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 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 had 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
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
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
A Short History of British Dissection
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
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
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
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
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
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,
with several other students and an assistant of the school's
administrator set out with spades and grappling hooks. The
arrived at the graveyard where the woman's body was interred yet
had some difficulty finding the correct grave. After one
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
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.
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
a booby-trap, killing one. The remaining two students fled,
fearing scandal, bringing the body back to their lodgings.
following morning they presented the death as a suicide (Adams,
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
willing work force to fill the needs of that market. By the
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
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
the pretense of selecting a burial place for his wife. He
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
snatching in that the former involved opening a grave while the
latter involved subterfuge in obtaining a corpse. In the
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
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
less noise and would not cause a chink of metal against the
occasional stone. Sacks were used to contain the bodies,
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
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
to the top of the coffin, about where the head and shoulders lay.
Canvas was spread to catch the loose soil. When the
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
used to deaden the noise of tearing wood. Using hooks to
the body out it was then stripped of its shrould, doubled in
half, and shoved into a sack. The soil was then replaced
grave along with any markers and booby-traps (Adams, 1972).
One former student who had accompanied
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
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
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
prior to burial and place it in a sack on top. While burying
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.
the crowded lodging and workhouses in cities, paying careful
attention to news of sickness and imminent death. As soon
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
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
body would be watched in a room of the house for a time before
burial. A London police officer responsible for the recovery
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
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
during 1811 to 1812 describing the activities of the gang which
was later published. Typical entries include:
24th. At twelve at midnight a party went to
got 3 small, came back and got 2 large at
came home and settled with Ben, each man's
16s. 8d., at home all night."..."Friday
Went to look out, came home met Ben and Dan at 5
went to Harps, got 1 large ...", "Saturday
4 o'clock in the morning got up, with the
to Guy's and St. Thomas's crib (burial
got 6 took them to St. Thomas. Came home and
met at Thomas's
again, packd up 3 for Edinbro...",
10th. Met. went to St. James. got 9 large & 4
them to Barthol." "Tuesday 11th. Went to
Moved the things. Home all night." (Bailey,189
Before each term a gang member would haggle
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'
and would sabotage each other. If one gang had knowlege that
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
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
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
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
of jail and paid them for time served. During 1827 a gang
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
allowance during the six month prison sentence he received
Bodies could also be imported and exported.
came from mpoverished Ireland due to famine, and the cost of
obtaing 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
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
an evil stench swept the dock, causing complaints. When the
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.
police were notified and investigated, finding eleven bodies
packed inside the casks (Lassek, 1958).
The high price commanded by subjects eventually
people to create their own supply through murder. John Wilson,
Edinburgh resident, allegedly mixed arsenic with snuff which
would then offer to unsuspecting travelers. He was supposed
have spent two or three years as a killer, making a considerable
sum of money (Bailey, 1896).
Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie, also residents
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 which also occured 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
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
sale, which was far more than could be made from honest work, and
were told to come back anytime with more bodies. When
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
became stupefied with liquor Hare held the victim while Burke
smothered him or her to death, hence the term 'burking'.
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
so enraged that the judges believed there could not be a fair
trial unless incontrovertible evidence was obtained. The
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
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
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.
anatomy demonstrator agreed, and surrepticiously sent for the
police. Bishop, Williams and May were told the reason for
delay was to get change for a fifty-pound note, and so they
waited for their fee. The police arrived instead of money
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
found tools bearing fresh blood. Bloodstained clothing belonging
to the victim was found at May's. Williams confessed that
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,
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).
During 1818 at the height of resurrection times an enterprising
London undertaker by the name of Edward Bridgman patented a coffin made
of wrought-iron. The coffin had no screws, hinges or movable parts and
appeared to be imperishable. An outcry was raised by churchwardens
and sextons that the iron coffins would prevent the future use of cemeteries,
yet Bridgman advertised in newspapers, playing on sentiment. He warned
that "many hundred dead bodies will be dragged from their wooden coffins
this winter, for the anatomical lectures which have just commenced...the
violation of the sanctity of the grave is said to be needful, for the instruction
of the medical pupil...," but let it be one of your relations? (Adams,
1972, 54). These coffins were too expensive for the working class
and often required an additional fee to be buried.
