You're shaking your head, right? Let me explain. If you've read Tess Gerritsen's The Bone Garden, you'll get it. Part of the book takes place in 19th century Boston where a young Oliver Wendell Holmes and his colleagues are attending Harvard Medical School. Cadavers are in short supply around the country. In the book, a shady secondary character is a “Resurrectionist,” a person paid money by (usually) well-meaning doctors wanting to further the medical field.
Remember, Oliver Wendell Holmes was the genius (and I say that with all sincerity) who discovered that doctors washing their hands would prevent thousands of deaths from infection. That the idea was common sense is still mind boggling to me, but that’s another story.
In the 19th century surgery was still regarded as somewhat taboo and certainly feared. The idea of medical students carving into dead bodies was ghastly, and it was something no one talked about. Most Victorians believed being dissected after death would keep you from heaven, and there were strict laws preventing human dissection. Only the bodies of hanged criminals were given to the universities.
But as the medical profession grew and more students flocked to schools like Harvard, dead bodies became precious commodities. Poor refrigeration methods meant bodies didn’t stay fresh for long. Many medical professionals believed the process was a necessary evil offset by the benefits of anatomical study. Resurectionists were so good at their ‘profession’ they became indispensible to doctors and were often kept out of jail by prominent physicians and surgeons.
Ressurectionists worked in teams, targeting new graves because of the unsettled earth. They sent spies—usually women—to funerals to plan for the body removal.
“Typically, a member of the gang, or his wife, would spend the day loitering in a likely graveyard waiting for a funeral…At night, two members of the gang would appear and, after carefully laying a sheet on the ground, would uncover the head portion of the grave, dumping the loose dirt on the sheet. The body would be pulled from the coffin head first with ropes, the shroud stuffed back in the grave, and the dirt carefully replaced.” – Body Snatching: A Grave Medical Problem, p 401
The mass graves the poor were buried in were a favorite target for Ressurectionists. These graves were open until they were full of coffins—a body snatching smorgasbord.
They crept out in the dark of night, sneaking into the cemeteries while looking over their shoulders for police and occasionally, the ghosts of the dead. In The Bone Garden, the Resurrectionist is a cad who keeps the corpse’s jewelry and isn’t fazed by the many young people he’s digging up. He doesn’t think about their families—only his wallet. His accomplice is the books protagonist—a medical student. He despises the job, but he’s desperate for money to stay in school. It’s through his eyes we see the callous treatment of the dead.
Body snatching may have taken place at night, but it was no secret. It was common for families of the deceased to watch over their graves. Families with means did everything they could to keep the greedy at bay, building elaborate fences. An iron bar structure known as a Mortsafe was built around the coffin. Some even built fortified stone houses to keep the snatchers away.
But most people didn’t have a lot of money, so they had to get creative. Many snatchers would dig a tunnel to the coffin, bust the side and use a rope to dislodge the body. So a miserable-looking wooden plank (pictured above) was bolted to the coffin floor and the metal collar fastened around the deceased’s neck. When the snatchers broke through the coffin, the body would stay firmly in place.
As the demand for cadavers grew, so did the profits. And the competition. The fresher the body, the better. Some intrepid snatchers didn’t want to waste time waiting for the families to turn their backs or figure out a way around the various contraptions to protect the dead.
Two body snatchers from Edinburgh, Scotland delivered wonderfully fresh bodies and made lots of money. In their quest for comfy living, they murdered at least 17 people.
What’s worse, anatomist began to recognize the bodies the men were delivering but kept silent. Eventually Burke’s ego grew too big for his britches, and he made a mistake. On Halloween night in 1827, he met a woman at a bar and coerced her into drinking with him in his lodgings. He killed the woman by suffocation so there were no marks. But Burke was so drunk he did a poor job of disposing of the body, and she was discovered the next day. Burke was made to stand trial, and from then on stealing bodies for science was known as ‘Burking.’
Eventually laws were created to protect the dead that allowed for unclaimed bodies and those of volunteers to be donated to science. But in many cemeteries across the world, the leftovers of body-snatching fervor can still be seen.