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Body-snatching was the secret disinterment of bodies from churchyards to sell them for dissection or anatomy lectures in medical schools. Those who practised body-snatching or grave robbing were often called resurrectionists or resurrection-men.[1]

Main article History of anatomy in the 19th century


Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. This did not provide enough subjects for the medical schools and private anatomical schools (which required no licence before 1832). In the 1700s, hundreds had been executed for trivial crimes, by the 19th century only 55 people were being hanged each year, while, with the expansion of the medical schools, as many as 500 were needed[2].

Before electric power to supply refrigeration, bodies would rapidly decay and become unusable for study[citation needed]. Therefore, the medical profession turned to body-snatching to supply the shortfall of bodies fresh enough for the organs, flesh etc to be examined.

Stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and was therefore only punishable with fine and imprisonment, rather than transportation or execution[3]. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection, particularly as the authorities tended to turn a blind eye to what they considered a necessary evil.

Body-snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being violated. Iron coffins, too, were frequently used, or the graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes, well-preserved examples of which may still be seen in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh. In the Netherlands, poorhouses were accustomed to receiving a small fee by undertakers who paid a fine for ignoring burial laws and resold the bodies (especially those with no family) to doctors.

One method the body-snatchers used was to dig at the head end of recent burial, digging with a wooden spade (quieter than 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 careful not to steal anything such as jewellery or clothes as this would leave them open to a felony charge.

The Lancet[4] reported another method. A manhole-sized square of turf was removed 15ft to 20ft away from the head of the grave, and a tunnel dug to intercept the coffin, which would be about 4ft 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".

The practice was also common in other parts of the Empire, such as Canada, where religious customs as well as the lack of means of preservation made it hard for medical students to obtain a steady supply of fresh bodies. In many instances the students had to resort to fairly regular body-snatching.

While studying in Paris, Vesalius was accustomed to robbing the Paris graveyards with fellow anatomy pupils.

Bodysnatching in fiction

Contemporary bodysnatching

There are also modern-day reports of body snatching, although this is very rare. One notorious case in the United Kingdom involved the theft of the remains of Gladys Hammond from Yoxall Churchyard near Lichfield in south Staffordshire. Mrs Hammond's remains were taken by animal rights extremists who were campaigning against Darley Oaks Farm, a licensed facility which bred guinea pigs for scientific research. Mrs Hammond was the mother in law of one of the farm's owners. After a four-year investigation by Staffordshire Police four leaders of the Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs campaign group (three men: Kerry Whitburn of Edgbaston, John Smith of Wolverhampton, John Ablewhite of Manchester; and one woman: Josephine Mayo of Staffordshire) were jailed for conspiracy to blackmail. The men received 12 years each and the woman received four years. The police said the conspiracy included the theft of Mrs Hammond's remains, which were recovered by police following information given by one of the four.

There is still a demand for corpses for transplantation surgery in the form of allografts,[5] and modern body-snatchers feed this demand.[6] Tissue such gained is medically unsafe and unusable. The broadcaster Alistair Cooke's bones were allegedly cut up by body-snatchers before his cremation[7][8][9]

Further reading

  • J B Bailey, editor (1896). The Diary of a Resurrectionist. London. Contains a full bibliography and the regulations in force in foreign countries for the supply of bodies for anatomical purposes, as of its date of publish.
  • Vieux Doc (docteur Edmond Grignon) (1930). En guettant les ours : mémoires d'un médecin des Laurentides. Montréal : Éditions Édouard Garand. Digitized by the National Library of Quebec. French language.
  • "Waking the Dead: how to steal a dead body",
  • Burch, Druin (2007). Digging up the Dead: The Life and Times of Astley Cooper, an Extraordinary Surgeon. Chatto & Windus, London.
  • C W Herr, editor (1799). The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey. Mrs Carver. Gothic novel about the terror inflicted upon a young woman when she is locked inside a crumbling Abbey used by resurrection men and body snatchers. Published by Zittaw Press.
  • Richardson, Ruth (2001). Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Contains excellent information regarding the Anatomy Act and the Resurrectionist's influence upon the urban poor.

See also


  1. Template:1911
  2. East London History accessed 24 Jan 2007
  3. The Rex. vs Lynn case 1728, made taking a body from a churchyard, a misdemeanour
  4. The Lancet, 147(3777), 185-187 (1896).
  5. Aaron Smith, "Tissue from corpses in strong demand" October 5, 2005, retrieved 18 May 2006
  6. Aaron Smith, "Body snatchers tied to allograft firms?", October 7, 2005, retrieved 18 May 2006.
  7. "Alistair Cooke's bones 'stolen'", BBC news online 22 December 2005, retrieved 18 May 2006
  8. Sam Knight, "Bodysnatchers steal Alistair Cooke's bones", Times online December 22, 2005, retrieved 18 May 2006.
  9. "Four charged over US bones theft", BBC news online 23 February 2006, Retrieved 18 May 2006.

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