When we think of grave-robbing, we usually think of dark tales involving bandits pillaging graves for jewelry or other valuables. But the value of bodies in the 19th century stretched far beyond that of their adornments. Before people began donating their bodies to science, the only legal supply of cadavers in the UK for medical research and education were those of convicted murderers sentenced to death and dissection.
As medical science began to flourish in the 19th century, criminals and doctors became strange bedfellows as dead bodies were bought and sold in a morally complex quest for medical advancement. At the time, stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanor, not a felony, and body-snatchers or resurrection men, as they were called, faced a fine or imprisonment if caught. Authorities tended to turn a blind eye to these illegal exhumations, and the trade was sufficiently lucrative to warrant the risk involved. In 1827-28, William Burke and William Hare upped the ante by murdering 17 people and selling their bodies to Edinburgh Medical College. They were paid handsomely for their "fresh" cadavers, as those lingering in graves were often already beginning to decompose, but their brazen greed and gruesome actions led to the end of the shadowy trade.
The widely publicized discovery of their crimes led to the passage of The Anatomy Act of 1832, which had, until then, been under much debate in the British Parliament. The Anatomy Act gave physicians, surgeons, and their students legal access to unclaimed corpses, in an effort to eliminate the incentive for the illegal trade. It also revoked the law allowing executed murderers to be dissected, and required anatomists to obtain a license, which required them to accept whole responsibility for the acquisition and proper treatment of all cadavers used in their institution.
For the next century, unclaimed bodies in Britain were the main source of cadavers for dissection, and were mostly bodies of poor families that could not afford burial costs. The original act, though managed by various departments and changed by several amendments over the years, remained in effect until it was repealed by the Anatomy Act of 1984, which in turn was repealed by the Human Tissue Act of 2004.
Following the introduction of The Anatomy Act of 1832 in the UK, similar acts were passed elsewhere, such as the Canadian Anatomy Act of 1843 and the Pennsylvania act of 1867.
Read more about resurrection men and how their practices inspired The Good Thief in an interview with author Hannah Tinti.
This article was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the
August 2009 paperback release.
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