Monday, October 27, 2014

Stolen Bodies in 1826

Monday, October 27, 2014
Resurrectionists at work

Loretta reports:

In the days before x-rays (near the turn of the 20th century), the only way to see what was inside the human body was to cut it open and actually look inside, preferably after death.  As Judith Flanders points out in The Invention of Murder, “medical schools officially used only the corpses of executed criminals for dissection.”  The trouble was, there weren’t enough dead criminals to keep up with the demand.  Enterprising individuals started digging up the recently interred from graveyards and selling the bodies to anatomy lecturers.  Desperate for fresh corpses, the latter didn’t ask awkward questions.

What I didn’t realize until reading Ms. Flanders’s book was, this was only “semi-illegal (‘semi’ because dead bodies in law belonged to no one; resurrectionists could be charged only with stealing grave clothes).” The info comes as part of her introduction to the Burke and Hare case of the late 1820s.*

My excerpt from The Gentleman’s Magazine (Volume 96, Part 2; Volume 140, 1826) is shortly before Burke & Hare, and the “friend of anatomical pursuits" is a lot more finicky about how the bodies are obtained than medical schools were.
Resurrectionists

Image: Hablot Knight Browne, Resurrectionists at work, accompanying the story of John Holmes and Peter Williams, whipped for stealing dead bodies in 1777, from The chronicles of crime; or, The new Newgate calendar, being a series of memoirs and anecdotes of notorious characters who have outraged the laws of Great Britain from the earliest period to 1841 (later ed. 1887)

*More here.

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the captions will allow you to read at the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

3 comments:

Lillian Marek said...

I cannot remember where I read this, but somewhere I read an account of an early 19th century scientist (or scientifically inclined gentleman) who was carrying home a head to autopsy. It fell out of the bag, rolled down a hill, and bounced through the open door of a family who were about to have dinner.

I do wish I could remember where I read that.

Lillian Marek said...

I cannot remember where I read this, but somewhere I read an account of an early 19th century scientist (or scientifically inclined gentleman) who was carrying home a head to autopsy. It fell out of the bag, rolled down a hill, and bounced through the open door of a family who were about to have dinner.

I do wish I could remember where I read that.

Yve said...

Burke and Hare were charged with murder though, because they got too greedy to wait for the poor of the Edinburgh slums to die of natural causes and decided to lend the Grim reaper a hand. The demand for fresh anatomical subjects was so high in mid 19th century Britain (often recorded by the surgical schools) that it is now considered probable that they were not the only Resurrectionists who went down that route.

I know there are records of a case being brought against a sanitorium by the daughter of an elderly woman who had demanded to have her mother's body back for private burial after she died in their care. The coffin was duly sent to the family home and the night before the funeral they decided to open it for the family to say their farewells, despite warnings not to from the sanitorium staff. To their horror they found the coffin contained a bag of assorted human 'offal' and some old bricks and rubble to weight it. It turned out the hospital routinely sold the bodies of any patient who died for anatomical dissection and buried empty coffins in it's tiny patient graveyard in sham ceremonies to keep the families (and the law) happy. Gruesome!

 
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