Dec. 28, 2021

Digging Up History

Digging Up History

The 18th and 19th century ushered in a medical interest in detailed anatomy thanks to the increase in the importance of surgery. In order for physicians to study anatomy human cadavers were needed. As early as 1540 Henry VIII passed an edict allowing The Worshipful Company of Barber Surgeons the bodies of four executed criminals per year for the purpose of anatomical instruction. This however did not nearly meet the demand and so, in response to this shortage of bodies available to surgeons, the 1751 Act for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder was proposed and passed into law. This act would become better known as The Murder Act and it dictated that it was, ‘necessary, that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death.’ This further terror being that, after execution, criminals would be publicly dissected or gibbeted (basically hung in chains). Further punishments would entail refusal of burial. Of these two post-mortem punishments specified in The Murder Act dissection was far more commonly used and of the 1,150 people sentenced to death with post-mortem punishment about 79% were dissected and only 13% gibbetted- the remaining figure being those who were pardoned or died in jail. 79%- that is 908 men and women who would be taken to a Shirehall or infirmary to be publicly dissected, their skin flayed and often used in anthropodermic bibliopegy, they were galvanised in some cases, their organs and bones removed.

The problem was, with the expansion of medical schools, as many as 500 cadavers were needed annually.  Unsurprisingly, practices up and down the country had a drastic shortage of cadavers for medical instruction and so they would often turn to illicit, nefarious means to meet their demand-resurrectionists (or body snatchers) commonly being employed to exhume the bodies of the recently dead. ‘Rest in Peace’ is a common epitaph on older gravestones but this wasn’t just a trite phrase given family members were genuinely concerned about their loved ones.

Body snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being violated. Iron coffins, too, were used frequently, or the graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes.

Mortsafes were often very expensive for families to purchase on their own and so many parishes formed a Mortsafe Society which allowed them to buy mortsafes as a group. Some graves were secured by bricking over the grave or using metal plated lids to protect wooden coffins. 

Some graveyards were secured by walls or railings, some were secured by watchhouses. Sometimes great iron cases were erected over the case, either permanently or for the first few weeks, until the body was safe from body snatchers.

Around 1810, an anatomical society was formed to impress upon the government the necessity for altering the law. The efforts of this group would see a select committee formed in 1828 to report on the problems. A proposed Bill was supported thanks to the growing disgust and public outcry at activities carried out by people like William Burke and William Hare as well the London Burkers. The resulting act of 1832 was passed and thus provided medical students with another legitimate supply of corpses from workhouses and infirmaries. The poor and labouring population viewed this act with absolute horror as it allowed the unclaimed bodies of paupers, of poor, indigent- trod upon groups to be abused by the bil.  The ‘Dead Bill Act,’ the ‘Dissecting Bill’ and the ‘Blood-Stained Anatomy Act’ were just some of the terms popularly used to refer to the Anatomy Act. The 1834 Poor Law that followed added to this unease. Peter Bussey, a 19th century Bradford Chartist , claimed in 1838 that, ‘if they were poor they imprisoned them, then starned them to death, and then after they were dead they butchered them.’ Whilst this helped to reduce drastically the need for resurrectionists what it also helped create was a battleground over bodies. An anatomical theatre in Cambridge was vandalised in late 1833 by an angry mob determined to stop the dissection of a man. Alarmed by further acts of violence and vandalism, the medical profession resolved to hide its activities from the general public - thus ending public dissections.


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