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A tombstone in a graveyard

Resurrection Men: The scourge of the body snatchers


In this guest article, award-winning author Sion Scott-Wilson explores the murky world of Regency graverobbers. His new book, What We Leave Behind, is a tale of redemption and the power of love set against the backdrop of crime-ridden London in the Georgian era.

The Georgians and Victorians were great ones for recycling. Dog excrement, or ‘pure’, was avidly collected for the tanners’ pools, cat’s meat men hawked the leavings of the knackers yards, old string went to the mat makers, bones were used to make glue, dust and cinders were sold on to make bricks. There was good money in rubbish. Dickens’ John Harmon, the dust collector, was worth £100,000 at his death (about £10,000,000 in today’s money). Almost everything was subject to the trickle-down effect.

So, a gentleman’s fine coat when past its best might be handed on to a footman as a perquisite (or perk of the job). Eventually, when too threadbare to be worn even by a servant, the coat would find its way to a slop shop and sold to the very poor. And in such a ‘waste not, want not’ world even the dead had value.

The rise of the Resurrectionists

Although the causes of disease were still little understood, 18th-century surgeons like John Hunter were beginning to prove the true value of anatomy. Medicine was fast becoming a respectable profession and, from 1805 to 1820, there were around a thousand medical students in London and the same again in Edinburgh.

Despite the law of 1726 granting the bodies of all executed criminals for dissection, the lawful supply of corpses for teaching was woefully limited. A dozen or more students would have to make do with one single, poorly preserved subject, or even a mere decomposing toe or finger. Surgeons began to look elsewhere for fresh cadavers and enterprising men with strong stomachs and few scruples were only too happy to meet the demand.


Resurrectionists were sometimes known as ‘night doctors’ or ‘sack-‘em-up-men’ for their way of unearthing a corpse and carrying it off in a large hessian sack. On dark winter nights, coffins were partially dug up, the lid prised open with a crowbar and the occupant hauled out on a stout rope. The body was unceremoniously stripped bare. The shroud and any adornments were discarded since the penalties for theft of property were far more severe than for the theft of mortal flesh.

A competent crew could hoist a corpse from a churchyard in under an hour and would often make off with as many as five or six in a single night. Although wardens and watchmen were sometimes present, they were often paid to look the other way. The body snatchers weren’t fussy; it might be a ‘large’ or a ‘small’; such was the mortality rate amongst the young that there was never any shortage of children in the boneyards; even babies.

Snatching to order

Surgeons often connived with their suppliers, directing them to the grave of a deceased patient whose condition they wished to investigate. The price might be as high as 16 guineas for a fresh, adult corpse, while curiosities commanded a premium.

John Hunter was so desperate to secure the body of Charles Byrne, a seven-and-a-half-foot giant, that he set his servant to keep watch when the man fell sick. Byrne, repelled at the thought of his likely fate, gave instructions that his body was to be placed in a lead coffin and buried at sea, but to no avail. The men set to guard his corpse promptly sold it to Hunter for £500. The massive skeleton was, until recently, on display at the Royal College of Surgeons.

To foil the body snatchers, mortsafes began to gain popularity in the early 1800s. These were heavy-duty iron cages erected around the gravesite and firmly locked. They could be hired from the local church and left in place for a month or so by which time the corpse would be of no value, having sufficiently decomposed. The desire for such contraptions was likely driven by two notorious incidents.

The Burkers

The names of William Burke and William Hare still ring down the ages. In 1828, the city of Edinburgh was appalled to discover that these two men had committed as many as 60 murders.

Although the most infamous of the resurrection men, the pair fell into the trade by chance. When an elderly lodger at Hare’s Edinburgh boarding house died of natural causes, the two men were able to sell the corpse to Dr Robert Knox of Surgeon’s Square. Delighted with the bounty and having stumbled upon a source of easy cash, the two men embarked on a murderous spree, luring a succession of the city’s poor to their lodging house. The victims were plied with drink and then smothered to conceal signs of foul play. When the pair were arrested, Hare promptly turned King’s Evidence and his partner was hanged at the Lawnmarket before a crowd of 25,000.

Burke’s body was dissected by the anatomist, Alexander Monro, and his skin was made into a pocketbook. Hare returned to his native Ireland where he was later recognised, set upon and flung into a lime pit, which destroyed his eyes. He is said to have ended his days blind, begging a living on the streets of London and makes a fleeting appearance in my novel, Some Rise by Sin.

John Bishop and Thomas Williams were the so-called ‘London Burkers’. And, like Burke and Hare, rather than allowing nature to take its course, the pair chose to hurry things along. A young Italian urchin called Carlo Ferrari was drugged with laudanum and pitched down a well. His body then offered for sale at King’s College School of Anatomy. Suspicions were raised by the freshness of the corpse and the men were arrested. At least two other murders were attributed to them and they were duly hanged at Newgate before their own corpses were dissected.

These two incidents created a huge public outcry, fuelling revulsion and outrage at the scourge of the body snatchers. Something had to be done, yet, at the same time, it was quietly acknowledged that these gruesome activities had, over the years, helped surgeons and anatomists to achieve significant advances and discoveries in the practice of medicine.

As a result, the 1832 Anatomy Act was passed, giving surgeons and their students lawful access to unclaimed bodies from workhouses, prisons and hospitals. The act effectively put paid to the grisly trade, which petered out over the following years. The end of an unsavoury profession which, hopefully, will remain dead and firmly buried.