Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Short History of Body Snatching, Part 1

I picked up a bargain book last week (the true story of a Canadian spy no less), and was surprised to find within an unsought elucidation of 19th century body-snatching.  (No, not by aliens ala Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)  Curiosity piqued, here is my report.  Medical schools need cadavers so their students can learn anatomy, and get a feel for the knife before nipping and tucking on living, breathing human beings like you and I.  In other words, we should be happy that medical students are thus trained.  But where do all those cadavers come from?  These days they're "willed to science", although when I studied anatomy four decades ago I believe a few of the "cads" were still unclaimed paupers.  What I didn't know is that for most of history medical cadavers were "snatched" here and there by "resurrection men" or "resurrectionists", and then sold to professors of anatomy.  Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses in the UK were those condemned to "death and dissection" by the courts (one would hope for only the most heinous of crimes).  Unfortunately such sentences didn't provide enough bods (about 55 each year, while as many as 500 were needed) in the era before electric refrigeration.  Stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour at Common Law, and was therefore only punishable by fine and imprisonment, rather than transport or execution.  (Resurrectionists were careful in most cases not to steal jewelery or clothes as this would invite the more serious felony charge of theft.)  The trade was thus sufficiently profitable to run the risk of arrest, particularly as the authorities tended to ignore what was sometimes regarded as a necessary evil.  (Bribes and plying them with liquor were also commonplace.)  So prevalent was the practice that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of the expired to watch over the remains both before and after burial to prevent them being stolen.  Iron coffins were also employed, or the graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes.  The number of empty coffins that have been discovered from this period proves beyond a doubt that body-snatching was frequent, to say the least.  During 1827 and 1828, some Edinburgh resurrectionists changed their tactics from grave-robbing to murder, as they were paid more for fresher corpses.  These entrepreneurial Scots - and copycat killers in London - resulted in the passage of the act first referenced above which allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, and required the licensing of anatomy teachers - essentially ending the body-snatching trade in Britain.  In Part 2 we'll look at BS on this side of the pond.  I know you're breathless with anticipation.