“… they tell us it was necessary for the purposes of science. Science? Why, who is science for? Not for poor people. Then if it be necessary for the purposes of science, let them have the bodies of the rich, for whose benefit science is cultivated.” William Cobbett
Medical science is a wonderful discipline. It saves lives. To save a life, you need to learn how and you need to research. The irony of the whole process is, that is done on lives which have been lost. In the 1800s when computer simulations and other methods of learning and testing weren’t accessible, the demand for bodies was great. In 1828 there were 800 medical students in London and they needed three bodies each to practice on.
Graves have been unearthed in London teaching hospitals where, whilst trying to comply with Church standards that bodies must be buried in tact for judgement day, coffins contained multiple portions of body parts with most skulls missing. The remains of humans were also buried with the remains of animals such as rabbits, dogs, birds and exotic animals, which were used for comparative anatomy. It was the stuff books such as Frankenstein were made of. In Scotland, they simply dug pits and threw the miscellaneous body parts in. Medical Schools such as the London Hospital were forced to be active in compromising their standards to get cadavers. They were critical teaching tools that in the long run, could save lives. Bodies have been uncovered showing multiple attempts at surgical procedures by students. Some surgeries were so badly carried out, we should probably be thankful for the trade in bodies! It was preferable to practicing on humans, in an era with no antibiotics or anaesthesia.
Where there is demand, there is commerce and murder was even committed to gain bodies for sale. A pair of Scottish ‘businessmen’ named Burke and Hare, were sentenced after ‘acquiring’ seventeen bodies for sale by such illicit means. Grave robbing became so commonplace and created such fear, that families went to excessive expense to secure burials from robbers. Buildings with no entrances were mounted on top of graves and iron railings with points were erected to stop the thieves. This is probably a good part of the reason why many graves are covered with concrete, even today. Grave robbers became known as “Resurrectionists.” They could procure bodies, as long as they stripped away their clothes and any possessions. The law didn’t allow anyone to own a body. Technically, it wasn’t stealing. There are newspaper accounts where staff and patients at hospitals had noted that grave robbing was taking place in the hospital cemetery and despite crutches and ailments, the patients were chasing robbers in an attempt to apprehend them. It is hard to imagine any other form of robbery so offensive.
So if wealthy graves were protected, where did you get them from? Paupers graves, of course. Unprotected mass graves were everywhere, as were itinerant workers and the poor, who existed in plentiful numbers; conveniently dying from cholera, malnutrition and drunken excess. It was easy.
It gets dirtier. It is the rich vs the poor and the Government vs the poor.
The Government could very well be considered as dirty as the grave robbers. They had a problem. People were dying in hospitals and asylums; and if they died in your institution and didn’t have money, you had to dispose of the body in a ‘societally acceptable’ manner. They didn’t quite achieve the last part. It still cost them to bury paupers, mass graves and no headstones or not. They did have the option of putting on a funeral for the broke bereaved, but, there was great shame in a destitute burial so often no one turned up. Easy fix: sell them straight to the Medical Schools and save the burial costs. You’ve just paid for their care, get some profit back to cover it. What made it all worse is, as illustrated by the quote above, the main researchers were wealthy medical students and the poor couldn’t even pay for health care. The class divide came into play.
To ensure all was above board, the Government changed the law to protect themselves. No longer could they just sell the bodies of convicted criminals who were sentenced to death, now, under the Anatomy Act of 1832 they could do what they ‘saw fit’ to anyone who had been in their care. People lost their right to buried in their own Parish with their family. This law actually stayed in effect in Britain until 1984.
Well protected. Walter Hill Interrment, Toowong Cemetery, Australia
So how did I discover all this? Crazily enough, I was sitting reading a Journal on Social Work which was talking workers organising destitute burials. They referred to the horrors of the past grave robbing era and the shame factor. The dirty side of Government and a “respectable profession” such as Medicine is never to be condoned or repeated, but it does give you great plot ideas!
Frankenstein and the Anatomy Act: http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/Articles/marshall.html
Anatomy Act 1832: http://d-mis-web.ana.bris.ac.uk/personal/mark/Select%20com%201828.htm
William Hare and William Burke, West Point Murders: https://mysendoff.com/2011/09/the-anatomy-act-of-1832/
“London’s Body Snatchers” Archaeology Magazine Edition 274, January 2013.
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