Resurrection Men given new lease of life in bodysnatching exhibition

Fri, Oct 19, 2012, 01:00

LONDON LETTER:Grave robbers were feared and reviled but clients came from London’s highest society

IN 1818 Londoners lived in fear that their loved ones, or they themselves in time, would be stripped from their graves in the dark hours before dawn by bodysnatchers.

The nightly forays of these men have been given life in a new exhibition, Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men (the name by which they were best known), which opens today at the Museum of London.

For some, the times offered opportunity. Edward Bridgman, once a tallow chandler, produced his cast-iron coffin, so made that it could not be ripped apart.

Bridgman sold a hundred of them in his first year – costing £5, 10s for a man of 6ft: “The lid could not be levered off, but the churches were not keen on them,” says curator Julia Davidson.

The exhibition was prompted by the discovery of 206 graves – some containing a single body, others containing a jumble of limbs – on Royal London Hospital land in Whitechapel in 2006.

Two centuries ago, the Royal London was one of the city’s teaching hospitals coping with the rising numbers of aspiring surgeons, each of whom needed bodies for dissections.

Since the 18th century, the only legal supply came from the corpses of murderers – a fate worse than death, the judge would tell them as he pronounced sentence.

However, the hangman’s noose was not enough. The gap was filled by the Resurrection Men – men who had once been hospital porters, butchers or gravediggers who had fallen on hard times.

In 1810 a corpse was worth four guineas. By 1820 that had more than doubled, but the profits had to be shared with those who had to be bribed to turn a blind eye.

Unlike the images created by the film industry of Burke and Hare – Edinburgh’s best-known bodysnatchers – the men, never more than 50 in total, worked quietly by night and kept to themselves by day.

“They made a hole at the head of the grave and drew the body out by rope,” said Davidson, “Often people would not have known that the grave had been disturbed.” Sometimes, they were even more daring: “There are cases where they stole from wakes, or turned up at hospitals claiming to be relatives before the real ones arrived.”

Given the frenzy that had surrounded the Burke and Hare case, the grave robbers became known in the press as “burkers”, while fear and tension reached its zenith in 1830.

Then, it was discovered that John Bishop and Thomas Williams, helped by unemployed butcher James May, had taken to killing the living, rather than waiting for a natural death.

The trio – the first two of whom were executed and dissected in turn by the surgeons they had once served – were caught after they tried to sell the corpse of a 14-year-old boy.

To newspapers of the time, he became known as “the Italian Boy”, though, more likely, he was a drover from the north of England, drugged before he was drowned head-first in a well.

“People turned a blind eye because it was happening to the poor. It would have been different if it was the graves of the rich. But people also realised that surgeons had to be trained,” says Davidson.

Curiously, the Resurrection Men could not be prosecuted for bodysnatching since there was no such crime – the law of the day dictated that a corpse was not owned by anyone, least of all the deceased. Instead, if caught, they were convicted for vagrancy, or breaches of public decency, though Ann Millard exposed many of the surgeons’ secrets when she campaigned in 1825 for the release of her jailed husband, William. “The Lancet took up her case. She produced a pamphlet, but William died after three weeks in prison. She claimed that he had been set up,” Davidson said.

On occasions, dissection was carried out gratuitously, as in the case of James Legg, a Chelsea Pensioner executed for killing one of his fellows. Believing images of the Crucifixion were anatomically inaccurate, artists crucified Legg’s body, before making a cast – shown in the exhibition – with his muscles exposed to view.

If the Resurrection Men were feared and reviled, their clients were some of London’s highest society, including the most prolific dissectionist, Astley Cooper, surgeon to prime minister Robert Peel. Cooper and his ilk lobbied hard. Surgeons had to be properly trained, or else they would be prosecuted for patients’ deaths, while the poor would never be better treated unless more surgeons were trained.

In 1832, MPs passed the Anatomy Act, which accepted that dissection was necessary and ruled that unclaimed bodies from asylums and poorhouses could be used. It stayed in force until 2004, when Westminster passed the Human Tissue Act, which laid down for the first time that people must give permission before their bodies can be used.

The 1832 legislation, hated by the poor, produced fewer bodies than needed, leading to summary decisions in favour of the surgeons. Holly Chapman, who died in the poorhouse, is one example. Her friends raised money to “bury her proper”, but they were refused.

In life, she had been a woman of the street; in death, the authorities ruled, she was suitable “for a fate worse than death”.

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