Friday, October 29, 2010

Things That Bump Off in the Night

Sunday is Halloween, so I thought perhaps you could use a little of the macabre to get ready. Nineteenth century England didn’t celebrate Halloween as we know it. But they had plenty of things to scare people, and one of the most vile, in many people’s minds, were the resurrection men.

Resurrection men stole corpses. They’d sneak into cemeteries late at night, dig into fresh graves, break open the coffins, and pull out the bodies, then sell them to medical schools to be dissected in anatomy classes. Sounds grisly, doesn’t it?

You’d think medical schools would protest. I mean, how many people walk up and try to sell you a dead body? Apparently, quite a few. You see, the Murder Act of 1752 required that only people who had been executed could be used for dissection. In the 1700s, as Marissa and I have mentioned, you could be executed for hundreds of pretty minor crimes, so there was no lack of fresh bodies. But in the 1800s, magistrates began balking at making everything a death sentence, and, as a result, there were a lot fewer criminal bodies available when the medical school, by some accounts, needed upwards of 500 bodies. So, resurrection men stepped in to fill the lack.

And a lucrative business it was. They received 8 to 10 guineas a corpse, more for a fresher one. One team admitted to stealing between 500 and 1,000 bodies over 12 years. With a guinea being worth a little more than a pound sterling, and a fellow being able to live nicely for a year in London for 100 pounds, the resurrection men made good money!

Families, of course, were appalled to return to the cemetery with flowers for dear Aunt Florence only to find that her grave had been dug up and her coffin emptied. They turned to a number of ingenious ways to safeguard their loved ones, such as standing guard over the grave, circling the grave with an iron fence, burying their dead in iron coffins that couldn’t be broken into, or covering the grave with a stone so heavy it couldn’t be moved, like this mort stone. The protections didn’t have to last forever; they only had to protect the body until it had decayed enough that it was no longer useful for dissection.

But some resurrection men got greedy. Fresh bodies were worth more, so why not create a few? They begin murdering the homeless and the orphans, the teens who were doing odd jobs to make ends meet. In 1830, for example, John Bishop and Thomas Williams were found guilty of enticing several people to a dark part of town with offers of cheap lodging, drugging their victims, and dropping them into wells to kill them, then selling their stripped bodies for cash. Their case was so publicized, and the public outrage so great, that the police decided to make a bit off the case too. They opened the house where the murders had occurred to the public for 5 shillings a look. Supposedly, the viewers ripped off pieces of the house as souvenirs, until nothing was left. In a quirk of fate, both Bishop and Williams were hanged for their crimes, in front of 30,000 people, and their bodies given to a medical school for dissection.

Partially as a result of these dark deeds, Parliament passed the Anatomy Act in 1832, which allowed bodies found and not claimed and ones that relatives donated to be used for dissection. It also required that anatomy teachers be licensed, which was supposed to make them more honest and less likely to buy dead bodies that showed up mysteriously at their doors. The changes affectively cut into the resurrection men’s trade, and the practice faded away like a tired ghost.

And for that I think we can all be thankful! Happy Halloween!


QNPoohBear said...

Thanks for the pre-Halloween treat!

I remember reading about this subject in 19th century America in Ann Rinaldi's An Acquaintance with Darkness. The History Detectives on PBS also had an interesting story about a grave alarm!

Shirley Marks said...

This is chilling ::chattering teeth:: and oh, so creepy.

The good news is that the Anatomy Act was passed =after= George IV. I can use this in a Regency story. :)

Thanks, Regina.

Regina Scott said...

QNPoohBear--yep, America had these problems too. Mark Twain even wrote about it.

Shirley--you're welcome! Can't wait to read your story. :-) If you want more grisly details, try Googling Burke and Hare. Their case, in Edinburgh, was the most sensational.

Joanna said...

I know I havent popped a comment in a while but I found this little post really interesting! thanks for posting it!

Regina Scott said...

You're welcome, Joanna! It's nice to hear from you!