January 27, 2017

"The surgeons needed bodies to dissect, and out-of-work men knew just where to find them: cemeteries, of course. "

For a fast education in grave robbery, you can't beat A Beginner's Guide to Body Snatching  by Molly McBride Jacobson.

Say it’s 1820 and you’re an uneducated, lower-class chap with nights and weekends free who needs to pick up a few extra quid. You might consider the profitable, if criminal, profession of body snatching.

In the early days of surgery, dissecting a corpse was seen as a heinous defilement of the body, akin to cannibalism in its vulgarity. But the growing field of surgical science demanded bodies for study. The gallows were the only place surgeons could get cadavers. Executed criminals were fair game to slice and dice, as were suicide victims, but not regular law-abiding corpses. Even in the crime-riddled streets of London and Edinburgh, there weren’t enough bodies to train the new classes of young surgeons in the growing field.

So intrepid anatomists determined to educate their students would hire a body snatcher. It was a simple case of supply and demand. The surgeons needed bodies to dissect, and out-of-work men knew just where to find them: cemeteries, of course.

...St. Thomas’ and St. Bartholomew’s reputable hospitals, whose body purchases were done on the sly. Their operating surgeons would meet the grave robbers in back doors and alleyways to buy the stolen corpses in the wee hours of night. The operating theatres at St. Thomas and St. Bart’s, where stolen cadavers would have been dissected for anatomy lectures, now operate museums dedicated to this crime-enabled medical history.....

it wasn’t until the infamous Anatomy Murders that grave robbers were labeled as a public menace that had to be stopped. The Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh houses an exhibit on Edinburgh’s criminal duo Burke and Hare who became infamous  when instead of simply digging up corpses to sell to the Royal College of Surgeons, they began killing, to manufacture their own corpses. They sold over 15 of these corpses to the college before they were discovered. After turning King’s evidence, Hare was released, but Burke was hung, dissected, and a book was bound from his skin. Burke’s death mask and the book bound from his skin can all be found at the History of Surgery Museum.
Posted by Jill Fallon at January 27, 2017 12:54 PM | Permalink