Last week we began a brief study into the trade and industry of the infamous “body-snatchers,” those supposedly immoral and low collection of misfits who bravely and nobly provided the canvasses upon which the surgical artists could practice their work. However, not all have considered the less traditional perspectives and this week we will examine the methods and measures taken to combat the proliferous yet necessary exhumations conducted by these “Resurrection Men.”
What greater use of a human body is there but that which is donated to science (breathing or not, I say…)? When the body lies in repose, we can make great use of it and discover much about its functioning. It was due however to the political and social climate at the time prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, that popular opinion was not predisposed towards dissection for any other than the most despicable of criminals. While the rest of Europe had enacted early and enlightened laws to prevent the need for a corpse-industry, the British sentiment remained firmly buried in the past.
On one hand you have a British establishment besotted with the almost obsessive desire for supremacy in all scientific fields, on the other was the acknowledgement that British doctors sorely lacked the technical schooling that resulted in many doctors going abroad to Venice and Paris for formal training. It can be assumed, in the race to improve British medical standing in Europe, not to mention to provide the necessary battlefield doctors in increasing demand due to wars on the continent, authorities turned a blind-eye to the consequent rise in corpse-procurement, unless of course the public got a hold of it. From the predictable knee-jerk social uproar, people turned to protection methods running from the peculiar to the downright strange, resulting in a singularly unique arms race between those that sought to protect the dead and those who sought to acquire them.
Simple protocols were employed by most. Large gentlemen would be chosen to physically defend the corpse against poachers, week after week, often in the biting winter chill, using batons, clubs and even firearms, until it was considered that the body had reached a state of putrefaction that would render it unusable by a surgeon for the purposes of dissection. It wouldn’t take long however for a member of the guard to fall asleep, or be late for a shift, and the ever attentive body traders would be in and out in the dead of night, if you’ll excuse the pun, their task completed in as little time as an hour, often right under the noses of the wardens. If a gang was discovered, confrontations were quick to occur, sometimes resulting in fatal violence.
Traps were also used; rigged guns and darts that were intended to shoot dead or at least scare away the thieves – this was countered by accomplices posing at mourners performing the reconnaissance and subsequent disarming of such traps. Some cemeteries used armed watch-towers, but the attendants of such buildings were easily and frequently bribed or made drunk. Long hours, cold confinement and low pay make poor competition against the handsome sums available in the business of grave-robbing.
Following this was developed a coffin collar, a heavy bar of wood bolted to the floor of the coffin, the ring attached around the neck of the deceased. A more secure method was the use of of mortsafes, iron protections that surrounded the coffin until the body was sufficiently decayed, then lifted up to be re-used. Designs varied greatly, from iron-plated outer shells that surrounded the box, to grilles pinioned into place by deep stakes, surrounding the grave sites like tiny fortresses, robust enough that well preserved mortsafes remain today at sites such as Greyfriars’ churchyard in Edinburgh. Mortstones were blocks of heavy stone to prevent the ground beneath from being tampered with, but enough strong hands or a modest tunnel frequently left the stone in place but the body distinctly absent.
Stranger still were the less common morthouses, circular, fortified constructions with tables where the bodies would be placed to decay. Udny Green in Aberdeenshire sports such a unique structure, protected by a sturdy iron door and containing a large turn-table. Bodies were slowly added to the rotation, eventually revealing the oldest coffin to be buried, by then a presumed rotted mess and therefore safe from the snatchers.
Such sentimental and expensive tomfoolery. To some more forward-thinking types, one might say, the more morally flexible, the better option was not to enact the procurement of a cadaver that had shuffled off the mortal coil for natural reasons, but moreso to promote the more rapid shuffling from the mortal coil by use of more… nefarious means.
That will be the subject of next week’s essay installment.
This article was originally published in The Pandora Society on January 14th, 2015.