Manchester Times, Saturday, March 12, 1864.
BODY-SNATCHERS THIRTY YEARS AGO.
(From once a week.)
"They are the lowest dregs of degradation," said Sir Astley
Cooper: "there is no crime they would not commit; and if they imagined that I
should make a good subject, they really would not have the smallest scruple, if
they could do the thing undiscovered, to make a subject of rue." There men were
always dragging themselves into public notice, They frequently quarrelled among
themselves, when one pasty would inform against another. The anatomists were
completely at their mercy ; they could effectually oppose a lecturer, by refusing
to let him have bodies ; and there was no length to which their animosity would not
go, if once aroused.
Was one of them offended by the purchase of subjects off another
man, he would either steal secretly, or break openly, into the place where the
bodies were kept, and cut them to pieces, spoiling them for the purpose of
dissection ; or, perhaps, he would ' inform against the anatomist for receiving the
bodies ; and although the magistrates generally refused to take cognisance of such
cases, unless there was strict evidence that the receiver bad also taken part in
the disinterment, yet teachers had been convicted and actually punished for
receiving bodies, knowing them to have been unlawfully procured, and, as the
law stood, it was at least doubtful whether every teacher and student was not
indictable for a misdemeanor.
Nor did the vengeance of the body-snatcher always stop here. On
one occasion a lecturer had refused to give to a resurrectionist a douceur of five
guineas at the beginning of the season. The men went away, but returned at dark
with a cart in which were two subjects very much decomposed; these he threw down in
the street near the lecturer's house, and two young ladies, not observing these,
stumbled over them. The result was a popular commotion in the unhappy surgeon's
quarter ; the mob rushed to the house, which they threatened to tear down, and be
was himself in great danger.
As an illustration of the reckless way in which these men now carried on their
trade, we may take another experience of the same gentleman. He once required the ,
head of a person who had died of a particular disease : he employed a body-snatcher
to get it, which the fellow did, cutting off the head, and leaving the body thus
mangled I openly on the ground. It is not surprising that such scandals enraged the
Graveyards- were watched, spring guns were set, and, since
sextons and keepers were not averse to bribes, the friends of deceased persons
watched the graves by night, and fired upon intruders. Exhumation, though the
chief, was not the sole method of procuring bodies. Body snatchers would personate
the relatives of those who had died in workhouses, and would thus get their bodies
given over to them.
A case is recorded in which a body-snatcher saw a man stagger
and fall in the street ; he stepped forward, claimed relationship with the man,
attended the inquest, and, had the body delivered to him. Frequently these men
would break into houses where they knew a body was lying, and steal it out of the
coffin In which it was awaiting burial; sometimes, if a quarrel clewed, the body
thus procured would be cut to pieces before the dissecting-room was reached,
So common was this way of processing bodies, that one London police officer alone
had recovered between fifty and one hundred bodies thus stolen.
Or perhaps a party of Irish would be "waking" a body ; a number
of resurrectionists would burst in, seize the corpse, and rush off with it,
trailing It naked through the mud, with the pursuers in full cry. These cases will
show the reader that the absence in a body of all signs of is having been buried
was by no means an unusual occurrence, or one that would necessarily awaken the
least suspicion in the mind of a surgeon to whom such a body might be offered for
sale. The price of subjects became exorbitant as the town and suburban churchyards
were closed to the body-snatchers by increased vigilance.
From twelve to sixteen guineas was at last demanded, sometimes
even as much as eighteen or twenty, with the possible prospect of almost immedately
having the body taken away by the police, who would be secretly set on by the
snatchers, in order that prices might be kept up. If the snatchers were taken and
punished, the penalty really fell on the surgeon, who, during their confinement in
prison, had to support the men and their families also. A surgeon who did not
promise beforehand to do this, could get no bodies.
Matters were perhaps worse in country towns, for there an anatomist's pupils had to
procure their own subjects, with the risk of punishment hanging over them.
The position in which a body of highly educated men were thus placed through the
neglect of the legislature, reflects the greatest disgrace on the country, It
seemed, indeed, at one time, as if the study of anatomy would have altogether to be
abandoned In the country Which had given to it some of its most magnificent
triumphs. The difficulty of getting bodies frequently stopped a class for a month
or six weeks!; the professors lost money, and retired in disgust from their forced
association with scoundrels who tyrannised over them.
Attempts were made to dispense with the body-snatchers; bodies
were imported, but the custom-house officers charged what rate they thought fit,
under the name of an ad valorem duty, or more frequently refused to forward the
bodies, and had them buried. When the secretary of state authorised their
importation, it was found that they generally arrived in a condition which rendered
them utterly unfit for the anatomist's purposes.
It was felt at last that something must be done: a course of anatomical study was
twenty times as great in Edinburgh as in Paris ; students were compelled to go
abroad to get that skill, the want of which was punishable by the law which refused
the means of acquiring it. Its 1823, there had been 1,000 students in London ; in
1828, there were only 800. Attention was at last paid to the complaints of the
profession, and in April, 1828, the subject was brought before the House of
Dr. Warburton, in asking for a committee, stated, that whereas,
in the previous year, eleven bodies only were legally disposed of, eleven hundred
were required, and nine hundred were actually obtained. The committee which was
appointed began its sittings at the end of April, and it was before them that Sir
Astley Cooper made use of the expressions we have quoted above. Read by their
light, question 1186 is significant "Knowing the high price given for dead bodies,
do you think that price Is too high for the safety of the living?". Burke and Hare
were at work in Edinburgh, preparing their answer, which was published in the