Body Snatchers in the 1700 and 1800s

Today when someone refers to a body snatcher, it conjures up an unsavory, notorious character. Body snatchers were known to deliver corpses to students, surgeons, and teachers for dissections, and, indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they developed an offensive, repugnant, and unpopular reputation. Body snatchers were rejected by every section of society from the highest echelons to the lowest criminal classes. In fact, anyone — student, teacher or surgeon — associated with dissection and corpses was considered “as abandoned and as criminal as the body-snatchers themselves, and equally destitute of the ordinary feelings of humanity.”[1] Part of this negative attitude towards anyone associated with corpses and dissections in the 1700 and 1800s came from the fact dissection was extremely unpopular not only in England but also throughout Europe.

Body Snatchers at Work, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Body snatchers at work. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Dissection was prohibited in England until the 1500s. At that time, limited rights were given allowing about ten bodies a year for dissection. Two-hundred and fifty years later little had changed until the Murder Act of 1752 was passed. It allowed medical schools more access to bodies and provided the corpses of executed murderers to medical men. That number might have been sufficient if executions had not waned resulting in as few as 50 executions annually. Additionally, the general public had many prejudices against dissection. They did not want their loved ones dissected and used words such as “abhorrent,” “repugnant,” and “loathsome” when describing dissection. Added to the small numbers of corpses and the public’s negative attitude about dissection, was the growth of medical science. Anatomist began to demand more cadavers for study, and that resulted in a lucrative illegal trade among criminal elements.

The Dissecting Room by Thomas Rowlandson, Public Domain

“The Dissecting Room” by Thomas Rowlandson. Public domain.

How body snatchers got into the body snatching business varied. One body snatcher claimed he became involved by accident. It started after he was apprenticed to a surgeon, named Mr. L—. One evening the apprentice decided to take a shortcut to the surgeon’s office through the local graveyard and over time he found the graveyard a quiet place to think. One moonless night as he sat there in quiet contemplation, he was surprised to hear voices and soon discovered three body snatchers digging up a grave. When the men struck their lantern, he was shocked to discover the surgeon Mr. L—, the local sexton, and the sexton’s assistance. Before the three men left with their freshly dug up corpse, the apprentice showed himself and was thereafter included with “profound secrecy” in the men’s nighttime raids and the surgeon’s morning dissections.

One group of body snatchers who came to prominence in the 1831 were known as the London Burkers. They stole and sold dead bodies regularly to anatomists and surgeons from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, St. Thomas’ Hospital, and King’s College. The London Burkers included John Bishop, Thomas Williams, Michael Shields, and James May, Black Eyed Jack, and an unemployed butcher, known as Jack Stirabout. However, some of the bodies sold by Bishop and Williams were not corpses they had stolen but people they had killed having modeled their murders on those committed by William Burke and William Hare of Edinburgh, who ended up in Madame Tussaud‘s Chamber of Horrors. In Bishop and Williams case they killed a Lincolnshire boy, an indigent woman named Frances Pigburn, and a boy named Cunningham and used some London Burker members to help them deliver the bodies. Eventually, however, Bishop and Williams were discovered, tried, and executed.

Three of the London Burkers from left to right John Bishop, Thomas Williams, James May. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

With all the body snatching going on it was not long before it became common knowledge among the public about the nighttime raids committed at grave sites and the illegal things body snatchers would do to obtain a body. Those who were hired to protect the bodies were found to be no better than the body snatchers. Purportedly the watchmen, gravediggers, and sextons were often discovered to be the ones aiding the body snatchers in their grave thefts and so it was no surprise that nearly everyone felt that no burial site was safe:

“The body-sntachers were men fully equal to the task of climbing walls and descending vaults. The terms they exacted were high, and if they failed to obtain their ‘subjects’ by fair means, they did so by unfair means.”[2]

To protect a loved one’s grave, worried families began to schedule their relatives to guard their family graves at nighttime. But even this precaution failed. The moment the watcher shut his eyes, the body snatcher struck. Skillful snatchers “easily remove[d] two bodies from separate graves of considerable depth, and restore[d] the coffins and the earth to the former position in the space of one hour and a half.”[3] Body snatchers were so accomplished in this rifling “any marks adopted to ascertain exhumation … [were] carefully replaced to disarm suspicion [and often no one was the wiser that the grave had been disturbed].”[4]

Body Snatcher Being Overtaken by the Watch, Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine

Body snatcher being overtaken by the watch.  Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine.

