The Resurrection Men – Body Snatching in 19th Century Britain

William Burke and William Hare
William Burke and William Hare | Source

Who Were 'The Resurrection Men'

Have you heard of ‘The Resurrection Men’, the criminal body snatchers who would rip fresh corpses from their graves and sell them to hospitals for dissection? Body snatching was a distasteful trade that flourished at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries in Britain to keep the medical schools supplied with the fresh cadavers that were required for dissection. This was a time there were great efforts being put into discovering the workings of the human body and advance medical knowledge.

These dissections were popular events that members of the public would flock to so they could watch the gory proceedings. They were also attended by medical students who would pay a fee to watch an experienced Master of Anatomy at work and listen to his commentary on what he was doing. Each medical student, however, was in need of a cadaver of their own to dissect if they wanted to further their training as a surgeon and be able to progress to operating on live patients.

The Need for Cadavers for Dissection

Unfortunately for the anatomists of that time, the demand for fresh corpses kept growing, but the supply beginning to dry up. Legally, the only corpses that could be used for dissection were those of murderers who had just been hung. As there was no refrigeration back then, the bodies had to be quickly taken down from the gallows and hurried over to one of the Schools of Anatomy before they could start decomposing.

It is estimated that around five hundred cadavers a year were dissected in the medical schools in London alone. However, as the 18th century drew to a close fewer capital punishments were being handed down to criminals and many more were instead being sentenced to transportation to Australia for their transgressions. So as the supply of cadavers began to falter, gangs of criminals formed who would dig up newly buried bodies from their graves in the dead of the night and then sell them to the Anatomists.

St Bridget's Kirk Watchhouse Edinburgh
St Bridget's Kirk Watchhouse Edinburgh | Source

Making Money From Body Snatching

The money on offer was well worth the risks involved as they could earn as much as 10 guineas for a fresh, young corpse, which was a great deal of money at the time and enough to keep the gang going for several months. The punishment for stealing corpses was also not particularly severe as it was not classed as a felony and was only viewed as a misdemeanour under Common Law. Therefore the Resurrectionists were not risking transportation or execution, and if they were caught they would only be fined and put in prison for a time.

They were very careful only to remove the bodies from the graves; any valuables or jewelry they found were left behind as stealing goods was a felony that could potentially lead them to the gallows. The body snatchers were also not that strenuously pursued by the authorities, as there was an understanding that the Anatomists needed a good supply of cadavers to learn, teach and improve their surgical techniques. However, concerned relatives used to keep vigil by the gravesides of their loved ones in order to deter the ‘Resurrection Men’ and prevent the remains being violated. Iron coffins were also used as a deterrent and iron frames called mortsafes were erected over graves to protect them.

It also tended to be an easy job for the gangs to dig up the bodies, as the cemeteries were generally very crowded and many new burials were fairly shallow and could easily be identified from the surface. As these body snatching gangs were both highly organised and ruthless, it is perhaps not surprising that eventually some of them took to murder to meet the demand of the medical schools. Probably the best known of these gangs and the one that brought the evils of body snatching to attention of the public was that of William Burke and William Hare.

Burke and Hare

Both Burke and Hare had been born in Ulster and immigrated to Scotland, where they met and became friends and associates in the West Port district of Edinburgh. Burke moved into a lodging house run by Hare’s wife Margaret and their first foray into selling bodies for money came about when one of the elderly tenants of the lodging house died and they sold the body to an Anatomist called Dr Robert Knox who taught students from Edinburgh Medical College for £7.10s.

To cover up their crime they filled the coffin with bark to disguise the fact that there was no corpse in it. They soon progressed to murder to keep up with demand and make more money, with their first victim being another tenant from the lodging house called Joseph the Miller. He was frail and sickly and they first got him intoxicated and then they smothered him to death. This method of murder was very deliberately used as there would be no damage to the body and no evidence that a homicide had taken place. Undamaged corpses fetched much higher prices and younger bodies were also more valuable as they would more likely to have healthy internal organs.

'Daft Jamie' - Burke and Hare murder victim
'Daft Jamie' - Burke and Hare murder victim | Source

Victims of Burke and Hare

The next victim of Burke and Hare was an elderly woman called Abigail Simpson, who they invited to be an overnight guest, and then plied her with alcohol and suffocated her. They got £10 for her fresh cadaver. Between the years 1827 and 1828 the murderous duo murdered seventeen innocent victims in order to sell their bodies, always using the same method to kill them. The only part of the body that was ever deliberately mutilated was the face, and this was done to stop the corpse being recognised by anyone who was attending the dissection.

