Anatomy and physiology are most important disciplines to a surgeon. By the middle of the 18th century, dissection of the dead had become central to surgical education, and this meant that one of the most valuable commodities in surgery at the start of the 19th century was the human corpse. Surgeons needed to be thoroughly educated about anatomy and they needed to be able to rehearse their operations before they performed them on the living. However, the legal supply of corpses remained limited and the numbers available fell far short of the profession’s requirements.
Long before the start of the 19th century, an unpalatable solution to this problem was in place; a surgeon or a student would pay an intermediary with access to the dead for an extra source of quiet supply. These intermediaries, almost always grave diggers, became known as Resurrectionists or body snatchers.
The pattern of the work of the Resurrection men also became quickly established. They crept into the burial grounds of London at night, disinterred the dead, stripped them and packaged them and carried them to places of storage by horse and cart or on their backs, in sacks and baskets and hampers. They pulled out the corpses’ teeth for separate sale to dentists. They distributed the corpses, whole or in parts, to the local hospitals and private schools (or put them on coaches or into ferries for export to far away towns in need of supply).
They were a regular sight in the dissection rooms of the city, taking orders and negotiating prices, selling the bodies according to their size generally, and as surgeons and students needed corpses to work, they power of supply and demand were on the resurrection man’s side. Even when the money had been divided and distributed within the gang and expenses (such as bribes and the care of their horse) were paid, profit could be considerable. They could earn far more than an ordinary person could ever hope to make and for little legal risk.
By the start of the 19th century, body snatching had become an organised profession and several regular gangs of resurrection men operated in London and across the country. St Thomas’ Hospital, which was the home of one of the most prestigious of London’s medical schools, was naturally among the institutions which regularly employed them. The Windsor and Eton Express on the 15th of November, 1818, details, as an example, how Resurrection Men were seen arriving at the hospital with corpses in their cart, stopping on St Thomas’s Street outside the church in which the Old Operating Theatre Museum operates today. This incident was later on reported widely in the Globe (London) on the 19th, Hampshire Chronicle on the 23rd, Caledonian Mercury on the 26th and the Carlisle Patriot and Westmoreland Gazette on the 28th November.
Considering that the business of resurrection was a very secretive one, there is a fair amount of information detailing the connection between St Thomas’s Hospital and it’s body snatchers over time. In future blogs, I’ll talk about some of those incidents which chart the relationship of the hospital and it’s resurrection men, various aspects of the profession such as the value of a corpse and the legal situation, and discuss some of the characters in the business.
Bailey, James Blake. 1896. The Diary of a Resurrectionist, 1811-1812. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Lim.
Ball, James Mores . 1928. The Sack-‘Em-Up Men: An Account of the Rise and Fall of the Modern Resurrectionists. Edingurgh: Oliver & Boyd Publishers.
Cooper, Bransby Blake. 1846. The Life of Sir Astley Cooper, Bart. London: John W. Paker Publishers.
Fido, Martin. 1988. Bodysnatchers: A History of the Resurrectionists , 1742-1832. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Publishers.
Lennox, Suzie. 2016. Bodysnatchers: Digging Up The Untold Stories of Britain’s Resurrection Men. Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers.
Richardson, Ruth. 2001. Death, Dissection and the Destitute: The Politics of the Corpse in Pre-Victorian Britain. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Publishers.
To cite this post : Kirsty Chilton, “Resurrection Men”, Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), September 20, 2016.
[On line] http://shop.oldoperatingtheatre.com/the-resurrection-men/
Kirsty Chilton is assistant curator at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. She is not too fond of selfies, hence the lego Resurrection Man.