Thursday, 9 June 2005

18th Century Grave Robbers

You wouldn't think there would have been much grave robbing going on in London during the 1700s but there was. Corpses were frequently 'stolen' from graves for educational purposes, for the would-be surgeons' anatomy lessons. There is a gruesome story of the body of a lady's husband having been found in the surgeon's house, soon after it was burried. Apparently, after having obtained a search warrant, she found worse than what she expected. She looked inside a big pot "which was almost full of boiling water...she took a stick and stirred it when to her great surprise she saw the head and part of the body of her husband". I really don't know what was going on there but it does not sound like anatomy...

Two men who stole a baby's body from a cemetary were sentenced to a public whipping and a year in prison. There is also a story of a gang of three who stole lead coffins to melt the lead and sell it.

6 comments:

John Doom said...

Perhaps they intended to merely transmute the lead into gold and sell that instead.

Sharon said...

Throughout the 18th century (and into the 19th) demand for bodies for the medical schools vastly outstripped supply. One of the main sources (when they weren't buying bodies from grave robbers) was executed criminals. Have you heard of the 1752 Murder Act? The provisions of that were for the bodies of convicted murderers to be compulsorily handed over to surgeons for dissection. It was very unpopular (it was felt that even murderers shouldn't be deprived of a Christian burial) and sometimes even caused riots. Alternatively, there are cases of condemned criminals selling themselves to the surgeons (who regularly visited jails for this purpose) to get some money for their families.

Alterior said...

Yes, Sharon, I have read about the Murder Act of 1752. People executed at Tyburn (the Tyburn tree where the gallows were stood near where Marble Arch is today. The surgeons men would be waiting there to take the bodies for dissection. Obviously the relatives of the deceased objected to this and often caused small local riots.

Alterior said...

John Doom,

Lead was used for many things in those days, including cooking pots (something which contributed strongly to lead poisoning), so it was easy to sell it.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the boiling of the head/body was to remove any of the remaining tissue, to allow the 'students' to study the skeletal structure more carefully.

Ozfiz said...

"One witness testified that he saw the doctor boiling what the doctor affirmed to be human bones in a kettle, another that he saw human bones in a tub in the doctor's barn. Presumably the accused was in the business of selling mounted skele- tons to doctors and medical students."
Excerpt from Body-Snatching in Ontario (Online)
Here

The above link has some interesting stuff on Grave robbing if you're interested.