During the Victorian Era, body snatchers dug up recently buried corpses to sell the organs. These people became known as Resurrection Men. They differed from grave robbers, who merely removed valuables from tombs. Resurrection Men stole bodies, and the practice ran rampant as medical studies and schools expanded during this time period. Often families guarded deceased relatives until and after burial. In order to safeguard the human remains, new burial practices were set in place.
Internment methods included burying humans in iron coffins. Almond Dunbar Fisk invented the Fisk Metallic Burial Case in 1844 in Queens, NY. A patent for these air-tight coffins was awarded in 1848. His father-in-law, Harvey Raymond, joined him in business to form Fisk & Raymond. These coffins proved effective against body snatching; however, they came with a high cost.
A cost-effective solution would be the installation of mortsafes across the grave. Invented in 1816, the mortsafe was a contraption of iron plates secured with rods and then padlocked. The grate system would safeguard the gravesite and coffin until the body had begun to decompose, which would make it useless to body snatchers. Churches and cemeteries rented the devises out.
Watchtowers were also built. Residents formed watch groups, known as “watching societies,” that patrolled the cemeteries; however, graves were still desecrated. Many found that a combination of constructed watchtowers and mortsafes protected the recently deceased.
The most famous Resurrection Men were William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (dates unknown), who found body snatching quite lucrative. Burke and Hare were accused of murdering 16 people in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Hare and his wife ran a boarding house. When a customer named Donald died on November 29, 1827, Hare and Burke decided to sell the body to Dr. Robert Knox, who taught anatomy classes. The money was great, and the two conspired to begin killing for profit. It is widely speculated that both spouses knew of and possibly assisted in the murders.
Margaret Docherty was the pair’s last victim. She was lured to her death on October 31, 1828. Ann and James Gray, guests lodging at Hare’s house discovered her body. Hare was offered a plea deal, and he turned on Burke. Interesting enough, the police did not have enough evidence to prosecute either for Docherty’s murder. Instead, they relied on Hare’s confession to press charges against Burke and his second wife Helen “Nelly” McDougal. Hare could not be compelled to testify against his wife, Margaret Laird, who was subsequently released.
Burke was tried for three murders and found guilty of one. He was sentenced to hang. His wife was acquitted, though not formally found not guilty. Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829. Some 25,000 people watched. His corpse was dissected on February 1st. His skeleton remains on display to this day at the Anatomical Museum, Edinburgh. The History of Surgery Museum, housed in the Surgeons’ Hall Museums complex, houses Burke’s written confession, his death mask, and a pocketbook supposedly made from his skin. All can be viewed online, https://museum.rcsed.ac.uk/history-of-surgery-museum.
There are no reports of what happened to Hare; his wife, Margaret; or Helen after they were escorted separately out of Edinburgh.
England passed the Anatomy Act of 1832, which essentially ended the practice of stealing corpses to sell to medical schools in England. However, the lure of stealing bodies and performing experiments still happens—though not nearly as many as back when the Resurrectionists were paid top-dollar and not asked any questions.
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