A Ghastly Trade

Body-snatching was a huge problem throughout the country in the early years of the 19th century. At the time, science in general, and medical science in particular, was making huge strides forward. The problem was that, in order to make that progress in the knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, doctors, scientist and medical students needed bodies to experiment with and investigate.

In consequence, gangs of body-snatchers would roam the country’s churchyards in the dead of night, intent on digging up the bodies of the newly dead in order to sell the thusly acquired cadavers to the anatomists, medical students, surgeons and scientists.

Some, like the notorious Edinburgh partnership of Burke and Hare, didn’t even bother going to the effort of the digging up bodies, but rather they murdered victims and then sold their bodies on.

In 1832, in order to tackle the problem of the illicit trading in dead bodies, Parliament passed the Anatomy Act, which finally gave official sanction to the dissection of “donated” bodies by doctors, teachers of anatomy and bona fide medical students.


Of course, the problem lay with that word “donated.”

After all, what sort of families would “donate” the bodies of their loved ones to the dissections, even if it was for the good cause of increasing medical and surgical knowledge?

In short, it was the poor who were most likely to find themselves on the dissecting tables; and, since the act also made available the corpses of unclaimed paupers who had died in the nation’s hospitals, workhouses, prisons and asylums, to say that the bodies were actually “donated” wasn’t exactly an accurate depiction of the true state of things.


And, to be brutally honest, nor would it be the poor who would benefit from the acquired knowledge that came from these “donations.”

As William Cobbett argued in his opposition to the bill:-

“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.”

Notwithstanding the objections, the Bill was passed in August, 1832, and it ushered in an increase in knowledge from which, it could be argued, we are still benefiting today.


By 1880, the Act had been in force for almost fifty years, but there was still a danger that the bodies of unwilling donors might end up on the anatomist’s table.

This problem was seen as being particularly rife in America, and had been highlighted by a series of high profile cases, most notably the theft from his tomb of the body of the retailer Alexander Turney Stewart (1803 – 1876), one of New York’s richest men, in November, 1878.

A portrait of Alexander Turney Stewart.
Alexander Turney Stewart.


On Saturday, 20th November, 1880, The Graphic, published the following article, which mentioned the case of Alexander Stewart, and pondered whether the United Kingdom might not be in for a revival of the curse of body-snatching.

In addition, the article came up with a radical solution to ensure that the rich were treated the same as the poor when it came to the problem of providing corpses to the anatomists of the age:-

This is not a nice topic of discourse, and might have been thought to have been finally disposed of nearly fifty years ago, when, in consequence of the Burke and Hare atrocities, the Anatomy Bill was passed.

In America, it is said, the ghastly trade is still in vogue.

Rich men’s bodies like that of the late Mr. Stewart, the millionaire, are taken from their graves, in the hopes of getting a reward from their heirs and assigns upon restitution being effected.

But the chief object of the American body-snatchers is to get “subjects” for surgical dissection, no legal provision, as far as we are aware, existing for such a purpose in the United States.

It is sincerely to be hoped that there is no danger in this country of the resurrection-man undergoing a resurrection, yet such a contingency might easily recur if the ordinary method of obtaining subjects ceased to operate.


Under the Anatomy Act, as is well-known, the directors of hospitals and workhouses are authorised to permit the use, for anatomical purposes, of bodies that are unclaimed by friends.

Now we observe that the Shoreditch Board of Guardians have declined (except in the case of unclaimed suicides) to grant this privilege to the Medical Schools.

Medical students and their teachers would be placed in a serious difficulty if all Boards of Guardians were to act thus.


Yet there is something to be said in favour of the Shoreditch scruples.

In the opinion of most people, especially of the humblest classes, it is bad enough to die poor and friendless in the workhouse: it is an additional sting to anticipate that one’s wretched carcass will be cut to pieces after death.

Why should we lay this burden on the poor only?

If, as everybody admits, we cannot have skilful surgeons unless they are allowed the opportunity of practising upon dead human bodies, why should not the well-to-do as much as the very poor contribute to this absolute scientific want?


For ourselves, we should like to see dissection made the invariable penalty for suicide, as we believe that it would lessen the number of such tragedies – anatomisation being particularly objectionable to the morbid self-consciousness of suicidal persons – but, failing this source of supply, why should not the required number of subjects be obtained by the drawing of lots?

Every now and then, the corpse of some celebrated or wealthy person should get a “bad number”, and, if the rule were inexorably carried out, and no substitutes allowed to these Conscripts in the Anatomical Brigade, the idea that dissection is ignominious would soon die out.”