A romance novel does not always contain light and cheerful subject matter where everything about life is perfect. A novel can prompt a fascinating exploration of history, a subject that funnily enough made me fall asleep during my high school history classes. But once I started reading historical romance novels my views on studying history changed and I’ve followed many a twisted path, seeking to learn more than the romance novel I’d just read showed.
One of the most macabre subjects has been researching Resurectionist’s or Grave Robbers.
Much of our current medical knowledge comes from the habits of our ancestors that many today, as then, find abhorrent. Between 1800 and 1832, a British anatomist’s only legal source of material (human remains) for study came from those poor souls sentenced to death and dissection by the English courts.
It is suggested that only an average of 55 cadavers per year were legally offered for dissection in the early 19th Century. But in 1832 the British Parliament introduced the Anatomy Act and with the change came an increase in the legal supply of bodies to licensed medical schools: 600 between 1832-1833, but decreasing by 1845-1846 to a little over 300. But the new Act of 1832 did little to remove the fear of dissection by the poorer sector of the populace.
As with many things though, the supply of cadavers was outstripped by the demand from the anatomists and a lucrative underground trade flourished, mostly by those desperate enough to practice the fiendish art of grave robbing. Robbing a grave was considered a misdemeanor under the law and punishable with only a fine and imprisonment.
Do you realize that a wooden spade makes less sound than a metal one?
The thought never occurred to me, but apparently a wooden spade and a length of rope were all that were needed to pull off a nice bit of resurrection. They began by digging at the head end of a recent burial, breaking into the coffin, tying a rope around the deceased, and pulling the body out. To escape any potential felony charges, most resurrectionist’s were careful to leave clothing and grave goods behind.
However, the grave robbers had ways to compensate for scrutiny. Some cut a man-sized tunnel a little further away from the burial, perhaps 15 to 20 feet, and pulled the body out through it. Once the square of turf was replaced a casual observer would never know the grave had been disturbed.
The trail of the resurrected body from grave to anatomist becomes a bit sad. Most were taken by roundabout means to the medical schools, some directly by hackney coach or spring-cart in broad daylight. Quite often the contents of the sack were known by those driving who were not against extorting a larger payment from their living passenger; one even paused in front of the Bow Street police-office to make sure his demands were met.
But given that a payment for a single resurrected body reached one hundred and sixty pounds, fights over a graveyards bounty was inevitable between opposing parties. And of course, some greedy individuals went just that little bit further to hurry their fellow man into the afterlife in search of a body. Since a resurrectionist was paid more for a fresher corpse, murder was an obvious next step for some, but that is a story for another day.