Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Exhumation Escapades of the Resurrectionists' Racket

                     I’ve mentioned it before (and there is no reason to suppose that I won’t mention it again in the future), but it wasn’t until the 17th Century that any real progress was made in medicinal knowledge because medicine, like many other fields of knowledge, was hide-bound by the scholastic legacy of the Ancients. Doctors were, more or less, obediently and unthinkingly basing their practices on the writings and theories of such Ancient Greek authors as Galen, Avicenna or Hippocrates. 

Galen, Avicenna and Hippocrates

There was some small progress by the odd individual, and the odd remarkable breakthrough, but it wasn’t until the Age of the Enlightenment that things really began change. The great leap forward began with such empiricists as Francis Bacon, men who were not satisfied with simply reading what had been written two millennia previously but who observed, experimented and questioned, seeking answers for themselves. 

Sir Francis Bacon

Bacon famously wrote that ‘knowledge is power’ and it was the search for knowledge that gave doctors the power to treat their patients much more efficiently. The basis of all medical and surgical knowledge comes ultimately from the study of anatomy. Disease is, essentially, disordered function and disordered function cannot be treated without knowledge of healthy function, which, in turn, cannot be understood without knowledge of structure, and structure cannot be understood unless it is examined.  You cannot ‘guess’ anatomy; it has to be studied and examined. 

Let’s say you have a pain in your right shoulder. You might think that maybe it’s due to sleeping badly or perhaps straining yourself when lifting something awkwardly and in most cases you’d be right, but it could also be a symptom that there is something wrong with, say, your liver. Why? 


Because the right phrenic nerve has a branch to the liver, and the third cervical nerve, from which the phrenic nerves arise, extends into the shoulder. In what is called ‘referred pain’, a disorder in one part of the body actually produces pain in a different part of the body –but you couldn’t guess that a dodgy liver is giving you gip in your right shoulder. You’d need to know about the physical structure of the nerves. And to do that, you’d need to see them. And to do that, until very recently, you’d need to get yourself a body. Preferably a dead one. Now, in the past, this was a bit of a problem. 

Brughel - The Triumph of Death

The Church, for instance, wasn’t too keen on the idea, not least because you’d need your body at the Final Trump when you’d be raised out of your grave for the Final Judgement (and diseases were caused by the Devil anyway, so why did you need to study anatomy when theology was much more efficacious). And the populace also thought that they might need their bodies again at some time in the future. The bodies of condemned criminals were sometimes made available for dissection (following the 1752 Murder Act) but the former judicial zeal for executions for the most trivial of offences had started to wane by then and capital sentences had fallen to about fifty per year in Victorian days, but the medical and anatomy schools needed around about ten times that amount. So the necessary deficit was made up by the Resurrection Men, a class of criminals that dug up freshly buried corpses and sold them to the doctors. 

Resurrectionists at work

It was an odd crime really, as the theft of a body was a misdemeanour at common law punishable by a fine or imprisonment (or a whipping in Scotland), rather than being a felony, which carried the punishment of either the death penalty or transportation for life. The authorities tended, on the whole, to turn a blind eye, providing that the body snatchers were not too blatant, and considered the whole sorry business to be somewhat of a necessary evil. The public did try, by a variety of methods, to deter the thefts; cemeteries were patrolled by watchmen with guard dogs at night, lookout towers were erected in them, or iron cages, called mort safes, were built over graves and sunk deep into the soil. 

Mort safes

Popular public sentiment was almost entirely hostile to the Resurrectionists, painting them as fearsome, ruthless ghouls and the lowest of the criminal low. The doctors were in terrible bind – they needed the bodies for dissection, in order to train future members of the profession. Objectively, only good could come from the anatomy schools, and mankind as a whole stood to benefit. But without a steady supply of specimens, they had no other recourse but to deal with the criminals. This led to the public tarring the medical profession with the same brush, and tales, often unsubstantiated, were circulated of unscrupulous surgeons getting up to all manner of Frankensteinish behaviour. 

Snatching a Body

There were a number of sensational cases that kept the practice of grave robbing firmly in the public gaze (more of which over the next couple of days), but perhaps one of the oddest stories was reported in the Northampton Mercury of November 2nd 1811, which told how the whole corps of London resurrectionists went on strike for a price increase of one guinea per body, following the success of a similar action in the previous year, raising the overall cost of a cadaver from three guineas to five guineas! The situation changed following the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, when greater licence was given to the medical schools, allowing them more access to legitimate specimens. In addition to executed criminals, unclaimed bodies from workhouses and prisons could then be used in dissections, as well as donated corpses from the next of kin (usually in return for the cost of burial later). 

Body Snatching - 1824

There is an excellent anonymous pamphlet of 1824, reprinted from the Westminster Review, entitled Body Snatching, which puts forward a sober, considered case for the practice of anatomical dissection, presenting the benefits of a sensible approach to this delicate subject and, rightly, pointing out that the illegal recourse to the body snatchers could be eliminated overnight if the provision of corpses was properly licensed and administered. There was some sentimental public opposition to the proposals but a couple of particularly grisly cases altered the opinions of many people and the Act eventually passed on the Statute Books and, as predicted, the resurrection men were condemned to the pages of history.

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