The poor began to collect money amongst themselves to pay
for the establishment of watches over the graves of their dead as they
could not expect police protection. The problem with this was that resurrection
men paid higher wages (Richardson, 1988). Church officers attempted
to aid their poorer members by providing deterrence against grave robbing
in the form of massive stone slabs to lay on top of graves. Later
these were replaced by mortsafes. Mortsafes resembled iron cages
which would encase the coffin and be buried with it until the body inside
decomposed, upon which it would be removed to use for the next funeral.
It was said that the mortsafe at a Quaker cemetery in Aberdeenshire required
ten men to handle, and was equipped with a trick lock (Adams, 1972).
The poor also attempted to protect their graves by mixing
clumps of thatch or heather in with the soil to discourage easy digging.
The surface of graves could be sprinkled with markers such as shells or
pebbles that could be monitored, and if displaced indicated the grave had
been disturbed. Quick lime in the coffin would have ended the problem,
but this practice was not popular for religious reasons (Adams, 1972).
Graves could be booby-trapped with spring guns or crude landmines.
All of these deterrents were not effective as determined body snatchers
found ways around them. A spy might be sent to observe the funeral
then later warn snatchers of impediments such as markers or booby-traps.
Poor people also responded to the humiliation of dissection
sentences handed down by courts by attempting to prevent the cause of the
humiliation. Riots at execution sites such as Tyburn and Newgate
were common as friends, relatives, and co-workers fought against the surgeons
for possession of executed felon's bodies (Linebaugh, 1975).
Much has been written about the public spectacle and disorder
surrounding public executions, (Cooper, 1974, Gatrell, 1994) but few accounts
mention that a main cause of such disturbances lay in the relationship
between the judges sitting at Old Bailey and the physicians and surgeons
around the corner in Warwick lane and Cripplegate (Linebaugh, 1975). The
Court of Aldermen responded to disturbances by ordering executions to be
attended by both sheriffs of London and their constables, arousing
the civil officers of Middlesex to guard the crowds, and by providing arms
to sergeants who attended as guards. Parish officers and the Foot
Guards were also often used as reinforcement. By 1749 the situation
had become so dangerous that the Sheriff of London, Theodore Janssen, took
matters into his own hands and adopted a policy of delivering the bodies
of the condemned to friends or relations. By 1750 hangings at Tyburn
were "...attended (as usual) by Mr. Sheriff Janssen with five High Constables,
and their Petty Constables; and but a few of the London and Middlesex Officers...The
Execution was over by a little after Ten O'clock, and the Bodies being
cut down by Order of the Sheriff, were delivered to their friends." (Linebaugh,
1975, 101). This policy was contrary to the Common Law allowance
of bodies and to the 1752 Statute but the Sheriff was not punished for
Riots also occurred around jails housing suspected resurrection
men and at anatomy schools. During 1742 Edinburgh was torn by riots
caused by rumors of body snatching activities. The shop of a barber-surgeon
was laid siege to, and the homes of several surgeons were attacked
and the windows knocked out. The home of a beadle, dubbed 'resurrectionist
hall' was destroyed by fire, and many people were injured (Adams, 1972).
Medical students in Glasgow, fearing violence, had to retain
a party of soldiers for protection during 1803, and a full scale riot threatened
the city during 1813 when a grave was found empty. An angry mob attacked
the home of the professor of anatomy breaking every window (Adams, 1972).
The worst riot occurred during 1831 at the Aberdeen anatomical
theatre of a Doctor Moir. A dog digging at the rear of the theatre
discovered a bone, which caused rumors that hundreds of dismembered corpses
were buried there. An angry mob quickly formed which stormed the
theatre, members of which beating teachers and students alike. The doctor
and his students escaped and Moir was able to reach his home. The
mob's fury became directed at both the house and the theatre; Moir was
forced to flee. The theatre was set ablaze. When the Lord provost
marshal arrived with his magistrates, town sergeants and a posse of special
policemen the crowd could not be contained. Soldiers of the Cameron
Highlanders were called but played no part in quelling the riot which by
now had swelled to between ten and twenty thousand people. After
the theatre had burned to the ground the mob turned on anyone resembling
a medical student, harassing them. Within a few hours the riot was spent.
