Grave Robbing, or The Resurrection Men

Before Great Britain’s Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed medical schools to legally obtain a sufficient number of cadavers for study, getting a corpse to dissect was no simple matter.  The Murder Act of 1752 stipulated only the bodies of executed murderers be used for such a purpose.  As medical science improved, the need for fresh cadavers began to rapidly exceed the supply of executed murderers.

Enter the Resurrection Men

In the late Regency period and the early Victorian era, grave robbing paid quite well and wasn’t particularly risky because it wasn’t a felony.  All the grave robber had to do was make certain he didn’t help himself to any valuables buried along with the dead, such as an expensive piece of jewelry, and he had no fear of being executed for his crime.

Mort-Safe in Greyfriars Kirkyard to discourage grave robbing

Naturally, the bereaved fought back with vigils, watchmen, metal coffins, and even iron cages like the “Mort-Safe” above.  Others may have quoted Shakespeare’s own admonition to body snatchers:

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,"
"To dig the dust enclosed here."
"Blessed be the man that spares these stones,"
"And cursed be he who moves my bones."

Taking It to the Next Level: Burke & Hare

In 1828, Dr. Robert Knox hired Brendan Burke and William Hare to procure cadavers for study.  But grave robbing was hard physical labor, especially when it came to getting a nice fresh corpse suitable for study.  (After all, this was before the advent of good embalming techniques or refrigeration.)  Burke and Hare decided it would be easier to create fresh bodies than to dig them up.  Their technique, to suffocate weak or inebriated victims, came to be known as “burking.”  Their imitators in the city called themselves the London Burkers.

Up the close and down the stair,
But and ben with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.
—19th-century Edinburgh jumping-rope rhyme

Eventually the duo was brought to justice and hanged.  But the idea of Resurrection Men continued in popular culture for a long time after, and was referenced by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist.

Modern Day Resurrection Man?

Think ghoulish stuff like this only happened in the bad old days, or is just a matter of urban legends?  Click here to discover what happened to the body of the late Alastair Cooke, best known as the host of Masterpiece Theater.

4 thoughts on “Grave Robbing, or The Resurrection Men

  1. I knew about the burkers and certainly movies like Repo Man carry on the ghoulish story of body parts snatchers. But I never knew that about Cooke.OMG! Of course, I can hear him now, up in Heaven, giving that aristocratic snort he so often gave when he thought something was not well done.Thanks for sharing the info. Victorians had their little quirks, didn't they?And would you consider Frankenstein a Victorian novel?

  2. @ Jenx Byron: I am always a fount of something.@mewofford: Didn't you tell me about the Timothy Dalton movie The Doctor and the Devils? That was about Burke & Hare. Frankenstein? Definitely.@Julie Musil: it's fun to look back and see how different their concerns were from ours. Weird as modern life is, we don't generally worry about body snatching. Though a whole lot of us seem to have contingency plans for the Zombiepocalypse…

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