During 1816, the Anatomy school of Great Marlborough Street would advertise their dissections of the human body “every Thursday, as usual”. These would be attended by medical students who needed the experience as part of their medical degree. Such human bodies were hard to come by; apart from the corpses of executed murderers; there was no other legal source.

Sarah Cook of Hertford was a legal source; she was executed in December 1816 for absconding with her newly born child and then drowning it in a local river. However, there were not enough corpses and it was generally known and accepted that surgeons bought fresh specimens from “resurrection men”. Grave robbery was in itself not an offence at this time, although stealing property associated with the burial was. There was very little sense of outrage about this activity in the papers of 1816. While the ghastly subject was not referred to very much, when it was it was often treated in a jocular and almost childish way. One paper announced that “the resurrection men have risen again” In one newspaper, it was sandwiched between an article about curing chilblains and a new bridge in Galashiels.

The two major news items concerned the breakdown in relations between the two sides. In February 1816, two bodies were found in Great Marlborough Street, propped up in the entrance to the offices of Mr Alderson and Mr Clapperton, both local surgeons. Both had been mutilated beyond use in dissection. They were designed as a warning to a nearby surgeon, Henry Brook. Brook was trying to manipulate the market in corpses by attempting to embalm them. As things stood, bodies would be of no use after a few days and this put the power of supply into the hands of the resurrectionists . Mr Brook had to be protected from a London mob who knew what Brook was doing and knew the rebuke was aimed at his methods.

The papers speculated that the incident arose after a dispute about payment for the two cadavers. It was really the Borough Gangs attempt to maintain their monopoly of supply. It seems that the surgeons were intent in paying no more than 4 guineas a body while the resurrection men themselves were looking for at least fifty percent more than that.

In November 1816 a group of resurrection men entered St Thomas’s hospital during a dissection. It may be that they had been organising a kind of strike to push the price of bodies up to 6 guineas and the surgeons had responded by encouraging others to enter the profession. As with other workers, Trade Unionism was illegal for employees in 1816. The Chester Courant, killing two birds with a ghastly pun and a reactionary attitude, announced that the “spirit of combination” had even spread to the grave robbers. They mutilated the corpses that were being dissected; they had a good attempt at turning the young doctors into future business too. The leader of the mob was Israel Chapman, a noted resurrectionist, according to the papers, although perhaps his Jewish background was the reason for his top billing. When they were finally apprehended they complained that they were badly treated by the surgeons, who could not survive without them. The judge asked them to find bail; the paper, in an aside, noted that “the sums that these men make is immense”

Chapman himself in a later trial claimed that his gang stole 50 bodies a week, although this may have been bravado. He once told a judge, should the judge die before him, Chapman would be” after him”. The law caught up with him on 14 January 1818, when he made the mistake of attacking property. He was transported for Highway, rather than graveside, robbery.

Private enterprise had a solution to the problem of grave robbery. Jarvis and Company of 139 Longacre had a range of Coffins including the patent “unopenable” Coffin at 3 ½ guineas available at a few hours notice. The Coffins were essential a set of steel and wooden boxes within boxes with no visible screws on the outside and no weak corners that could be prised open. This also made lead unnecessary- a real saving in itself and another disincentive to the grave robber, who would often sell the lead back to the person who built the coffin in the first place

Family and relatives realised that time was the key; a speedy burial, a watch on the graveyard and a coffin that could not be opened would make the grave robbers look elsewhere. After two weeks or so, the body would be unusable anyway

More like this in my new book- hardback and ebook.

Publisher’s details here.

Longer chapter by chapter introduction here  


4 thoughts on “Body snatching 1816; a bad year to be alive, or be dead.

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