The Resurrection Men – Body Snatching in 19th Century Britain
Who Were 'The Resurrection Men'
Have you heard of ‘The Resurrection Men’, the criminal body snatchers who would rip fresh corpses from their graves and sell them to hospitals for dissection? Body snatching was a distasteful trade that flourished at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries in Britain. This awful practice kept the medical schools supplied with the fresh cadavers that were required for dissection. This was a time when there were great efforts being put into discovering the workings of the human body in order to advance medical knowledge.
These dissections were popular events that members of the public would flock to so they could watch the gory proceedings. They were also attended by medical students who would pay a fee to watch an experienced Master of Anatomy at work and listen to his commentary on what he was doing. However, each medical student was in need of a cadaver of their own to dissect if they wanted to further their training as a surgeon and be able to progress to operating on live patients. This high demand led to horrible consequences.
The Need for Cadavers for Dissection
Unfortunately for the anatomists of that time, the demand for fresh corpses kept growing, but the supply beginning to dry up. Legally, the only corpses that could be used for dissection were those of murderers who had just been hung. As there was no refrigeration back then, the bodies had to be quickly taken down from the gallows and hurried over to one of the Schools of Anatomy before they could start decomposing.
It is estimated that around five hundred cadavers a year were dissected in the medical schools in London alone. However, as the 18th century drew to a close fewer capital punishments were being handed down to criminals and many more were instead being sentenced to transportation to Australia for their transgressions. So as the supply of cadavers began to falter, gangs of criminals formed who would dig up newly buried bodies from their graves in the dead of the night and then sell them to the Anatomists.
Making Money From Body Snatching
The money on offer was well worth the risks involved as they could earn as much as 10 guineas for a fresh, young corpse, which was a great deal of money at the time and enough to keep the gang going for several months. The punishment for stealing corpses was also not particularly severe as it was not classed as a felony and was only viewed as a misdemeanour under Common Law. Therefore the Resurrectionists were not risking transportation or execution, and if they were caught they would only be fined and put in prison for a time.
They were very careful only to remove the bodies from the graves; any valuables or jewelry they found were left behind as stealing goods was a felony that could potentially lead them to the gallows. The body snatchers were also not that strenuously pursued by the authorities, as there was an understanding that the Anatomists needed a good supply of cadavers to learn, teach and improve their surgical techniques. However, concerned relatives used to keep vigil by the gravesides of their loved ones in order to deter the ‘Resurrection Men’ and prevent the remains being violated. Iron coffins were also used as a deterrent and iron frames called mortsafes were erected over graves to protect them.
It also tended to be an easy job for the gangs to dig up the bodies, as the cemeteries were generally very crowded and many new burials were fairly shallow and could easily be identified from the surface. As these body snatching gangs were both highly organised and ruthless, it is perhaps not surprising that eventually some of them took to murder to meet the demand of the medical schools. Probably the best known of these gangs and the one that brought the evils of body snatching to attention of the public was that of William Burke and William Hare.
Burke and Hare
Both Burke and Hare had been born in Ulster and immigrated to Scotland, where they met and became friends and associates in the West Port district of Edinburgh. Burke moved into a lodging house run by Hare’s wife Margaret and their first foray into selling bodies for money came about when one of the elderly tenants of the lodging house died and they sold the body to an Anatomist called Dr Robert Knox who taught students from Edinburgh Medical College for £7.10s.
To cover up their crime they filled the coffin with bark to disguise the fact that there was no corpse in it. They soon progressed to murder to keep up with demand and make more money, with their first victim being another tenant from the lodging house called Joseph the Miller. He was frail and sickly and they first got him intoxicated and then they smothered him to death. This method of murder was very deliberately used as there would be no damage to the body and no evidence that a homicide had taken place. Undamaged corpses fetched much higher prices and younger bodies were also more valuable as they would more likely to have healthy internal organs.
Victims of Burke and Hare
The next victim of Burke and Hare was an elderly woman called Abigail Simpson, who they invited to be an overnight guest, and then plied her with alcohol and suffocated her. They got £10 for her fresh cadaver. Between the years 1827 and 1828 the murderous duo murdered seventeen innocent victims in order to sell their bodies, always using the same method to kill them. The only part of the body that was ever deliberately mutilated was the face, and this was done to stop the corpse being recognised by anyone who was attending the dissection.
In fact, because of their ensuing notoriety this method of murdering people became known as ‘Burking’. One of their most piteous victims was a young teenager called James Wilson, who was only eighteen at the time of his death. Despite being physically disabled and walking with a limp and having learning difficulties, he was apparently a cheerful, popular soul who went missing one day in late October 1828 when he went looking for his mother who had not been at home when he had gone visiting. Unfortunately for him, he bumped into William Hare while he was trying to find her, who lured him into a house with the promise of a drink.
Once there Burke and Hare swung into action and got the teenager drunk and then smothered him to death. They sold the cadaver to Dr Robert Knox as usual, but when he took the cover off the body on the dissection table the next day, James was recognised by several of the students. This was denied by Dr Knox, but he cut the head of the body and dissected the face first to make any further identification difficult, if not impossible.
