Some crimes are universal, but others are specific to place or time. Body-snatching was one such. It flourished in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and died out completely with the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832. Until that time, body-snatching was big business, with relatively large profits to be made for a few hours’ gruesome and mildly dangerous work. Indeed, it could be so lucrative that some criminals specialised in digging up the bodies of the dead. One such was a London ex-prizefighter named Ben Crouch. He was the son of a hospital caretaker and worked in London for four or five years from 1809 onward. He sold his grisly goods to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and maintained a monopoly by informing the police of any rivals, by tearing up graveyards he did not use, so the corpses were exposed and no good for anatomy, or simply by terrorising the hospital staff so they would only buy corpses from him.
Scotland may also have had professional body-snatchers, but most were small-time operators after a quick buck. The process of digging up corpses by so-called resurrection men was a major worry throughout Europe, but the crimes of Burke and Hare have pushed Scotland to prominence as a centre of the trade. Perhaps that is fair, as early-nineteenth-century Edinburgh boasted one of the finest anatomical hospitals in the world. However, Burke and Hare were more mass murderers than resurrection men. Their story is too well known to be repeated, especially as there were so many other body-snatchers on the prowl in Scotland. Indeed in 1821 the Reverend William Fleming of West Calder reported that, ‘Few burial grounds in Scotland have escaped the ravaging hands of resurrection men.’
The idea that trainee doctors should study human anatomy was incorporated into the very fabric of Scottish surgery. The 1505 charter of the Royal College of Surgeons insisted that such knowledge was essential. The theory was sound but the practice creaked with difficulties. Where could a trainee surgeon obtain human bodies? The authorities tried their best by sentencing convicted murders to be hanged to death and their bodies given to the local anatomist, but there simply were not enough Scottish murderers to go round. The professors of anatomy must have prayed for an extensive crime spree, but in the meantime made do with the corpses of dead orphans and unbaptised children as well as whatever the gravediggers unearthed from the shadows of the tombstones in the night-shrouded churchyards.
Defending the dead
In an age when many people believed that the bodies of the dead rose from their graves to meet their Maker, there was genuine horror at the prospect of their deceased relatives being dissected. As well as being downright indecent, mutilating a corpse jeopardised life in the hereafter, so people took great precautions to defend their recently departed family members. Graves were dug deep, with layers of branches in the soil to hamper the hurried spades of resurrection men. Huge stone slabs known as mort-stones were placed on top of new graves to discourage digging. Only when the body was too decomposed to be worth unearthing was the mort-stone moved to guard another recent guest. Corpses could also be chained to the coffin, and in Dundee one grieving father even booby-trapped his child’s coffin with an explosive device. There were also mort safes – iron grilles in which the coffin lay – or mort houses with mighty stone walls and locked heavy doors, though stone walls do not security make as long as locks can be picked … Once again, the dead were kept behind these closed doors until they were too decomposed to be useful.
How long would it be until the bodies were safe from the resurrection men? That question is not so easy to answer. In a case in the High Court in June 1823 Dr Barclay, who had taught anatomy for twenty-five years, said that bodies decomposed at different rates. He stated that some were unrecognisable after just forty-eight hours but others could last much longer. He quoted a case where a lascar (a seaman from the East Indies) was still recognisable after two weeks. After three weeks, Barclay declared, a corpse was not fit for dissection and dissectors had to mark bodies so they knew one from the other. So the grave watchers could be on guard for some considerable time after a corpse was buried.
The grave-robbers had their own techniques to circumvent at least some of the security measures. They knew the mort-stones indicated a new grave so they dug into the soil at the head, knocked open the end of the coffin and hauled out the corpse. Stealing a dead body was not considered a crime, but stealing clothes most certainly was, so the grave-robbers frequently stripped the dead of their coverings, and with them the last of their dignity, so they carried away a naked pale body.
Despite all the passive defences, a watching committee proved to be the most effective preventative method. Many communities set up these groups of dedicated men, with a number of volunteers taking shifts to guard graveyards throughout the hours of darkness. Most had small stone buildings – watchtowers – built at one part of the graveyard so the men on duty could watch over their silent neighbours, while refreshing themselves with whisky, perhaps telling ghost stories and wishing the long hours of the night would tick away more quickly. Some of these watchtowers had loopholes so the sentinels could fire at any grave-robbers – if they could see them in the bitter dark of a winter’s night.
Even with the watchers, the lure of quick money enticed the more unscrupulous of men to leave their houses at the dead of night, heft their spades, huddle closer into their long cloaks, pull their bicorn hats hard down on their heads and venture forth to meet the dead. Sometimes the night did not go entirely as planned.
Bloody Scotland will be reviewed in the next issue of The History Vault. It is available to buy now.