained deserted for seven years, and did not establish another anatomy laboratory for twenty-five (Shultz, 1992). Riots also occurred at the Yale Medical College during 1824, the Worthington Medical College in Ohio during 1837 which resulted in the destruction of the school, and at the McDowell Medical College during 1844, where the school was also destroyed by angry citizens (Shultz, 1992).
By the late 1890s body snatching was less common and by the next century had all but disappeared. Embalming was introduced between 1875 and 1890, making it possible to keep bodies for long periods of time which regularized the demand (Frank, 1976). Unlike Great Britain the United States did not legislate a national anatomy law but riots and public outrage over body snatching activity triggered individual states to pass legislation addressing the issue. A case in point is the John Harrison snatching incident. John, as the son of and father to a president, came from a distinguished wealthy family. When his corpse was discovered in an Ohio medical college the uproar accompanying the incident caused changes in the anatomical laws of several states (Lassek, 1958).
In examining the resurrection era of Great Britain it can be concluded that the potential for such a situation to develop is present in any society where there is an unequal distribution of power between various groups of people. This potential is further enhanced when the group having the most power creates an outclass of the less powerful group. Members comprising this outclass are so delegated by an arbitrary accident of birth, and not by any other criteria. The people controlling the purse strings in Great Britain regarded the poor and working classes as being of a lower order and thus open to exploitation. Few members of the ruling class objected to this treatment; on the contrary, they profited through the exploitation of the outclass. The working class was used by the ruling class as a source of cheap labor. If they became disenchanted with this arrangement and tried to take something away from the wealthy by stealing they could simply be eliminated. After being eliminated at the gallows they could still serve the wealthy by acting as subjects for physicians to use in research. The fruits of this research were unavailable to the poor and working classes as they had not the means to pay for the services of physicians. Paupers had to depend on the hospitals for treatment rather than on private physicians, and treatment there was often equated with experimentation. A free market economy is ruled by the law of supply and demand. When the commodity in question happened to be human corpses such as during the resurrection era the outclass of the poor was on the supply side, with the wealthy creating the demand. When the demand exceeded the supply it was inevitable that some people would find ways to profit from the situation. Yet the resurrectionists were also members of the outclass, and no matter how much profit they realized from the sale of bodies it was never enough to change their status. The real profit was realized by the wealthy who could afford to avail themselves of the medical advances (and who could afford to buy dentures).
In America the ruling class treated the outclass, blacks, in much the same way. Black people were exploited first by being bought and sold as slaves, then by having their remains used for research. They had even less power than the British poor and could not overcome their status as it was inherent in the color of their skin. It can be argued that to form classes in society based on arbitrary criteria such as skin color, monetary resources or religious background is part of human nature, and therefore difficult to change. While this may be true the government should function to control the exploitation of one class by another, more powerful, class. This, however, is often not the case. The situation that developed in Nazi Germany leading to the Jewish population becoming an outclass is, of course, not comparable in terms of severity of treatment but there are parallels. Jewish residents of Germany during the Nazi period were delegated into an outclass by Hitler's government, then exploited, first by being stripped of their businesses and valuables then by being used as a source of cheap labor and subjects for medical research. While the numbers who died at the gallows in Great Britain do not compare to the genocide of the Jewish population it still remains that their status as an outclass was derived from the arbitrary criterion of which faith one was borne into. In conclusion, society must always be wary of situations where there is an unequal distribution of power allowing the formation of an outclass. Because if it is human nature to classify people the potential always exists for exploitation and elimination. In the present American society we seem to be ignoring the lessons of history by allowing an outclass comprised of the same familiar members- those who happen to be poor and those who happen to have dark skin. Whether or not this outclass is exploited is debatable, and although society does not eliminate through execution it can be argued that the outclass is eliminated through imprisonment.
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