The Era of the Body Snatchers

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You’d think that death and burial would be the end of one’s body, but that isn’t always the case. Keeping the dead in their graves is serious business -and not just in the sense that the undead may rise to haunt us. Sometimes we have to protect those buried bodies from outside forces.

Grave Robbing

Photograph by Andrew Bossi.

The act of robbing graves has been with us since the custom of burial began. If a body is observed to have been buried with any jewelry or other valuables, word will get around. Then someone will be tempted to dig the grave up to help themselves. Tombs of royalty and the wealthy are particularly tempting. Archaeologists are disappointed when they find that a tomb has been looted by grave robbers, yet to some outside the sphere of science, what archaeologists do is grave robbing, too. Looting tombs for valuables is unsavory, but did not bother people as much as what came later: stealing actual bodies from their supposed final resting place.

Body Snatching

Photograph by Kim Traynor.

You can read books for years to learn medicine, but there’s no way of getting around having to deal with the human body. Before medical students are entrusted to care for living bodies, they study anatomy by dissecting human cadavers. Today, people bequeath their corporeal remains to the betterment of science in order to train the next generation of physicians. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, when medical schools were fairly new, the average person did not understand why corpses were needed, and the teachings of some religions forbade desecration of the body even after death.


In the 19th century, medical education was making great strides in the United Kingdom, and professors needed cadavers for demonstrations and lectures. However, the only legal way to procure bodies was after criminal executions, and there weren't enough of them. As medical schools grew, capital punishment waned. This gave rise to the profession of body-snatching, and grave robbers could make a pretty penny for their clandestine efforts. Stealing a dead body was merely a misdemeanor, but people feared such a fate for their loved one’s remains -and there were religious objections. Therefore, body snatching was not safe, and almost always done under the cover of night. A “resurrectionist” named Joseph Naples was one of the rare body-snatchers to keep a diary of his work. Here’s a snippet from the diary:

13th January 1812 Took 2 of the above to Mr Brookes & 1 large & 1 small to Mr Bell. Foetus to Mr Carpue. Small to Mr Framton. Large small to Mr Cline. Met at 5, the Party went to Newington. 2 adults. Took them to St Thomas’s.* 26th August 1812 Separated to look out, the party met at night…Willson, M. & F. Bartholm, me, Jack and Hollis went to Isl [ingto]n. Could not succeed, the dogs flew at us, afterwards went to [St] Pancr [a]s, found a watch planted, came home.

The New York Doctors Riot

In America, the disgust with medical anatomy classes led to a riot in 1788. Medical students at New York Hospital were digging up graves for their own instruction. This was given little notice among the citizenry as long as the grave robbing was restricted to the black graveyard or the “potter’s field” for the poor. Then a story hit the papers of a body stolen from Trinity Churchyard -that of a white woman. A group of men stormed the hospital’s anatomy room, removed the corpses, and burned them in the streets. Doctors and students were taken to jail for their own protection. The next day, a mob moved on to Columbia Medical School and then to the jail. Only the intervention of the state militia ended the riot, which left between six and twenty people dead. And that was in just one city! A slew of riots elsewhere in America finally led to laws against body snatching. Medical students continued to dig up bodies, but were more discreet about it after the laws were passed.


Photograph by Martyn Gorman.

Families of the recently deceased were determined to protect their loved ones from the resurrectionists. Whereas rocks were placed over graves since ancient times, previously they were to keep animals from digging up the corpse, or to keep the undead from rising. With the very real danger of corpse robbery, the stones became bigger, and new devices were fashioned to thwart the body snatchers. Mortsafes, metal cages that covered the grave, became popular with those who could afford them. Some still survive in cemeteries in the U.K.

Booby Traps

Some people employed an extra deterrent to body snatchers: guns. Cemetery guns could be loaded at night by a cemetery keeper. If a trespasser tripped a wire, he would be blasted by a flintlock loaded with birdshot, salt, or a more deadly ammunition. In 19th century America, several devices to booby trap individual graves were patented, such as the “grave torpedo,” which operated like a land mine, and a gun placed inside a coffin, set to blast away at anyone who raised the lid.

Buried Alive

As graves were made more secure, the fear of being buried alive grew among morbidly nervous people. The devices that protected graves from body snatchers only made it more difficult to rescue someone who’d been buried prematurely. This led to several inventions for coffin alarm systems that could be used if one were to come to and find himself lying in a coffin. The vault shown above can be opened from the inside by turning a wheel.

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

An account from 1824 described an incident in which a man awoke in his coffin, and was rescued by… a body snatcher!

They dragged me out of the coffin by the head, and carried me swiftly away. When borne to some distance, I was thrown down like a clod…Being rudely stripped of my shroud, I was placed naked on a table. In a short time I heard by the bustle in the room that the doctors and students were assembling. When all was ready the Demonstrator took his knife, and pierced my bosom. I felt a dreadful crackling, as it were, throughout my whole frame; a convulsive shudder instantly followed, and a shriek of horror rose from all present,

The drawing above, from the 1830s, illustrates a common fear of a body, thought to be dead, waking up in an anatomist’s lab.


Sometimes graverobbers couldn’t keep up with the demand by digging up fresh graves, and a very few resorted to murder to supply more anatomical specimens. William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants working as laborers in Scotland in 1828. They found they could make money by diverting the recently deceased to an anatomist. Instead of waiting for someone to die, they killed 16 people over a period of ten months. Hare testified against Burke and escaped conviction, but Burke was executed by hanging in 1829. His body was then given to an anatomist for dissection, a fate many at the time found quite appropriate. His skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School.

The Anatomy Act of 1832

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Following the Burke and Hare case, the British parliament saw the need to find a way for medical schools to obtain an adequate supply of corpses legally. The Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed medical schools to dissect, in addition to the corpses of executed criminals, unclaimed bodies of those who died in prison or a workhouse, and bodies that were voluntarily donated.

More Recent Body Snatching

Photograph by Sector001.

When the goal is neither valuables, artifacts, or cadavers, grave robbery still goes on. Often it is because the body is a celebrity. Read about several such cases in the mental_floss article Worth More Dead Than Alive: 5 Famous Grave Robberies.

Modern Anatomy Classes

Photograph by Tulane Public Relations.

Modern medical schools are keenly aware of the history of obtaining cadavers for anatomy classes. Not only is grave robbing forbidden, but the donated cadavers that help teach young medical professionals about the human body are treated with respect and often reverence. An extensive article about a group of medical students in a gross anatomy class shows how much has changed since the days of body snatching.