Resurrection Men given new lease of life in bodysnatching exhibition
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.