A new exhibition at the Museum of London lifts the coffin lid on the age of grave robbery and gruesome surgical practices. James Drury finds out more
Perhaps more worryingly, the 262 bodies uncovered showed signs of dissection, post mortem amputation and autopsy.
There could be only one answer: the hospital had been secretly burying corpses there after using them for medical research and surgical training.
Before anyone leaps to the wrong conclusion, this has nothing to do with today’s medical professionals – the remains were dated from between 1825 and 1841.
This was a time of body snatchers and illicit medical training, of comparatively poor anatomical knowledge and widely-held beliefs about the physical resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgement.
As with today, doctors and surgeons would carry out anatomical work and experiments on corpses. But back then, acquiring such specimens was a very grey moral area.
No-one would donate their body to science for fear it might affect them in the afterlife. Physicians were forced to obtain their experimental subjects on the black market, from ‘resurrection men’ – body snatchers who dug up cadavers for clandestine sale.
Operating under the cover of night, when the moon wasn’t shining, gangs of these nefarious traders would sneak into graveyards where they knew there had been a recent burial, dig down into the soil with wooden spades (because they make less noise than metal ones), crack open the coffin and haul out the corpse.
“They would strip the body of all its clothing, jewellery and other goods and leave those things behind,” explains Julia Davidson, curator of a new exhibition at the Museum of London called Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.
“That way they couldn’t be prosecuted for theft, which could carry a death sentence. Technically you couldn’t steal a body because it didn’t belong to anyone.”
The body was then slung onto a cart and touted round the hospitals – either for parts or sold as a whole.
Early 19th century surgeons were eager to improve their anatomical understanding. These were the days before anaesthetic and penicillin, meaning operations were carried out while the patient was conscious, and the risk of infection was high.
Practising on corpses was therefore of great importance. It furthered medical understanding of human anatomy, and enabled physicians to become quicker and more accurate in operations and amputations – vital to reducing deaths during surgery.
“By the 1820s it has been estimated that 500-600 bodies per year were being taken by the body snatchers,” says Davidson. “Many were taken from what we call ‘pauper’s graves’, because they were pretty easy pickings for the resurrection men.
“Because it was happening to poor people it didn’t attract much attention among the political classes. It wasn’t until the surgeons and doctors complained to MPs that they were fed up with having to deal with these rather nasty people on the black market – and it was the body snatchers who set the prices – that politicians started to pay attention.”
What also sped up the introduction of the Anatomy Act 1832, which gave the State the right to take ‘unclaimed’ bodies without consent, was the 1831 case of Bishop, Williams and May – London’s own Burke and Hare. They were convicted of murdering a young boy and trying to sell the body for dissection.
In addition to tales of such body snatchers, the Museum of London’s new exhibition includes items owned by their clients – the medical professionals. Instruments, surgery sets – such as the skull saw – and other items produce an interesting picture of medical practice in the early 19th century.
“I hope people will have their eyes opened to what it must have been like to have lived in this period,” says Davidson. “We’ve really tried to get it to feel quite creepy. You can feel the fear that people would have felt at the time, either about being dissected, operated on or being ‘resurrected’.”
Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men runs from October 19 – April 14,
tickets £9 adults, £7 concs. museumoflondon.org.uk