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By Selina Hurley on

Bring Out Your Dead

With the recent release of Burke and Hare, it got me thinking about bodysnatching. 

Learning anatomy, then and now, meant practicing dissections on cadavers or watching a dissection in an anatomy theatre. Bodies were often in short supply as dissection was taboo for social, cultural and religious reasons. The only bodies that were legally available were executed criminals. 

Anatomy theatre, Cambridge, 1815 (1982-575, Science Museum, London)

Stealing a body was not a criminal offence as technically, the body could not be owned by anyone. If clothes or jewellery were taken, well, that’s a different story and murdering people, quite another.

Burke and Hare weren’t the only murdering body snatchers or ‘resurrectionists’. Bishop and Thomas were another infamous duo.

Once convicted, bodysnatchers who murdered their victims would be executed in front of a baying crowd. They shared the fates of their victims – they were dissected by anatomy teachers for their students. Later they would be publicly exhibited, as a warning to others.

Burke and Hare had differing fates. William Burke was executed in 1829 and hidden in our collection is what is reported to be a piece of his brain.

Piece of Burke's brain (A667469, Science Museum, London)

The only thing that we know is that it was bought at auction by Henry Wellcome in 1925, the remainder of his body is at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Hare disappeared into obscurity. 

Some people took drastic measures to prevent their bodies being stolen. One such device was a mortsafe – a cast iron protective layer. 

Iron mortsafe 1800s (A600162 Pt1, Science Museum, London)

Those with limited means resorted to watching graves and watching over the body until it decayed enough to be of no use to the anatomists. 

For more details have a read of Ruth Richardson’s Death, Dissection and the Destitute.

2 comments on “Bring Out Your Dead

  1. Interesting post, do you mind a few corrections?
    1. It’s William Burke, not Thomas
    2. How fascinating that (alleged) pieces of Burke’s brain were still being sold in 1925! His skeleton is held by the Anatomy Department at the University of Edinburgh. The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh has a pocket book allegedly made out of his skin. I’ve never heard that any Glasgow institution has any part of his body.
    3. Neither Burke nor Hare were technically “resurrectionists,” or “body-snatchers”, as they didn’t dig up cadavers from graves.
    4. In Scotland, stealing a body wasn’t a crime if the body was still above ground. But it became a crime, known as “violation of sepulchres,” once the body had been properly buried.

  2. Thanks for your comments – corrections have been duly made. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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