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The Dirty Work of Grave Robbers

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The grave robbers at work.

The grave robbers at work.

What Are Grave Robbers?

The traditional source for bodies for dissection in Britain came from the gallows. In the 18th century, there was a steady supply as scores of people were hanged for relatively trivial offences; there were more than 220 crimes that could lead to the rope. But, by the 19th century, folks were getting squeamish about hanging so many, and the body count dropped.

At the same time, more medical schools were opening, so the demand for cadavers was increasing. This brought some enterprising gentlemen into the market who were happy to deliver corpses to doctors under cover of darkness, no questions asked.

The supply chain started with a freshly buried dead person who could be dug out of their resting place and taken to the back door of the surgery in a wheelbarrow.

The Euphemism

They were called body snatchers and grave robbers, but those are such ugly words. So, an early spin doctor got to work and created the euphemistic title of “resurrectionists.” Of course, their occupation had nothing to do with resurrection in the Biblical sense; but spin doctors are rarely troubled by accuracy.

Roseanne Montillo, the author of The Lady and Her Monsters, told Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News there were many of them: “these people were unusual individuals who were the middlemen between the scientists and those who needed a body for experiments.”

Robbing graves was not a big crime.

Robbing graves was not a big crime.

Digging for Bodies

The ghoulish trade was not considered a big offence to social norms and those caught doing it were subjected to fines or a short prison sentence. Medical schools paid good money for a fresh corpse, so any penalty inflicted by the law was simply a cost of doing business. The tariff for a good-quality stiff was between seven and ten pounds, roughly worth between $700 and $1,000 in today’s money.

Typically, the robbers dug a shaft next to the grave at the headend. When they got to the coffin, they pried off the end and pulled the body out. They then back-filled the excavation, so it was difficult to tell that anything untoward had happened.

But, Ms. Montillo says the body snatchers tended to be lazy, so they “moved into killing people.” Knocking off random folk was far less demanding work than shovelling six feet of dirt to get at a cadaver.

Apparently, there were ethical benefits to murdering rather than digging. Ms. Montillo says grave robbers were squeamish and digging people up “to them seemed sacrilegious . . . digging someone up who was dead was an offence but killing someone was not.” Of course, both were against the law, but in the minds of the body snatchers, murder was the lesser of the two offences.

There was another bonus; fresh bodies were worth more than those that were getting a little rank. A higher price could be demanded for one that was still a little bit warm.

Burke and Hare

At the top of the resurrectionist profession were a couple of Irish villains, William Burke and William Hare. Between 1827 and 1828, these two, assisted by their wives, bumped off at least 16 people and supplied the corpses to Dr. Robert Knox for use in his anatomy lectures in Edinburgh.

The two men discovered their lucrative business opportunity when one of the tenants in Hare’s lodging house died of natural causes owing rent. They filled Old Donald’s coffin with tanning bark and took the dearly departed to the medical school at Edinburgh University. Dr. Knox paid the duo seven pounds and ten shillings for Old Donald and Burke and Hare were quick to see an easy profit.

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Dr. Robert Knox

Dr. Robert Knox

The Line Faded Between Harmless and Harmful

A month later, another of Hare’s tenants became ill, but rather than waiting for nature to take its course, they sped up the man’s shuffle off this mortal coil with liberal doses of whisky and a pillow over the face. Intoxication followed by suffocation became their preferred modus operandi, which later acquired the sobriquet “burking.”

Burke and Hare got greedy, and with the greed came sloppiness. Rumours started to circulate, and, eventually, the police arrived with difficult questions. The killers and their wives ratted each other out. Hare was offered immunity if he testified against Burke, a deal he was happy to accept.

William Burke got the maximum sentence and was hanged in public in January 1829. The irony of ironies, his body was dissected in a public anatomy class that caused a near riot by people trying to get a good viewing spot.

The two wives escaped the fury of the law. Dr. Knox swore he had no idea where his dissection subjects were coming from, but nobody believed him and he left Edinburgh with his career in tatters.

Defences Against Body Snatching

Back in the graveyards, people started to worry about whether or not Uncle Arthur was enjoying an undisturbed repose or had been whisked off to some ghastly vivisectionist fate. This particularly disturbed the relatives who believed that a spiritual resurrection, not one aided by a pick and shovel, required that the body be intact.

Some folks started guarding the grave of the departed until the loved one was thought to have passed its best before date. Watch towers and houses were built where people could shelter while protecting the graves from the predations of grave robbers.

Others became more inventive.

The mortsafe (above) was developed in the early 19th century. It was a heavy iron and stone cage that was lowered over the coffin. This was a defence available only to the rich, as was the building of mausoleums.

Then, there were those who used explosives. Some coffins were booby-trapped with guns and others with gunpowder. As Ms. Montillo tells it, relatives thought, “It was better to have a corpse that was violated in that fashion than to have a corpse that was cut in pieces.”

There was also the added benefit of dealing a deadly blow to the resurrection men, and the University of Aberdeen says several ended their careers this way.

End of the Resurrection Men

For those that survived the explosions of booby-trapped graves, the end, at least in the United Kingdom, came in 1832. That’s when the Anatomy Bill was passed by Parliament and entered into law.

The act brought in the licensing and regulation of anatomists and made it impossible for such people to dissect a body without the express permission of relatives. Additionally, says the University of Aberdeen, “The Act, provided for the needs of physicians, surgeons, and students by giving them legal access to corpses that were unclaimed after death, in particular those who died in prison or the workhouse.” Also, people could donate the corpse of a relative, and the cost of burial would be borne by the receiving anatomist.

So, that was the end of the resurrectionists. Well, no. The profession flourishes still.

A former dental surgeon (he was suspended over drug addiction), Michael Mastromarino, ran a rich money-making scheme in New York State in the early 21st century.

He set up a network of funeral directors who he paid $1,000 per body to give him access to the dead, from whom he harvested tissue―bones, veins, ligaments, whatever was in demand in the transplant industry.

According to The New York Times, “he was charged with running a $4.6-million enterprise” that took body parts from corpses without the consent of relatives. “He reportedly made $10,000 to $15,000 per body.”

In 2008, he was given a 58-year prison sentence, but he only served five years before dying of liver cancer in 2013.

Bonus Factoids

  • For those with a taste for such things, William Burke’s skeleton can be viewed in the Anatomy Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School (below), along with his death mask. This is in accordance with the judge who presided over his trial and told the condemned man: “I am disposed to agree that your sentence shall be put in execution in the usual way, but accompanied with the statutory attendant of the punishment of the crime of murder, viz.—that your body should be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance of your atrocious crimes.”
  • One of Dr. Mastromarino’s victims was Alistair Cooke, the British journalist and long-time host of Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. His arm and leg bones were removed and replaced with PVC pipe. His daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, said her father would be “just horrified” at the desecration of his body. But, “at the same time, he would have appreciated the Dickensian nature of it.”


  • “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” CBC Radio, The Sunday Edition, March 3, 2013.
  • “Burke and Hare, Infamous Murderers and Grave-Robbers.” Ben Johnson, Historic UK, undated.
  • “Burke and Hare.” The Royal Mile. Undated.
  • “Michael Mastromarino, Dentist Guilty in Organ Scheme, Dies at 49.” Daniel E. Slotnik, New York Times, July 8, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


Mike Hardy from Caseville, Michigan on December 22, 2016:

I hope you don't mind. I linked this article in my post about grave robbing in the wilds of Michigan in the 1870's. Interesting crime. I didn't know it was fairly common.

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