The availability of human bodies is critical to the study of anatomy. Cadavers are usually made available for research purposes through programs where people bequeath their bodies to medical schools and universities when they die. This wasn’t always the case, as during the 18th and early 19th centuries bodies were illegally procured for dissection.
The rapid growth of the biological sciences during this period was matched with an increased demand for human cadavers for dissections in medical schools and anatomy demonstrations. Up until the early 19th century in the United Kingdom the only legal means of securing corpses for anatomical research by was claiming the bodies of those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. As only those who committed the most serious felonies were sentenced to this fate only a few bodies were made available to anatomists each year and there was a severe shortage of cadavers.
Spotting a lucrative market in the trade of human bodies, people took to stealing the bodies of the recently deceased from fresh graves and selling them to medical schools. They would dig up the head end of a recent burial under the cover of night, break open the coffin, tie a rope around the neck of the corpse and pull it out. They earned the nicknames “resurrectionists” or “resurrection men”. As stealing from cemeteries was not a crime that was punished harshly in courts and many medical schools were willing to pay handsome sums for bodies there was a significant incentive for criminals to engage in body snatching.
Many people feared dissection as it was believed that the soul of a person who had been dismembered was unable to enter Heaven in the afterlife. The prevalence of body snatching caused fear amongst the pubic and people went to extreme lengths to prevent the bodies of their loved ones from ending up on anatomists’ dissecting tables. Often times, the friends and relatives of someone who had died would watch over their grave day and night until the point that the body would have decayed and become useless for medical dissection. In other cases, people were buried in heavy iron coffins or cages called mortsafes that were built around graves to prevent their contents from being exhumed.
In Britain, a spate of murders committed to obtain fresh bodies to sell to medical schools led to the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832. This Act permitted unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used in the study of anatomy. It also regulated anatomy instruction through a licensing system that monitored private medical schools. By regulating an increased supply of corpses for scientific research this legislation finally brought the practice of grave robbing to an end.
Knight Browne, H. (1847). Resurrectionists [Image]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resurrectionists_in_the_United_Kingdom#mediaviewer/File:Resurrectionists_by_phiz.png
Quigley, C. (2012). Dissection on display: cadavers, anatomists and public spectacle. Jefferson: McFarland & Co.