In fact, because of their ensuing notoriety this method of murdering people became known as ‘Burking’. One of their most piteous victims was a young teenager called James Wilson, who was only eighteen at the time of his death. Despite being physically disabled and walking with a limp and having learning difficulties, he was apparently a cheerful, popular soul who went missing one day in late October 1828 when he went looking for his mother who had not been at home when he had gone visiting. Unfortunately for him, he bumped into William Hare while he was trying to find her, who lured him into a house with the promise of a drink.

Once there Burke and Hare swung into action and got the teenager drunk and then smothered him to death. They sold the cadaver to Dr Robert Knox as usual, but when he took the cover off the body on the dissection table the next day, James was recognised by several of the students. This was denied by Dr Knox, but he cut the head of the body and dissected the face first to make any further identification difficult, if not impossible.

Burke and Hare Brought to Justice

Burke and Hare were finally apprehended in 1828 after they had murdered a lady called Marjory Campbell Docherty in the lodging house. A couple of the lodgers, James and Anne Gray, became suspicious and found her body hidden under a bed. Burke and Hare were arrested and information was passed to the police that led them to find the body in Dr Knox’s dissecting room, where it was identified by James Gray.

Because they did not have enough evidence to secure a guilty verdict, Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he confessed and testified against Burke. Burke was tried, condemned to death and hung in January 1829. Further justice was done when his body was publicly dissected in Edinburgh by Professor Alex Munro, who wrote a note using Burke’s blood as ink. His tanned skin was also used to make wallets and cases for calling cards, and his death mask and skeleton can still be seen at the Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh.

Body Snatching in London

Body snatching gangs in other parts of Britain also emulated Burke and Hare’s heinous crimes, especially in London where there were several large teaching hospitals and they even came to be known as the ‘London Burkers’. These ‘Resurrection Men’ congregated in the public houses around Smithfield as they were close to the hospitals. One of these pubs was The Rising Sun which was in the vicinity of St Bartholomew’s, which is now known as a famous haunted London pub.

It is thought that the ghosts of the Resurrectionists haunt the pub as they cannot rest because of their crimes, and strange noises are frequently heard even though the building is empty and people have had their bedclothes dragged off them in the middle of the night by ghostly hands. Another public house used by the body snatchers was The Fortune of War in Smithfield, which had been officially declared as a place ‘for the reception of drowned persons’ by the Royal Humane Society. The pub had a special room that was lined with benches for the cadavers that had the body snatchers names on them and the surgeons from St Bartholomew’s would come to look over the corpses to see which they best liked the look of for dissection.

Resurrectionist Gangs - John Bishop

The most famous resurrectionist gang that operated in London was led by a man called John Bishop. Along with Thomas Williams, James May and Michael Shields it is estimated that over a period of twelve years they had snatched upwards of 1,000 bodies from their graves in order to sell them to the anatomists at the great London medical institutions of Kings College, St Thomas’ Hospital, St Bartholomew’s and Guy’s. It is perhaps inevitable that they progressed to murder, but their crimes were discovered when in November 1831 they attempted to sell the body of a fourteen year old boy to King’s College.

They were expecting to be paid 12 guineas for such a fresh, young corpse, but the staff at the hospital were very suspicious as the body did not appear to have been buried before it had been brought in to them for sale. The police were called and the gang arrested. A house they maintained in Shoreditch was searched and evidence emerged that there had been more than one killing. Bizarrely, the police then subsequently opened the building for viewing by the public, who were charged five shillings for the privilege. Most of the building was then taken away in pieces as souvenirs by these visitors.

The Resurrection Men - 18th century cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson
The Resurrection Men - 18th century cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson | Source

Capture of the Resurrection Men

All the gang members were convicted of the crime, and although it was initially thought that the victim had been an Italian boy called Carlo Ferrari, Bishop confessed that the victim had in fact been a young cattle drover from Lincolnshire. He had been lured to their lodgings from a pub called The Bell in Smithfield and once there he was drugged with rum and laudanum. Bishop and Williams then went off to have a drink at another pub, and by the time they returned the boy was unconscious as they expected.

The murderous pair then tied a rope around his ankles and dangled him head first down a well where he swiftly died. The corpse was then stripped and put in a bag, and they took their gruesome booty first to Guy’s Hospital where it was refused and then to King’s College. They also confessed to the murder of a homeless woman called Frances Pigburn and her child and admitted that they received 8 guineas for her remains. They also said that they had lured, drugged and smothered another boy called Cunningham, who was also then sold to the Anatomists for 8 guineas.

Punishment of the Resurrection Men

Because murder was a felony, Bishop and Williams were condemned to death and were hung in Newgate Prison in December 1831. What goes around comes around as they say, and their corpses were removed from the gallows and then taken for dissection, where for the following couple of days large crowds of people came to view their remains. Disturbingly, it was not only men who were ‘Burkers’, as in 1831 a woman called Elizabeth Ross killed a lace seller called Catherine Walsh using this method although there is no record that she then sold the body for dissection. She was caught and tried and she too ended her life on the gallows.

