Body Snatchers, Death House, and Mort Safe: Not the Bands!

grave robbers

Dissection has come a long way since Galen started poking around the insides of animal bodies. Herophilus took dissection a step further and moved onto the human body. However, it was not until the Renaissance when people became much more interested in dissection. An Italian named Andres Vesalius spearheaded this movement. “Vesalius made classical anatomical studies and carried out public dissections” (Mims, 1998:241). Vesalius created a manual from his discoveries and had it published in 1543 sparking interest in the movement of exploring human anatomy. People began to lose interest in dissecting animals; the desire to dissect human cadavers for gaining an understanding of what is inside became much greater. Soon private anatomy schools started popping up all over Europe. “While the number of schools grew, the number of cadavers stayed roughly the same, and the anatomists faced a chronic shortage of material” (Roach, 2003:40). Since you can’t find human cadavers at your general market people had to become creative in order to obtain these bodies for research (ie. gravedigging). This also meant that people had to become creative when it came to defending their loved one’s corpse.

One method of acquiring cadavers was to use the bodies of executed criminals for research. In 1752 an Act of Parliament gave judges the power to have the body of a convicted murderer dissected as an alternative to being gibbeted. To be gibbeted is to be covered in tar and suspended in an iron frame located in a public place. Eventually, the birds would eat the rotting corpse away. However, during this time, dissection was thought to be a much worse punishment than gibbeted. Since people believed that a soul would not be able to rest in piece after being dismembered. Soon the British government started to run out of criminals and charges started to increase. Eventually, dissection as a punishment for murder was abolished in the Anatomy Act of 1832 due to a large amount of public outrage. (Mims, 1998:242-243).

Body Snatchers:

Shortly after the criminal method fell through Body Snatchers started becoming more popular, and no I am not talking about the English Ska band, I am referring to the people who started removing dead bodies from their graves to sell to anatomy schools. “By 1795 there was a professional gang of fifteen body snatchers, known as ‘resurrectionists’ operating in London” (Mims, 1998:243). Medical schools would hire these body snatchers to find freshly buried cadavers and deliver said bodies to the school for research. This sounds like long and hard work, however the body snatchers had it down to a science. “They dug down to uncover the head of the coffin, and prised it open. A rope was slipped round the corpse’s neck, or a hook through the shroud, and the body pulled free” (Mims 1998: 243). At this point in time there was no law against removing a corpse from its grave. The catch is that all of the corpse’s personal items, like clothing and jewelry had to be returned to the grave, taking any of these items would be was considered grave robbing and that was illegal.

Some anatomy students also participated in the act of body snatching. According to one of Dr. Mean’s lectures, certain anatomy schools would pay off a portion of a student’s tuition if they delivered a cadaver to their institution. Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school has a history of this as well (September 3, 2013).

However, the two most popular body snatchers were not resurrectionists or anatomy students.

 A quick bedtime story

William Hare had a lodging house in Edinburgh. One day one of his older tenants died owing rent. Hare, along with his friend William Burke sold this body to Dr. Knox, who ran an anatomy school.  Burke and Hare, now aware of the benefits of selling bodies, started murdering Hare’s tenants and selling them to Dr. Knox. In 1828 Burke got caught after murdering an old woman by the name of Mary Docherty after inviting her over for dinner. Unlike Burke, Hare was released. Burke was hung and then dissected in front of a select group of ticket holders. The next day over 30,000 people came to view the dissected body. Dr. Knox was not convicted of any crimes, even though he was aware that the bodies did not die due to natural causes. A large crowd congregated outside of Knox’s house with a life size replica doll of Knox, which they hung in his front yard (Mims, 1998:245).

Dead House & Mortsafe: Prevention Methods

During the time of body snatching people tried very hard to protect their loved ones corpses. Dead houses and Mortsafes were established. A dead house was places where you could leave the body of a recently deceased person for a few days before you buried them, allowing decomposition to begin and leaving the body ineligible for study. (Means Lecture, September 3,2013). A Mortsafe would include “anchoring of the corpse in the coffin with iron straps; the use of patent resurrection-proof iron coffins; placing iron cages over them” (Mims, 1998:244).

Body snatchers would have never been in business if it were not for the private anatomy schools demand for corpses. Some may frown upon the methods used by earlier doctors. However, we have to take into consideration that their discoveries have opened doors for further research of the human anatomy.  The practice of dissecting human bodies is still going on in anatomy schools all over the world today. However, these bodies are usually donated and not stolen.

Means, Bernard. “Death and Burial”. Virginia Commonwealth University. September 3, 2013. Lecture

Mims, Cedric “When We Die: The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death” Macmillian, 2000. Print. 

Roach, Mary “The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. Print 



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