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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Resurrecting the Dead

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.

Of course, the practice of grave robbing was disagreeable to the family and friends of the deceased. To avoid mutilation in the name of science, many families posted a watch over the newly deceased prior to burial and then over the fresh shallow grave as well as sometimes using iron coffins or a framework of iron bars (mortsafes) to thwart the body snatchers.

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.


  1. Great post, Heather. I've walked a few London graves and wondered whether the person mentioned was actually there. 160 pounds was a lot of money for people back then. You can understand their desire to get it. For the poor, 19th century London would have been a hard city to live in. I didn't know of those coffin cages. Isn't history wonderful.

  2. Great post Heather, very interesting. Not something I would have thought to research, would be great for anyone writing an historical suspense.


  3. I ran across some research on grave robbers a while back and was just fascinated. However, it really didn't pertain to what I needed to know, so I set it aside. One of these days, I'm going to have to delve further into it. Thanks for blogging about this, Heather!

  4. Interesting post, Heather, but I'll admit one of the reasons I like writing historical fiction is that I can pretend all of the bad stuff simply didn't happen - lol! And yes, I close my eyes at the scary scenes in movies, too ;)

  5. Wonderfully morbid subject! I loved it! Kudos!

  6. I find this a facinating subject as well. Recently I read that if the body wore graveclothes, there was a sentence of seven years, but a nude, unexplained body didn't carry harsh penalties. Isn't that bizarre?

    Some grave robbers would also hire a prostitute to pretend to be a mourner at the service to get a mental layout of the gravesite and see if any traps had been set.

    Ah, the criminal mind. So devious.

  7. I should clarify my above statement. If a person was found with a body, whether or not it wore graveclothes determined the penalty.

  8. What a cool topic, Heather! Thanks for sharing all that research. It's a good thing we don't really have this issue anymore!!

  9. Very cool Heather. 3,000 years ago the Greeks/Romans were far more advanced with medical techniques. I suppose with gladiators and other fresh bodies around, the "anatomists" didn't need to use body snatching grave robbers. The Greeks/Romans actually did a better job of surgery 3,000 years ago, the "dark ages" screwed up medical learning. I love this subject after working in an operating room for over 30 years. Smile.

  10. "I was working in the lab late one night...."

    What an fun topic! Heather that was great to read and I agree with Cherie De Sues, the dark ages were indeed a slack time in Med/Hist considering the past accomplishments.
    Thanks for some interesting facts.

  11. Thanks for visiting my post. Its funny but horror movies make me run the other way too Erin. Yet I can dispassionately research this subject. LOL I've actually got no plans to use the information at present, but as with many things you never know when it might prove useful.

    Cherie - I've not actually delved as far as what the anatomist actually did with the cadavers and a part of me really doesn't want to know. I did catch a doco recently on a condemned man who was pretty much stalked by a doctor who wanted to bring him back to life immediately after he died. Kind of horrid that one.


  12. Hi Heather, fascinating subject but there is an eerie parallel to the present blackmarket in organs for transplant. Numbers of people in 3rd world countries have been drugged and wake up minus a kidney or part of liver etc. Or else they sell an organ to feed their children. I guess in a hundred years when we have been producing organs in the laboratory, a blog somewhere will talk about this macabre practise..not to say I dont already think its macabre :-)...great food for thought Heather - eeww, did I just say that? lol
    Jo Duncan

  13. LMAO Jo. Yes you did say that! Thanks for visiting.

  14. Great topic. Morbidly enough, it brought to mind a serial killer here in the US in the late 19th century who killed people for pleasure but then crafted their bones into skeleton models which were then sold to medical schools...a HUGE step beyond the resurrectionists, of course, but interesting that there has always been so much money involved in "medical research".

  15. OMG Heather, that's what I meant at the end of my blog. The people who murdered for profit are another kettle of fish (and blog topic). Imagine the balls of that man? Did he risk getting caught onselling the skeletons for the thrill or money? Boggles the mind.

  16. Interesting post, Heather. This pops up in novels from time to time, I believe it's in Middlemarch, but correct me if my memory fails me. I wonder if you intend to use it?

  17. I haven't read Middlemarch but I cannot remember the title of the book that introduced the topic. That book was more about the anatomist though.. If you've got suggestions for the title please leave them. Its driving me insane that I cannot remember. :o)

  18. i'm sure it still goes on - if not in England.

    There was a programme on the TV recently about bodies being donated to anatomists - and they are always short - the colleges in Britain need about 1000 a year, and they only get about 600.

  19. Great post. This is something I have researched and have found more disturbing information. Or at least more disturbing to me due to my phobia. Did you learn about the practice of bells? I used that one in a story this is only half written. Now I want to return to it.

  20. Thanks for dropping in Erastes. Interesting that the shortfall continues. At least these days there's less chance of grave robbers or getting conked on the head.

    Amy - I didnt read about bells. Were they attached to the body so they jingled when removed from the coffin? Not a bad plan if anyone was around to hear them.

  21. Heather,
    Great post,
    I love macabre stories like this and any story about grave robbers is fascinating,
    Here's the story about bells in graves,but not sure if they were doing it in UK or Australia at the same time or not,
    'In the mid 1880s, until approximately 1910, American undertakers sold "Grave Alarm" Devices. These were elaborate rope and bell/pulley arrangements allowing those buried alive to summon help. The rope was placed into the hand of the (supposed) deceased, and it wound through a series of tubes to the bell outside the grave.'

  22. Margot Green, Australia R.W.A.November 19, 2010 at 12:57 AM

    Dear Heather, I just happened to find your article about grave-robbers. Would you believe that my Regency Historical which I have just started entering in contests, begins with the young teenage heroine braving a dark and foggy night to move all the wreaths from her beloved mother's grave? Her nasty cousin told her about the recent rise in grave-robbing--this book begins in 1805--and the distressed heroine sets out on her own and runs into a crowd of drunken young aristocrat males. She is rescued by the hero who then helps her at the graveyard--unwillingly, I might add, because he is well under the weather. She likes him but pretends she is a cockney girl and gives him the slip. They meet again five years later and she is engaged to one of his army friends--they fall deeply in love and trouble looms.

  23. Wow, your books sounds really interesting Margot. I haven't found an excuse to use any of this material myself yet, but there is always the future possibility. I hope you found my post interesting and good luck with the contests. :o)