When the public realized body snatching was a daily occurrence, other safeguards were undertaken to prevent thefts of deceased love ones. People organized watch clubs, with members taking shifts to watch the graves. “Churchyard walls were raised and spiked like those of gaols … Heavy iron contrivances, gruesomely called ‘mortsafes,’ laid over the grave, or bars of iron passed across the coffin and bedded in the earth.”[5] Sometimes steel vaults were also built to house the deceased or spring guns were set in various configurations around churchyards ready to explode if anyone dared entered illegally or attempted to tamper with a grave. Poorer families who could not afford such precautions, placed items on their loved one’s grave so at least they could tell whether or not the grave had been disturbed.

Mortsafe, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Mortsafe. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite the great lengths taken to secure the graves, it seemed as if there were no successful method to “render secure the sacred mansions of the dead.”[6] Nothing seemed to stop persistent body snatchers, and with the all the body snatching going on, people felt some good needed to come of it. One man thought if the “wealthy set an example of rational conduct to the poor … the murderous value of dead bodies will be at an end.”[7] He claimed dissection should not be connected with punishment, or in other words, murderers should not be the only ones dissected. He concluded there was but “one way in which to deprive dead bodies of a murderous value, viz. by the removal of the vulgar prejudice against dissection.”[8] So, he suggested that either a portion of the funds claimed when delivering a cadaver should be set aside for the “public good” or that the “payment of legacy duty … [be excused by] those persons who bequeathed their bodies for dissection.”[9]

Resurrection Men by Thomas Rowlandson, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Resurrection men by Thomas Rowlandson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another person, known only as Blancardus offered different ideas to correct the situation. His suggestions were printed in the The Newcastle Magazine with the first suggestion being that punishment should be meted out to surgeons and doctors who use bodies unnecessarily. He thought such punishment would reduce the need for cadavers. Blancardus also suggested that a law be passed “condemning the bodies of felo-de-se suicides to be anatomized as well as murderers.”[10] He further wondered whether serious crimes — those short of murder — should have sentences of dissection after death. However, he suggested that after a person served their time and was released, they should have an opportunity to remove the sentence “by a certain number of years of good behaviour.”[11] Although Blancardus ideas may have worked, it was the Anatomy Act of 1832 that allowed the donation of corpses and permitted students, teachers, and surgeons to obtain corpses more easily.

Body Snatcher, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Body snatcher. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After 1832 body snatching was significantly reduced, although not completely eliminated because modern day reports of body snatching still occur. However, the reasons for body snatching today differ from earlier times. Transplantation surgery requires corpses, and, in some cases, bodies have been gained illegally to fulfill this requirement. There was also an incident where a facility was breeding guinea pigs for scientific research, and a relative of one of the owners had her body stolen from the Yoxall Churchyard in south Staffordshire in protest against the facility’s research. Fortunately, the woman’s body was recovered. One last case occurred in America in 2005. It involved a 42-year-old New Jersey man, Michael Mastromarino, who was convicted, along with several others, of illegally harvesting human body parts for profit.


  • [1] Sydney, Connor William, The Early Days of the Nineteenth Century in England, 1800-1820, Vol. 1, 1898, p. 139.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 139.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 139-140.
  • [4] Ibid. p. 140.
  • [5] Haswell, G.H., The Maister: A Century of Tyneside Life, 1895, p. 10.
  • [6] The Boston Medial and Surgical Journal, 1832, p. 306.
  • [7] The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature, 1832, p. 143.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 148.
  • [10] The Newcastle Magazine, Vol. 2, 1823, p. 2.
  • [11] Ibid.

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