Burke and Hare Brought to Justice
Burke and Hare were finally apprehended in 1828 after they had murdered a lady called Marjory Campbell Docherty in the lodging house. A couple of the lodgers, James and Anne Gray, became suspicious and found her body hidden under a bed. Burke and Hare were arrested and information was passed to the police that led them to find the body in Dr Knox’s dissecting room, where it was identified by James Gray.
Because they did not have enough evidence to secure a guilty verdict, Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he confessed and testified against Burke. Burke was tried, condemned to death and hung in January 1829. Further justice was done when his body was publicly dissected in Edinburgh by Professor Alex Munro, who wrote a note using Burke’s blood as ink. His tanned skin was also used to make wallets and cases for calling cards, and his death mask and skeleton can still be seen at the Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh.
Body Snatching in London
Body snatching gangs in other parts of Britain also emulated Burke and Hare’s heinous crimes, especially in London where there were several large teaching hospitals and they even came to be known as the ‘London Burkers’. These ‘Resurrection Men’ congregated in the public houses around Smithfield as they were close to the hospitals. One of these pubs was The Rising Sun which was in the vicinity of St Bartholomew’s, which is now known as a famous haunted London pub.
It is thought that the ghosts of the Resurrectionists haunt the pub as they cannot rest because of their crimes, and strange noises are frequently heard even though the building is empty and people have had their bedclothes dragged off them in the middle of the night by ghostly hands. Another public house used by the body snatchers was The Fortune of War in Smithfield, which had been officially declared as a place ‘for the reception of drowned persons’ by the Royal Humane Society. The pub had a special room that was lined with benches for the cadavers that had the body snatchers names on them and the surgeons from St Bartholomew’s would come to look over the corpses to see which they best liked the look of for dissection.
Resurrectionist Gangs - John Bishop
The most famous resurrectionist gang that operated in London was led by a man called John Bishop. Along with Thomas Williams, James May and Michael Shields it is estimated that over a period of twelve years they had snatched upwards of 1,000 bodies from their graves in order to sell them to the anatomists at the great London medical institutions of Kings College, St Thomas’ Hospital, St Bartholomew’s and Guy’s. It is perhaps inevitable that they progressed to murder, but their crimes were discovered when in November 1831 they attempted to sell the body of a fourteen year old boy to King’s College.
They were expecting to be paid 12 guineas for such a fresh, young corpse, but the staff at the hospital were very suspicious as the body did not appear to have been buried before it had been brought in to them for sale. The police were called and the gang arrested. A house they maintained in Shoreditch was searched and evidence emerged that there had been more than one killing. Bizarrely, the police then subsequently opened the building for viewing by the public, who were charged five shillings for the privilege. Most of the building was then taken away in pieces as souvenirs by these visitors.
Capture of the Resurrection Men
All the gang members were convicted of the crime, and although it was initially thought that the victim had been an Italian boy called Carlo Ferrari, Bishop confessed that the victim had in fact been a young cattle drover from Lincolnshire. He had been lured to their lodgings from a pub called The Bell in Smithfield and once there he was drugged with rum and laudanum. Bishop and Williams then went off to have a drink at another pub, and by the time they returned the boy was unconscious as they expected.
The murderous pair then tied a rope around his ankles and dangled him head first down a well where he swiftly died. The corpse was then stripped and put in a bag, and they took their gruesome booty first to Guy’s Hospital where it was refused and then to King’s College. They also confessed to the murder of a homeless woman called Frances Pigburn and her child and admitted that they received 8 guineas for her remains. They also said that they had lured, drugged and smothered another boy called Cunningham, who was also then sold to the Anatomists for 8 guineas.
Punishment of the Resurrection Men
Because murder was a felony, Bishop and Williams were condemned to death and were hung in Newgate Prison in December 1831. What goes around comes around as they say, and their corpses were removed from the gallows and then taken for dissection, where for the following couple of days large crowds of people came to view their remains. Disturbingly, it was not only men who were ‘Burkers’, as in 1831 a woman called Elizabeth Ross killed a lace seller called Catherine Walsh using this method although there is no record that she then sold the body for dissection. She was caught and tried and she too ended her life on the gallows.
These gruesome murders led to the introduction of the Anatomy Act of 1832 which allowed any corpses from prisons and workhouses that were not claimed for burial by their relatives to be given over to the medical schools for dissection. This Act effectively put a stop to both the illegal body snatching and the murders, and corpses could once more rest easily in their graves without fear of violation.
It may seem disturbing to us that eminent surgeons and medical students in the early 19th century turned a blind eye to where the cadavers they used for dissection came from, but they needed them to increase their knowledge of the human body and advance medical science. However, murder proved to be a step too far and the implementation of Anatomy Act provided the steady supply of fresh corpses that the medical profession required to develop new surgical techniques, learn about the workings of the human body and train the surgeons of the future.