Body snatching is the secret disinterment of corpses from graveyards. A common purpose of body snatching, especially in the 19th century, was to sell the corpses for dissection or anatomy lectures in medical schools. Those who practiced body snatching were often called “resurrectionists” or “resurrection-men”. A related, slightly less ghoulish act is grave robbery, the uncovering of a tomb or crypt to steal artefacts or personal effects rather than corpses.
The 19th century saw renewed attention given to medicine and science, the advancements in surgery and treatment being significant and ushering forth a new breed of talented doctors and surgeons. Previously oft-practiced but now clearly baffling treatments were being abandoned in preference to techniques which were more scientific than superstitious, though this meant ripping up many textbooks from the past and gaining a new understanding of how the human body worked and reacted to both drugs and disease. This, however, came with many challenges.
Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in Britain were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who were sentenced to dissection by the courts were often guilty of comparatively harsher crimes. Such sentences did not provide enough subjects for the medical schools and private anatomical schools (which did not require a license before 1832). During the 18th century hundreds had been executed for trivial crimes, but by the 19th century only about 55 people were being sentenced to capital punishment each year. With the expansion of the medical schools, however, as many as 500 cadavers were needed annually.
This created something of a moral dilemma for the authorities – clearly they couldn’t be seen to be complicit in the disinterment of the dead, or the ransacking of graves on sacred ground, but neither could they reconcile themselves with holding up the progress of medical breakthroughs and therefore the curing and treatment of the sick at the expense of only a few. The solution was a sort of compromise – although the tampering with graves was officially still frowned upon, the punishment was relatively slight, a misdemeanor rather than a felony, a potential fine and a stint behind bars rather than the, perhaps expected, execution.
With these relatively lax attitudes, families of the recently deceased had little option but to take it upon themselves to keep watch of their yet to be interred loved ones, for fear of them ‘going missing’ before they were even buried. Should they at least find their way underground, elaborate devices were employed to ensure the dead were not taken by the agents of needy doctors. Lead-weighted and iron coffins were sometimes chosen to make an attempted body snatching too time-consuming. Rich families were able to protect family member’s graves by employing large marble slabs and headstones, sometimes even locked mausolea which would prevent easy access.
For the less well-off, it was necessary for the community as a whole to find ways to keep their graveyards free of trespassers. Watchtowers were employed in some areas, particularly Scotland, where teams of ‘watchers’ were also employed – in one instance, a 2000-strong collective was assembled.
The early adoption of iron cages around graves soon developed into a more structured design, known as ‘the mortsafe’, first appearing in 1816. These were iron or iron-and-stone devices of great weight, in many different designs.
Often they were complex heavy iron contraptions of rods and plates, padlocked together – examples have been found close to all Scottish medical schools. A plate was placed over the coffin and rods with heads were pushed through holes in it. These rods were kept in place by locking a second plate over the first to form extremely heavy protection. It would be removed by two people with keys. They were placed over the coffins for about six weeks, then removed for further use when the body inside was sufficiently decayed. There is a model of a mortsafe of this type in Marischal Museum, Aberdeen. Sometimes a church bought them and hired them out. Societies were also formed to purchase them and control their use, with annual membership fees, and charges made to non-members.
London Burkers, a group of resurrectionists, comprising of John Bishop, Thomas Williams, Michael Shields, a Covent Garden porter, and James May, an unemployed butcher, also known as Jack Stirabout and Black Eyed Jack, who stole freshly buried bodies to sell to anatomists. In his subsequent confession, Bishop admitted to stealing (and selling) between 500 and 1000 bodies, over a period of twelve years. The corpses were sold to anatomists, including surgeons from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, St Thomas’ Hospital and King’s College. The Fortune of War Public House, in Smithfield, was identified as a popular resort for resurrectionists.
There were various methods used by determined body snatchers; one method used was to dig at the head end of a recent burial, using a wooden spade – quieter than those made of metal. When they reached the coffin (in London the graves were quite shallow), they broke open the coffin, put a rope around the corpse and dragged it out. They were often careful not to steal anything such as jewellery or clothes as this would cause them to be liable to a felony charge.
The Lancet reported another method. A manhole-sized square of turf was removed 15 to 20 feet (5 to 6 metres) away from the head of the grave, and a tunnel dug to intercept the coffin, which would 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 at this time body snatching was frequent”.
