Gather round to hear the gruesome real-life stories of The Body Snatchers!! ... Mwhahaha...
During the 1700s, hundreds of people were executed for trivial crimes. However, by the following century, this number had dwindled to a little over 50 people a year, while demand from the expanding medical schools meant that as many as 500 cadavers were needed.
The problem became so bad that some doctors and scientists interested in anatomy turned to unscrupulous methods to obtain bodies for dissection. One way that they got hold of them was from body snatchers or so-called ‘resurrection-men’.
Body snatching soon became so prevalent that it was not uncommon for the relatives and friends of the deceased to guard the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave to prevent it from being violated. People were even buried in iron coffins, while graves were sometimes protected by a framework of iron bars called a ‘mortsafe’.
An article in medical journal The Lancet claims that the number of empty coffins to have been discovered “proves beyond a doubt that body snatching was frequent”. It’s said that London anatomy schools employed ten full-time body snatchers and about 200 part-time workers during the dissection season, which ran from October to May, when decomposition was slower! Disposing of the dissected body proved more difficult, however, and rumours abound of remains buried secretly behind medical schools or given to zoos for carnivores or vultures to devour.
Body snatchers used many ingenious methods to steal corpses, such as tunnelling into graves from a distance to avoid detection. They also tended to ensure that they didn’t take any items such as jewellery buried with the person, as this would have constituted a felony crime.
The infamous William Burke and William Hare took things one stage further, however. Rather than just stealing corpses, they murdered people to supply bodies to order!
The pair ran a boarding house. When one of their tenants died, they took him to Robert Knox’s anatomy classroom in Edinburgh where they were paid £7 for the body. Realizing the profit potential, they asphyxiated 16 people over the next year and sold their bodies to Knox. Eventually, they were caught when a tenant returned to her bed only to encounter a corpse.
Hare testified against Burke as a result of a plea bargain. After Burke was found guilty, he was hanged and, in what some might consider to be poetic justice, publicly dissected.
Did you know?
- In the US, anatomist Thomas Sewell, who later became the personal physician to three presidents, was convicted in 1818 of digging up a corpse for dissection.
- Anatomists would even dissect members of their own family. William Harvey, who is famous for discovering the circulatory system, was so dedicated he dissected his father and sister.
- Resurrectionists were known to hire women to act the part of grieving relatives and claim the bodies of the dead at poorhouses.
- John Collins Warren Jr was the son of the Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard Medical School. In 1796, John Jr was part of a group who disinterred the body of a man “without relations”.
- In February 2006, Dr Michael Mastromarino was convicted of illegally harvesting human bones, organs, tissue and other body parts from individuals awaiting cremation, and for selling them to medical companies without the consent of their families. The 42-year-old former New Jersey-based oral surgeon and CEO at Biomedical Tissue Services was sentenced along with three of his employees to a long prison term.
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