These gruesome murders led to the introduction of the Anatomy Act of 1832 which allowed any corpses from prisons and workhouses that were not claimed for burial by their relatives to be given over to the medical schools for dissection. This Act effectively put a stop to both the illegal body snatching and the murders, and corpses could once more rest easily in their graves without fear of violation.

It may seem disturbing to us that eminent surgeons and medical students in the early 19th century turned a blind eye to where the cadavers they used for dissection came from, but they needed them to increase their knowledge of the human body and advance medical science. However, murder proved to be a step too far and the implementation of Anatomy Act provided the steady supply of fresh corpses that the medical profession required to develop new surgical techniques, learn about the workings of the human body and train the surgeons of the future.

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Comments 31 comments

CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 21 months ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for reading the hub nathalia27. I agree medical students are lucky now, but even though body snatching was a horrible practice, the knowledge gained from those cadavers was invaluable to the development of modern medicine


nathalia27 profile image

nathalia27 22 months ago

Luckily, now nedical students doesn't need to snatch died bodies unlike before.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for reading the hub FlourishAnyway and the vote up. The history of how we humans have viewed dead bodies and treated them is fascinating and probably says a lot about society at those times


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

What a thorough account and fascinating to read. It's no wonder that we cannot now outright sell cadavers (although money can be made via "handling" fees). There's quite a colored past. Voted up and more and pinning.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi mercuryservices, thanks for reading the hub and commenting. What a great niche to have gotten into 'men in frilly panties' lol. I believe that these hubbers are doing really well and getting great traffic.

I think if you want to write about darker topics like serial killers, its specific words and phrases you need to watch. Certain words and phrases will trip the filters. Maybe if it is a topic that really interests you, write a series of articles and create an ebook instead?

Thanks for the tip about headings - this hub could probably do with breaking up a bit


mercuryservices profile image

mercuryservices 3 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

Saw your funny comment on a hub about a guy who likes to wear frilly panties, so I decided to check out your hubs. Love this topic. (If you ever are in NYC check out "Bodies: the Exhibition" if you can, it's really cool.) My only suggestion on this hub would be to break it up a little by putting in some headings to make it easier to read. I'd write more about dark topics myself but every time I try to write about serial killers, etc. I get caught by the automatic content filter and my ads get disabled.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks NathaNater, it is a bit gruesome to think that some of our current medical knowledge comes from the practice of body snatching. But they were more brutal times, where executions were a good day out and death was much more in people's faces than it is now.


NathaNater profile image

NathaNater 4 years ago

Gruesome but very fascinating subject matter here. It is amazing what people will do for money, and it is interesting how kind of macabre were those times, people even turning out to watch dissection of cadavers and making products out of convicted murderers' skin. Amazing that some resorted to murder to be able to have cadavers to sell. However, I guess we might wonder if we'd have any advances in medicine without the use of cadavers and they were a bit hard to come by. Very engrossing piece, thanks for sharing!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad that you found the article interesting kittythedreamer. There is an exhibition about the body snatchers in the Museum of London at the moment and there has been an archaeological dig in an East End cemetery that is turning up bodies that had been dissected during this period, so there is a lot of information coming to light about this fascinating episode in history


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 4 years ago from the Ether

Wow...so interesting. I'd heard of the body snatchers but I guess never realized exactly what it entailed. Amazing stories here. Voted up and awesome. And shared.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for the wonderful comment and reading the hub Nemingha. I think that it is one of the great ironies of medical history, that some of the greatest advancements and achievements have arisen from tragedies such as the First World War and body snatching. Here in the UK a proper nursing system only came into being because of the Crimean War. I really think that the human race really needs to learn to motivate themselves from peaceful, happy places and not through bloody conflict


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks Alastar. I haven't actually read the email so was in blissful ignorance until I read your comment lol!


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Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

Good going on the recommended hub Cynthia, very deserving!


Nemingha profile image

Nemingha 4 years ago

No wonder this Hub was recommended in this week's Hubpages Weekly email! The many crimes that were committed during this time in history for the advancement of medical knowledge are both fascinating and sad and many would argue they were 'a necessary evil'. From everything I have read elsewhere, there can be no doubt that the wannabe and practising Physicians of that time certainly thought so. Well done!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for stopping by Case1worker. The families got quite creative in trying to protect their relative's remains from the body snatchers. They made metal coffins, metal grilles to go over graves and specially constructed mausoleums. But as you say, who knows what advances would not have been made in medical since if this gruesome trade had never gone on?


