What is Body Snatching or Grave Robbing?
As the term implies, body snatching refers to the secret disinterment of corpses from cemeteries and other burial sites. An eerie and unsavoury practice that ran especially rampant in the 19th century in North America and Europe, body snatching has an interesting (albeit unfavourable) history. Body snatchers (often referred to as “resurrectionists” or “resurrection-men”) are not to necessarily be confused with grave robbers, as the latter are concerned with the personal effects and artifacts that are kept in a crypt rather than the body itself. For a body snatcher, it is the physical body of the deceased that is of interest: worth risking fines, incarceration, and of course, the spookiness of a graveyard at night for.
Grave Robbing & The Medical World
The most common historical motivation of body snatchers can be summarized in one word: science. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal manner of obtaining corpses in the United Kingdom was by waiting on those who were condemned to death by the legal system. The infrequency of these sentences (about 50 people a year in the 19th century, compared to the hundreds sentenced to death in the previous century) did not meet the needs of the medical field, as the study of human anatomy and the development of medicine during this time was reaching it zenith. Impatient scientists and physicians took to the cemeteries, usually digging up freshly buried corpses as they hadn’t time to decompose and were more easily accessible under loose soil.
However, as this illegal practice grew in popularity, it was less frequently the researchers themselves acquiring the bodies. Instead, a growing group of middle-men made their living by stealing and selling the dead to the highest bidder. Such a capitalist twist to the practice of body snatching gave rise to an altogether different method of acquiring dead bodies: murder. In 1827 and 1828, a series of murders in Edinburgh, Scotland were committed at the hands of the infamous duo, William Burke and William Hare. These two ruthless characters murdered a total of 16 victims during this time, and sold their corpses to a doctor by the name of Robert Knox, who dissected the cadavers during his anatomy lectures.
Body snatchers would sled the corpses down to McGill University’s medical school at the hill’s base
Similarly to the UK, the need for cadavers for study in medical schools and research institutions grew steadily in the 19th century in both the United States and Canada. The study of anatomy was the most solid foundation for the legitimization of science and medicine during this time, setting it apart from botanical and homeopathic studies that had been popular until this point for treating illness and healing injuries. Natural deaths seldom met the high demand for corpses, so many medical institutions took to bribing public officials and burial-ground employees to look the other way as they took bodies from the “Potter’s Field” (burial sites for unknown deceased).
Though Canada’s first medical school was not established until 1822 in Montréal, the heyday of the resurrections was far from over. The lack of legally available corpses drove medical students and researchers to seek alternative means of attaining bodies; most grisly of which being the looting of the Mount Royal Cemetery. Situated atop the city’s famous “mountain”, body snatchers would sled the corpses down to McGill University’s medical school at the hill’s base.
Keeping Bodies Underground
Over the past 20 years in the U.S. alone, more than 16,800 families have put forward lawsuits claiming that the body parts of loved ones were harvested and sold for profit.
During the days when body snatching was common to the point of being half-expected, it was not uncommon for the family of the deceased to sit watch over the corpse until burial (in some cases, even after, or at least until the soil on the grave became firm). Iron coffins became a frequent practice for those who could afford it, as well as metal grates called “mortsafes” which were installed on the grave site.
If one has a chance to visit the Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh, there are many examples of these that are still in place today. Institutions known as “mort houses” were also established as places were bodies could be stored safely until decomposition, which rendered the corpses useless to ressurectionists. In the U.S., many cemeteries took on a more militant approach to safeguarding the deceased, employing armed guards to watch over the graveyard at night. This was typically only the case at “high-security” cemeteries, which only the affluent could afford to be buried in, making the danger of body snatching an increasingly classist issue as well. With these safeguards in place, you could more or less guarantee your body’s safety after death- but only if you could afford to pay the price!
Body Snatching Today
Believe it or not, body snatching still happens today all over the world. Over the past 20 years in the U.S. alone, more than 16,800 families have put forward lawsuits claiming that the body parts of loved ones were harvested and sold for profit. However, though selling corpses for medical research continues to be a prevalent underground trade, the reasons for stealing corpses has certainly changed over the years. For instance, in China there have been many reports of female corpses being stolen to be used as “brides” for traditional Chinese “ghost marriages”, which occur when a single man dies before marriage. The female corpse is buried with him, acting as a kind of grisly surrogate bride. Further still, in Peurto Rico there was an incident of a reported 40 bodies missing from the small town cemetery of Gurabo. The reasons for the thefts have yet to be ascertained, but guesses range from selling the steel coffins for sale on the black market to using the remains for Santeria rituals. Needless to say, though we don’t hear about it too often, body snatching remains a grim and lucrative trade!