In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth
centuries, there was an increase in demand for bodies for use in
dissection by a growing number of anatomy students at medical schools.
With bodies in high demand, the price of a fresh cadaver was also
high (by the 1820s about £10). 'Body snatchers' or 'resurrectionists'
would dig up the graves of freshly buried people and then sell the
corpses to anatomists (surgeons who performed public dissections,
mostly in university medical schools). Once a body was stolen, the
grave was left almost as it had been found, so there would be no
reason to suspect that the body had been taken. Even if a body was
discovered as having been 'stolen', the bodysnatchers could not
be charged with any crime as a body was not property.
Prevention or Cure?
In places near university medical schools,
especially around Edinburgh, preventative measures were taken. Watch
houses were erected at the edges of graveyards and watchmen employed
by parish authorities or by societies set up for the purpose. Another
method to prevent incidents of grave robbing was to place a mortsafe
over the grave. After many incidents of body snatching and the scandal
of Burke and Hare (who murdered 16 people to supply the Anatomists
with bodies for dissection but who did not rob graves), the Anatomy
Act of 1832 was passed. The Act allowed 'unclaimed' bodies to be
donated to the medical schools in the name of furthering medical
science. Ultimately this led to the demise of grave robbing as a
Other related SCAN entries
Death and Burial
Death and Burial
Burke and Hare
Bibliography and Links
Norman Adams, Dead and Buried: The Horrible
History of Body Snatching (Aberdeen, 1972); James Blake Bailey,
The Diary of a Ressurrectionist, 1811-1812 (London, 1896);
Ian Ross: 'Body Snatching in Nineteenth Century Britain' in British
Journal of Law and Society, 6; Dane Love, Scottish Kirkyards
(London, 1989) There are illustrations of many types of gravestones,
mortsafes on the website of the Royal
Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland.
I am a school pupil doing a project on grave robbing. Where should
I look for information about this and about Burke and Hare in particular?
What was a mortsafe?
What was a morthouse?
What was a watch box?
Where should I look for information about, or records of, mortsafes,
morthouses or watch boxes?
Where should I look for information about, or records of, churchyard
Maxine Wright, Robin Urquhart (both SCAN)