|Resurrectionists at work|
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.
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)
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