CASE1WORKER profile image

CASE1WORKER 4 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

Really very interesting- I guess the families would only have guarded dead bodies for a little while; til they started decomposing. However you are quite right, without bodies to research upon surgical advances would not have been made


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks Nell, and glad that you found the hub interesting. There was a picture in the paper the other day of pieces of preserved skin with tattoos on it that they think belonged to either John Bishop or Thomas Williams, which somehow took it from being just a story from the past to the the fact that these were real people, and this is the way they lived their lives. Whatever we think sometimes, we are very lucky!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, fascinating look at the gruesome twosome, and the others that followed. I never realised that after burke and hare there were others called the ressurection men. Obviously the Dr.s all knew what was going on as you say, thank goodness that these days its not a necessary vocation! lol! great hub and fascinating too, nell


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks for dropping by drbj. It is amazing what some people can justify in the pursuit of knowledge, even turning a blind eye to the fact that they are illegally chopping up someone's grandmother. But, I suppose we have all benefited - nothing is clear cut is it, it really is all shades of grey?


drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

With Halloween around the corner, this was a perfect time, Cynthia, for this fascinating and detailed history of those early English body snatchers. The physicians of the time, so eager to purchase fresh cadavers, were no less guilty than the snatchers for not asking more questions.

Theirs not to question what,

Theirs but to cut and cut!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Randy, well we did our fair share of selling the alive and kicking ones as well, but going back in history I think we have to try to look at the world through their eyes, as they had a totally different world view to the one that we have today. Back then seeking a divorce was totally unthinkable, but owning and selling another human being was totally acceptable. In Victorian parlours furniture legs were covered with material as they were viewed as titillating, but syphilis in London at that time was endemic.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Glad that you enjoyed the hub Alicia. We take modern health care so much for granted, but we forget that it used to be so difficult for doctors and researchers to do dissections and develop new medicines. So perhaps it was not so surprising that they turned a bit of a blind eye as to where their cadavers came from and there were plenty of people back then who were poor and desperate enough (or just avaricious enough) to rob graves and murder to provide them


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Thanks Izzy. Why is it that gruesome things are always fascinating? Anyway this is my contribution for Halloween this year! Makes you realise how lucky we are when you see what people used to have to do to earn a living.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

What a fascinating article, Cynthia! It's a gruesome and very sad story, but it was riveting to read. I'll be returning to watch the videos when I have more time.


IzzyM profile image

IzzyM 4 years ago from UK

What a superb, informative hub about body-snatching! Guaranteed to give me nightmares tonight, so thanks (not)! A brilliant resource all the same. I knew about Burke and Hare but not about the London crowd.


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 4 years ago from Southern Georgia

Well, our NYC had a bit of everything to do with crime itself but heck, many of the residents came from over there too! LOL! In America, we sold people still alive and kicking for hundred of years. That was even worse.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Randy, thanks for the visit and I thought you knew that we'll do anything for money over this side of the pond? Hey I even wrote another hub lol! Behind the puritanical façade of polite society in the early 19th century in Britain, there was an awful lot of effluent swirling around beneath the surface and things like body snatching, child prostitution, excessive drinking and gambling were well and truly swept under the carpet. Also, whatever they say today, capital punishment didn't seem to be much of a deterrent, although I don't suppose that Mr Burke ever thought that he would be made into a wallet someday.


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 4 years ago from Southern Georgia

Wow Cynthia, you "furriners' will do anything for a buck it seems! LOL! Seriously, I never knew there was such a market for cadavers at the time. Sure, the tale of Frankenstein mentions the occupation, but I didn't realize how much it went on. Very interesting characters to say the least. Goin' up! :)

SSSSS


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

Came back to view a couple of the vids. Cool. Really would like to visit that Edinburgh museum. Caps are okay now CM. Looks like the Asian dubbed clip is the B& H movie.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun Author

Hi Alastar, thanks for dropping by. I thought I had gotten rid of all those duped capsules and I don't know what's going on with it. Glad you enjoyed the hub, and it is amazing how much attitudes to death, how bodies are treated and dissection have changed. Back then criminals were regarded as the lowest of the low by educated people like doctors and as long as they could carry on their medical research they were obviously not worried where the bodies came from. I suspect they only worried about the murdered ones in terms of any trouble that would come their way, and not from concern for the victim.


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

The best coverage of Burke n Hare and the Ressurrection Men i've seen on here, or anywhere really, yet CM. Very thorough and intriguing. Guess what goes around sure came around for Burke. As you write it was more or less open season on the deceased back then with the laws against anatomical dissections and stuff. At least the laws were modified some for all of these Burkers being exposed. Never heard of the Bishop Gang and the woman body thief so that was very interesting as well. Good gory history details too. Btw CM, u might want to check text and vids for dupe. Up awe and interest! Oh, there is supposed to be a major film on B& H either already released or in post-pro.

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