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Body-snatchers

It was always done at night, and often while drunk - to keep out the cold, and perhaps to dull the horror of the work. With only a few lamps for light, the men would quickly seek out the recent graves. There was much money to be made in the 1700s and 1800s from the sale of fresh corpses. As anatomy increased in importance to European medical practice, the demand for cadavers increased dramatically. Trade was at its most brisk in the winter months, when medical schools were in session and corpses better preserved by the cold.

Robbing a grave could take less than an hour. Using a wooden spade, which made less noise, the earth was moved from the top end of the coffin. Using a crowbar, the coffin lid was then forced open. The body was dragged out, and stripped naked, and the soil returned to the grave. The shroud in which the corpse had been buried was also returned to the grave, because of the popular belief that the body could not be owned, and therefore stolen - meaning that if the shroud was left behind and only the body taken no crime had been committed. This was not a belief shared by judges of the day.

Body-snatchers, resurrectionists, sack-‘em-up men: all names for the new profession of grave-robber, and all widely feared by the community. The risk of having a body snatched was greatest for the less wealthy. By the beginning of the 1800s those who could afford it might pay for a mortsafe, an iron cage built over graves, stone vaults or guards, to try and ensure that the corpse would remain undisturbed.

One African American newspaper of the late 1820s, Freedom’s Journal, advised its readers on a cheap and easy way to secure the corpse by layering straw between the earth - this would increase the time taken to dig up the grave. Other techniques included delaying burial until the body was no longer suitable for dissection, or hiring nightwatchmen to watch over the graves.

Bibliography

J B Bailey, The Diary of a Resurrectionist 1811-1812, to which are added an Account of the Resurrection Men in London and a Short History of the Passing of the Anatomy Act (London: Swan Sonnenschein,1896)

W Moore, The Knife Man (London: Bantam Press, 2005)

R Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Glossary:

Anatomy

A branch of medical science concerned with the structure of living organisms.