These events led to the more wide-spread introduction of vaults being used as resting places for the dead. The introduction of the Anatomy Act in 1832 was ultimately the answer to the practise of stealing corpses for profit, the ‘industry’ now being controlled by the Human Tissue Authority. However, this was not the end of people digging up rotting bodies for other reasons, as we will see later.
In the United States, body snatchers generally worked in small groups, which scouted and pillaged fresh graves. Fresh graves were generally given preference since the earth had not yet settled, thus making digging easier work. The removed earth was often shovelled onto canvas laid by the grave, so the nearby grounds were undisturbed. Digging commenced at the head of the grave, clear to the coffin. The remaining earth on the coffin provided a counterweight which snapped the partially covered coffin lid (which was covered in sacking to muffle noise) as crowbars or hooks pulled the lid free at the head of the coffin. Usually, the body would be disrobed, the garments thrown back into the coffin before the earth was put back into place.
Resurrectionists have also been known to hire women to act the part of grieving relatives and to claim the bodies of dead at poorhouses. Women were also hired to attend funerals as grieving mourners; their purpose was to ascertain any hardships the body snatchers may later encounter during the disinterment. Bribed servants would sometimes offer body snatchers access to their dead master or mistress lying in state; the removed body would be replaced with weights. Although medical research and education lagged in the United States compared to medical colleges’ European counterparts, the interest in anatomical dissection grew in the United States. Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York were renowned for body snatching activity: all locales provided plenty of cadavers. So in demand were corpses in some districts and so demanding were those wishing to utilise them that spies were sent to funerals to gauge sex, age, condition and means of death to determine desirability and cost.
Public graveyards were not only sanctioned by social and economic standing, but also by race. New York was 15% black in the 1780s. “Bayley’s dissecting tables, as well as those of Columbia College” often took bodies from the segregated section of Potter’s field, the Negroes Burying Ground. Free blacks as well as slaves were buried there. In February 1787, a group of free blacks petitioned the city’s common council about the medical students, who “under cover of night…dig up the bodies of the deceased, friends and relatives of the petitioners, carry them away without respect to age or sex, mangle their flesh out of wanton curiosity and then expose it to beasts and birds.”
In December 1882, it was discovered that six bodies had been disinterred from Lebanon Cemetery and were en-route to Jefferson Medical College for dissection. Philadelphia’s African-Americans were outraged, and a crowd assembled at the city morgue where the discovered bodies were sent. Reportedly, one of the crowd urged the group to swear that they would seek revenge for those who participated in desecration of the graves; another man screamed when he discovered the body of his 29-year-old brother. The Philadelphia Press broke the story when a teary, elderly woman identified her husband’s body, whose burial she had afforded only by begging for the $22 at the wharves where he had been employed. Physician William S. Forbes was indicted, and the case led to passage of various Anatomical Acts.
After the public hanging of 39 Dakota warriors in the aftermath of the Dakota War of 1862, a group of doctors removed the bodies under cover of darkness from their riverside grave and divided the corpses among themselves. Doctor William Worrall Mayo received the body of a warrior called “Cut Nose” and dissected it in the presence of other doctors. He then cleaned and articulated the skeleton and kept the bones in an iron kettle in his office. His sons received their first lessons in osteology from this skeleton.
Although some states took matter into their own hands, such as Massachusetts’ Anatomy Act of 1831, on a more local level, people used methods similar to those in Britain to ensure their loved one’s grave remained untouched. Police were engaged to watch the burying grounds but were often bribed or made drunk. Spring guns were set in the coffins, and poorer families would leave items like a stone, flowers or a blade of grass or a shell to show whether the grave was tampered with or not. Particularly popular around the Pennsylvania area were devices known as “cemetery guns”, wood and steel contraptions operated via trip wires arranged around the grave. Even more devastating were ‘coffin torpedoes’, a device invented in 1881 by a former judge, Thomas Howell, which detonated if the resting place of the deceased was tampered with. The aim of such arms were not necessarily to kill (though they frequently did) so much as to deter any future trespassers. In his collection of Boston police force details, Edward Savage made notes of a reward offer on April 13, 1814: “The selectmen offer $100 reward for arrest of grave-robbers at South Burying-Ground”.
