Men At Work – Body Snatchers Stealing A Corpse
You may have heard of an exhibition called ‘Bodyworlds’. It’s not for the faint of heart but, being of stout nature (and not to mention incredibly morbid), I’ve been to a couple of the exhibitions. The exhibits consists of human bodies (although the creator of Bodyworlds, Gunther von Hagen, also managed to include a rather unsuspecting horse at one point) which have been skinned, plastinated (removing bodily fluids and fats and replacing them with resins and elastomers – no, I have no idea what elastomers are either…) and posed in various lifelike positions. This sort of thing, whilst a little unnerving for the average person to look at, is great for medical students and people seem to be falling over themselves to donate their bodies to the cause. But there was a time when getting enough bodies to study human anatomy was a bit of a trial.
Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, corpses for medical research were rather difficult to come by. Only criminals who had been condemned to “death and dissection” by the Courts were legally allowed to be used by medical students and the supply of such corpses was painfully short. Unless you were one of the ‘Resurrection Men’ or ‘body snatchers,’ as they were more commonly known.
Perhaps the most famous body snatchers were William Burke and William Hare who managed to murder 17 victims between November 1827 and October 1828 so they could make money selling the fresh corpses to medical schools. The fresher the corpse, the more money you got for it.
Their method of killing their victims was eventually named ‘burking’ and the process generally consisted of getting the victim rip-roaring drunk so they were practically insensible before one man shoved a finger up each of the victim’s nostrils and clamped their jaw shut with his thumb and his accomplice sat on the victim’s chest to stop them breathing. ‘Burking’ left minimal marks on the corpse (perhaps just a small bruise under the chin) so suspicions were not aroused. The surgeon who purchased the bodies from Burke and Hare, Robert Knox, was so pleased to get his hands on a steady supply of fresh corpses that he probably didn’t look too closely at the cause of death. The old 1960’s film, The Flesh and the Fiend, tells the story of Burke and Hare with much screaming and skullduggery – here’s a trailer to whet your appetite:
Of course, the law eventually caught up with Burke and Hare and they were finally arrested. Hare, however, betrayed Burke and testified against him to save his own neck. Burke was hanged in January 1829 and dissected at Edinburgh Medical College. Some students went to the effort of making a book bound with Burke’s skin and if you pop into the little police museum which, if memory serves me correctly, is on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh there is also a small wallet made out of Burke’s skin. Having had a close look at it, you can even see the pores in the skin…
William Burke, in his confession, said that Robert Knox had no knowledge of how the corpses had been acquired and Knox was not prosecuted.
Becky Wash, curator of the Essex Police Museum (do go along and have a nose around the museum if you’re in the area – it’s brilliant) sent me details of the following body snatching incident at St John’s Church, Little Leighs, Essex, which took place in December 1823.
St John’s Church, Little Leighs, Essex
Body snatching used to take place mostly in and around larger towns, but as people got wise to the Resurrection Men’s tactics and went to more strenuous efforts to secure their loved ones graves, the body snatchers had to travel further afield to get their hands on valuable corpses. Little Leighs was one such place targeted by the body snatchers.
1823 saw an unusual amount of people shuffling off the mortal coil in Little Leighs (9 people in a year, which is quite a few considering the population was only 160). Three of those nine people died in December 1823 and were buried in St John’s churchyard.
A body snatcher called Samuel Clark left his horse and cart tied up near the graveyard while he went about his nefarious deeds only to find that, when he was ready to make his escape, the toll collector, John Redwood, thinking the horse and cart had been abandoned, had moved it to a local landlord for safekeeping. Clark was forced to dump the body he’d dug up and go off in search of his missing horse and cart. He was eventually arrested for his crime. Further investigation showed that two further graves were empty but it was not thought that Clark stole those corpses. A link to the Essex Police Museum Newsletter which contains all the details about this particular body snatching debacle is attached below under the Sources section.
It does make you wonder – how many other graves are missing their occupants thanks to the Resurrection Men? Hundreds? Thousands…?
©Nicola Kirk and http://www.nicolakirk.wordpress.com 2010