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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 viable business.

Other related SCAN entries
Death and Burial
Death and Burial records
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.


Frequently Asked Questions

1. 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?

2. What was a mortsafe?

3. What was a morthouse?

4. What was a watch box?

5. Where should I look for information about, or records of, mortsafes, morthouses or watch boxes?

6. Where should I look for information about, or records of, churchyard watching societies?






Maxine Wright, Robin Urquhart (both SCAN)