Newport – Death and Resurrection

This month (October) we had an interesting but rather macabre talk about the Body Snatchers (or Resurrectionists as they were called) by Alan Tritton.

In the 18th and 19th Centuries future Surgeons needed to refine their skills before operating on living patients. This was best done by practising their dissection techniques on cadavers. The only source available was the bodies of individuals executed by the state.

Clearly the supply was totally inadequate and so the price of a corpse became quite high- one body was worth several months’ wages. So a class of individuals appeared who were prepared to raid freshly dug tombs for their contents which were then sold to the nearest medical institution. This was not illegal but the removal of items such as clothing or jewellery from the tomb was. Hence the bodies were usually stripped and the clothing etc. left in the tomb. This was usually achieved by digging to the head end of the coffin, opening it there and dragging the corpse out with a rope around the neck.

Family members were, of course, horrified by this attack on their loved-ones and so countered by heavy stones on the tombs, iron grids to cage the coffin in or by paying for a guard for the first few weeks after burial- after this the decomposition made the body unsaleable.

Two infamous individuals called Burke and Hare decided an easier method was simply obtaining their bodies by murder. After 16 victims they were arrested and tried. Burke was hanged in 1828 but Hare gained immunity by turning King’s Evidence against Burke.

After this the Government passed the 1832 Anatomy Act which increased the supply of suitable corpses by permitting the use of the bodies of people who had died in the workhouse or in hospital but not claimed after death by a relative.

The position had eased by the 1880s as embalming allowed the medical institutions to keep their corpses longer and repeatedly re-use them for dissection.

Nowadays the interest is not in bodies for dissection but parts for use in transplantation. In England one has to carry a card to opt in to the process of donating one’s body parts after death whereas in Wales the reverse is the case. One’s body parts can be used for transplantations unless one has in fact opted out.

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