Iron fences were constructed around many burying grounds as well as a deterrent to body snatchers. “Burglar proof grave vaults made of steel” were sold with the promise that loved ones’ remains would not be one of the 40,000 bodies “mutilated every year on dissecting tables in medical colleges in the United States.” The medical appropriation of bodies aroused much popular resentment. Between 1765 and 1884, there were at least 25 documented crowd actions against American medical schools.
Naturally, bodysnatching was not confined to Britain and America. Instances occurred in China as recently as 2006 with a resurgence in the ancient practice of ghost marriages (the bizarre ceremony of two deceased persons being wed) in the northern coal-mining regions of Shanxi, Hebei and Shandong. Although the practice has long been abandoned in modern China, some superstitious families in isolated rural areas still pay very high prices for the procurement of female corpses for deceased unmarried male relatives. It is speculated that the very high death toll among young male miners in these areas has led more and more entrepreneurial body snatchers to steal female cadavers from graves and then resell them through the black market to families of the deceased. In 2007, a previously convicted grave robber, Song Tiantang, was arrested by Chinese authorities for murdering six women and selling their bodies as “ghost brides”
Body snatchers in France were called “Les Corbeaux” (the crows), whilst in the Netherlands, poorhouses were accustomed to receiving a small fee from undertakers who paid a fine for ignoring burial laws and resold the bodies, especially those with no family, to doctors.
Contemporary bodysnatching is understandably rare though not unknown; even the famous aren’t immune from post-life escapades; in Cyprus, the former President Tassos Papadopoulos’s body was stolen from his grave on 11 December 2009 and in the following year, the famous broadcaster Alistair Cooke’s bones were removed in New York City and replaced with PVC pipe before his cremation.
In South America, there are accounts of graves being disturbed in order for body parts to be used in religious rites and ceremonies. Even Charlie Chaplin’s corpse was briefly stolen, in a bid to gain a large ransom. Some disturbed grave plots and empty coffins gave rise to rumours of vampires and other supernatural occurrences.
Finally, there is one other reason for corpses to be taken – for companionship and even sex. Necrophilia – derived from the Greek words: νεκρός (nekros; “dead”) and φιλία (philia; “love”) – is thankfully rare at the best of times and even then tends not to focus on bodies which have made it as far as the graveyard. Yet, the practice can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt – Herodotus writing in The Histories that, to discourage sexual intercourse with a corpse, ancient Egyptians left deceased beautiful women to decay for “three or four days” before giving them to the embalmers.
Recorded examples of sexual activity with corpses obtained from graveyards include:
• Victor Ardisson, also known as the “Vampire of Muy,” exploited his position as an undertaker and gravedigger in late 19th century France, by violating many bodies, especially those of young women, and mutilating and decapitating them in some cases. According to his confession, Ardisson regularly spoke to the corpses which he had retrieved, feeling genuine shock and hurt when they would not respond. Ardisson was examined by Doctor Alexis Epaulard, one of the first psychiatrists to associate necrophilia and vampirism. Epaulard diagnosed Ardisson as a “degenerate impulsive sadist and necrophile.”
• American serial killer and body-snatcher Ed Gein is known to have used disinterred corpses for sexual gratification, as well as, of course, home furnishings.
Daz Lawrence, moviesandmania
Works more generally related to bodysnatching include:
• H. P. Lovecraft’s works referring to body snatchers include his tales, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and Herbert West – Reanimator.
• James McGee’s Resurrectionist centres on his main protagonist, James Hawkwood, in hunt of a group of resurrectionists who illegally smuggle bodies for medical school. Central to the theme of the novel, McGee explores the world of the resurrectionists and their doings.
• In Jonathan L. Howards novel Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, the eponymous protagonist practices body snatching.
• In Charles Dickens’s novel, A Tale of Two Cities, Jerry Cruncher works as a “resurrection man” in addition to his work as a porter and messenger at Tellson’s Bank.
• In the film Corridors of Blood, Christopher Lee plays a character called “Resurrection Joe”.
• Henry Frankenstein’s experiments in bringing life to the deceased rely heavily on the thankless work of Fritz and in later entries into the saga, Karl and Ygor.
• In Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein, Fredrick Frankenstein and Igor dig up a body to attempt to bring it back to life.
• The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) infamously opens would an image of an ‘art installation’ at a graveyard that has been constructed from body-parts of interred residents.
• Avoid Meeting a Body Snatcher! is a 2009 ‘Danger Zone’ children’s book by Fiona Macdonald.