Thursday, 15 October 2015

Grave Robbing and Murder in Georgian Britain

Astley Cooper (1768-1841) was one of the most innovative surgeons and anatomists of the early nineteenth century. He pioneered several significant operations and added much to our knowledge of the body and pathology. There is a darker side to his story, however, one which reveals much about the relationships between power and poverty.

Cooper, who hailed from Norfolk, had an amazing ability to secure bodies for dissection, for himself and his medical pupils. He once bragged before a parliamentary inquiry into the body snatching trade that he could get anyone's body to dissect if he wanted it badly enough. His main providers were the resurrectionists, or sack 'em up men, who earned good money stealing corpses from graves or securing them otherwise before burial. (Image: The Resurrectionists, c.1775, by Thomas Rowlandson).

In some cases, we don't know how many, the snatchers didn't wait until the subjects were dead. The most famous of the murdering body snatchers were Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, who gave us the word "burking" for the procedure. (Image: Burke and Hare smothering a victim, one of 16).

Less well known are the trio of Bishop, Williams, and May, the London "Burkers" whose operation was uncovered in 1831 after the notorious case of the so-called Italian Boy. The exact number of their victims is unknown. Bishop and Williams were hung, May died on board a prison ship awaiting transport to Australia. (Image: the London burkers in the dock at their trial)

Several other burkers were executed, and it is likely others were never caught. Many of Cooper's bodies were provided by the Borough Gang, who operated out of Southwark, near Guy's and St. Thomas's Hospitals, where Cooper held surgical and anatomical positions. Some of the gang members were criminals, but others held or once held ordinary jobs as hospital porters and dissection room assistants, grave diggers, workhouse officers, and church sextons. Body snatching was not even a crime until after 1778, and then only a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and at most a few months in prison. (Image: Resurrectionists, by Phiz, 1841)

The shady source of Cooper's "dissection material" did not hurt his reputation or his income, which rose to princely sums. He even operated on a king, removing a sebaceous cyst from the head of George IV in 1820. His Majesty rewarded the surgeon with the baronetcy that made him Sir Astley Cooper, Bart.

The Burke and Hare and Italian Boy scandals did lead to a law that gradually put the resurrectionists out of business. In 1832, Parliament passed the Anatomy Act, which permitted the anatomy schools to acquire the bodies of paupers who died in a workhouse if no one claimed them within three days.

The law infuriated the working classes, those most likely to end their days in a workhouse. The fury increased after Parliament added the Poor Law Act of 1834, which made admission to the workhouse a requirement for receiving poor relief (welfare). The act was also designed to make the workhouse environment as unpleasant as possible, to discourage requests for public assistance. Families were broken up, recipients forced to wear uniforms, and fed a spare diet.The poor saw themselves as being criminalized. Prior to that time the only bodies that could be legally dissected were those executed for murder. (Images: Women and men paupers separated in Victorian workhouses)

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on Cooper does not mention body snatching. 

Further Reading: 

Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London
Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute
Druin Burch,  Digging up the Dead