Resurrection Men

Listen to this article:

There have been many points in history in which it was difficult, if not impossible, for a doctor to study human anatomy. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it became common for bodies to be stolen from their graves. In 1752, the Murder Act was passed in the UK allowing for the executed to be used for anatomical study… but it wasn’t enough to meet the demand and “resurrectionists” continued their trade.

Illustration of resurrectionists at work, from The Chronicles of Crime, 1887
Illustration of resurrectionists at work, from The Chronicles of Crime, 1887

Resurrectionists were body snatchers. In the cover of night, these men made their money by digging up fresh graves and selling the bodies to anatomy schools, artists, and surgeons. Strangely, it was not strictly illegal to dig up graves at the time, but it was highly frowned upon (leading to some resurrectionists being violently attacked when discovered). What would be illegal, is snatching the bodies of those still alive.

Cartoon of Burke and Hare by William Heath
Cartoon of Burke and Hare by William Heath

Two Williams, by the surnames Burke and Hare, are particularly famous for this. Instead of digging up fresh corpses, they killed 16 men and women in 1828. The fresher the body, the higher the price; of course there was incentive for murder. After being caught, the term “burking” caught on to refer to these anatomy murders. Later, three different men in 1830 were nicknamed the “London Burkers” after they killed a boy to sell his body.

The London Burkers
The London Burkers

In the meantime, body snatching continued to grow stronger with each passing year. Estimates are difficult to come by, but some historians say the bodies snatched numbered in the thousands each year. What caused the trend to finally die out? Possibly a rumor. It was reported that two resurrectionists died after exhuming a body. The number of bodies taken dropped from the thousands in 1838, to zero in 1844. But for decades to come, the rich would still protect their coffins with, among other things, iron cages.

Music: Nocturne in C minor, B. 108 by Frédéric Chopin performed by Diana Hughes

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *