This is my blog, intended to provide information relevant to the history of Edinburgh in the Georgian period. I would love to hear any comments you may have.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Body-snatchers

The University of Edinburgh was an internationally recognised centre for medical science throughout the Georgian period and beyond, but until 1832 the faculty of anatomy suffered from a chronic shortage of cadavers suitable for dissection. The trouble was that until that date the only legal supply, the corpses of executed criminals specifically sentenced to be dissected by the court, was dwindling rapidly. Changes in the law, in the growth of Britain's prisons, and in public opinion meant that the number of executions in the early nineteenth century was falling rapidly. At the same time the number of cadavers needed was rising due to the rapid expansion of the country's medical schools. This crisis led to anatomists offering ever-increasing sums for fresh cadavers; by the late 1820s it was in the order of £10, the equivalent of 1,000 GBP (or 1,500 USD) today. This was enough, in an age when the average worker's annual income was considerably less, to tempt some families to deliver their recently deceased loved ones to the anatomists' dissecting tables.

It was also enough to tempt others to take up the habit of illegally removing corpses from their graves. These body-snatchers, or resurrectionists as they were sometimes known, were undoubtedly encouraged by the fact that the courts tended to turn a blind eye to the practice, seeing it as a necessary evil. In England body-snatching was technically a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, but in Scotland a completely distinctive system of law survived the political union of 1707 and under Scottish law it was indeed a crime that could be prosecuted; the fact is though, that very few were. Very few cases ever came to court, and when they did it was usually because the relatives had claimed a stolen body, or because it was felt that an offender had been excessive in his activities. A report in the Glasgow Herald of September 14th 1829 read:

"On Saturday, Bell the resurrectionist was again brought before Baillie Gray, the Sitting Magistrate, in the Police Court, who asked whether the dead bodies of which we gave an account in our last, had been claimed; and on being answered in the negative, the Magistrate observed, that if they had been owned, the prisoner would have been handed over for trial to the Justiciary Court; but as it was, he must dismiss him at present, with the advice that he should be very careful with regard to his future conduct, as, should he ever be found in connection with such a business again, the present charge would certainly tell most powerfully against him."

In the light of this level of leniency in the courts, it is scarcely surprising that body-snatching became so widespread. The official attitude was not often shared by the families of the people who were unearthed or by local communities however. There are many instances of body-snatchers caught red-handed in cemeteries and of the subsequent hospitalisation of the culprits. Nor were anatomists exempt from public outrage. The Glasgow Herald of March 3rd 1823 reported:
"Yesterday, between one and two o’clock, a crowd assembled in front of the dissecting room in Duke Street and the doors burst open, and everything contained in it destroyed. The Superintendent and a number of the officers of Police were immediately on the spot, and the appearance of the mob was such that a detachment of the 77th Regiment was sent for. On their approach the crowd dispersed, but in a short time thereafter they assembled in Portland Street, and burst open the outer gate of another dissecting room, when they were immediately checked by Mr Hardie with a party of the 77th. They then made a sortie to a dissecting room in College Street; and finally between seven and eight o’clock they made their appearance in front of Dr Jeffray’s laundry, at the College, suspected to be a dissecting room."

Various means were adopted by local authorities and families to safeguard the remains of the deceased. Mort-safes (illustration above) were grills of heavy iron placed over the graves of the recently deceased by those with the means to pay for them, and are still commonly seen in Scottish graveyards. Communal mort-safes were sometimes purchased with parish funds, and were rented by relatives of the dead and used as a temporary burial place until such times as the body was reckoned to be no longer of potential use to anatomists; only very fresh corpses attracted a fee. Still to be seen too are graveyard watchtowers (illustration below), which were manned at night by the relatives of the recently deceased or by persons employed by them. However, there are records of occasional "gamekeepers turned poachers", and a family usually performed these duties out of love and respect for their late loved one as well as mistrust of the sort of person who would offer to keep watch for them.

In Scotland the body-snatchers worked mainly in winter, as the cold weather helped preserve corpses and it was dark in the early evening; very often early police forces did not come on duty until 8pm, so between 6pm and 8pm was the prime time for the resurrection men. One method they used was to dig at the head end of a recent burial, digging with a wooden spade as this was quieter than metal. When they reached the coffin they would break it open, put a rope around the corpse and drag it out. The British medical journal The Lancet of 1896 (147 (3777): 185–7) reported another method used in earlier periods. A manhole-sized square of turf was removed 15 to 20 feet (5 to 6 m) away from the head of the grave, and a tunnel dug to intercept the coffin, which would usually be about 4 feet (1.2 m) down. The end of the coffin would be pulled off, and the corpse pulled up through the tunnel. The turf was then replaced, and any relatives watching the graves would not notice the small, remote disturbance. The article suggests that the number of empty coffins that have been discovered "proves beyond a doubt that... [in the 1820s] body snatching was frequent". Evidence of the extent of the practice is necessarily difficult to obtain, but the number of watchtowers and mort-safes surviving in Scotland to the present day is surely an indication that the threat was considered very real. The Glasgow Herald of March 9th 1829 records a rare contemporary discovery:

"For a considerable time past there has existed a suspicion that the trade of disinterring bodies from the graves of the burying ground of the parish of Kirkmichael, county of Ayr, has been carried on. On the morning of Thursday the 5th inst., the populace insisted on the right of opening some graves, where recent interment had taken place; the parish minister resisted the attempt, advising a more regular mode of procedure, but the anxiety to ascertain the fate of their friends and companions was too powerful to admit of such delay, and to work they went. In the first instance they were too successful, for the empty coffins realised their fears. This prompted the work of examination, and at the close of the day, there were seventeen graves, where interment had taken place within the last six months, which were robbed of their inmates. Today, the 6th, the work of examination was continued, and four more have been found in the same situation; the scene is melancholy - the empty coffins are brought up, and the dead clothes, fresh and white, exhibited across the graves; the relatives are rushing from every part of the parish to know the fate of their departed friends, and it is not easy to describe the anguish they feel when their removal is discovered. The perpetrators have, in some instances, left the bodies of such as have not suited their purpose in a situation too shocking to describe. I visited the place, and was not a little surprised to see a work of this kind done by a populace, without any leader to direct their movements, with as much calmness and order as if they had been paying the last tribute to those they esteem."

Sometimes the methods employed were ingenious. One successful resurrectionist by night, grave digger by day, 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. 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 relatives 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.

In time the practice evolved into its ultimate and most sinister form. William Burke and William Hare are Edinburgh's most infamous suppliers of corpses to the medical fraternity, but they were not body-snatchers. The time, trouble and risk involved was neatly bypassed using the simple expedient of murdering their victims. A fuller account of this pair will appear in this blog in due course, but for now it is enough to note that the notoriety of this case and the outrage it created led directly to the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, and required the licensing of anatomy teachers. This UK act of parliament essentially ended the body snatching trade.

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