It was said Moir passed the night hiding in a cemetery (Adams, 1972).
Friends of a man hanged and dissected during the 1820s took
their revenge by attacking all the medical men involved. One man
was killed and another shot in the face (Richardson, 1988).
Police had a difficult time protecting their prisoners if
the prisoners were suspected resurrectionists. Mobs gathered around
jails or courts hearing cases of resurrection, threatening violence.
Police often kept suspects in jail, not as part of a sentence but for their
own protection. Charles Darwin witnessed such a disturbance during
1830, and wrote: "Two body snatchers had been arrested, and whilst
being taken to prison had been torn from the constable by a crowd of the
roughest men, who dragged them by their legs along the muddy and stony
road. They were covered from head to foot with mud, and their faces
were bleeding from having been kicked...they looked like corpses...the
two men were got onto the prison without being killed." Such incidents
were common during this period and considered an occupational hazard of
the resurrection business (Richardson, 1988, 90).
The official response to the era was also
class lines. During the early 1800s a large group of people
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
classes. As public officials came from this class they tended
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.
hospital, was a member of this protected class. During 1801
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
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
he would not be bothered by police again (Lassek, 1958).
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
magistrates, fearful of obstructing the
progress of medical
education, and of unnecessarily exciting
popular feeling and prejudice, always
cognizance of the reception of subjects
by surgeons for
purposes of dissection, unless attended
by some flagrant
breech of propriety; and hence arose the
of the members of the profession, that
they were legally
justified in such proceedings." (Cooper,
This statement epitomized the relationship
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
working class and tended to take their side. This created
conflict between the officers' private beliefs their and commitment
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
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
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
light sentences for their actions. One man who was convicted
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.
sheriff fined both twenty pounds (Adams, 1972). Penalties
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,
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
as it opened the door for future prosecutions against anyone
knowingly accepting possession of an illegally obtained body.
This included teachers and students of anatomy. This precedent,
along with the recent cases of 'burking' set the stage for the
development and passage of the Warburton Anatomy Act.
The Warburton Anatomy Act
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,
1972). But this was only one influence. As the cost
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
"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,
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
The people who gave evidence before the
eminent physicians such as Sir Astley Cooper and Thomas Wakely,
founder and editor of The Lancet. The committee must have
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,
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
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
number of bodies he had lifted, referring to his "little book."
(Douglas, 1973, 148).
Despite this damning testimony the committee's
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
for regulating Schools of Anatomy." (Douglas, 1973, 149).
Bill passed successfully through the House of Commons but was
blocked by the House of Lords. No further action was
until the Bishop and May case came to the attention of the public
during 1831. Less than a week after the two were executed
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
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
dissecting the bodies of executed criminals, removing the age-
long association between anatomy and crime (Douglas, 1973).
1832 the resurrection era was over in Great Britain.
While the resurrection era was a morbidly
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
executed felons for anatomical subjects followed the early
settlers to America the situation was recreated.
Class hatred in Great Britain was demonstrated
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
social class. Donation of one's own body was permitted by
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
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
today's money (Montgomery, 1989). Even excluding the sale
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
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'
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.
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
the States as it did in Great Britain as aspiring doctors often
traveled to Europe for their medical education. The need
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
as in Great Britain. Riots occurred, teachers and students
attacked and schools were vandalized. Between 1765 and 1852
least thirteen riots occurred within the United States (Lassek,
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
result of the silly antics of a medical student. His waving
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
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
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,
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
bought and sold as slaves, then by having their remains used for
research. They had even less power than the British poor
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
case. The situation that developed in Nazi Germany leading
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
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
eliminated through imprisonment.
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The Horrible History
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Cooper, Bransby. 1843. The Life of Sir
Astley Cooper, Bart.
volume one. London: John W. Parker.
Cooper, David. 1974. The Lesson of the
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Douglas, Hugh. 1973. Burke and Hare: The
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Frank, Julia Bess. 1976. "A Grave Medical
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Gatrell, V.A.C. 1994. The Hanging Tree.
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