The Bodysnatchers of the Peak District
The most notorious body-snatchers were Burke and Hare although this Edinburgh duo were not actually body-snatchers. They did supply the medical schools with fresh corpses but they never actually took bodies from the grave, preferring instead to murder their prey.
Although there is no evidence locally of body snatching the burial registers of the picturesque Peak District village of Hope contain two interesting entries for the year 1831: ‘Oct 2nd, Benjamin Wragg of Bradwell aged 21 years – this body stolen’ and ‘Oct 26th William Bradwall of Smalldale, aged 28 years – body stolen same night.’
Body-snatchers, alternatively known as ‘resurrectionists’, ‘grabs’ or ‘sack-‘em-up’ men’, often worked in small gangs. Removing a body from a freshly-dug grave was not difficult. The gangs would use wooden shovels which would lessen the sound of digging, a large sheet of tarpaulin on which to place the soil, a blackened lantern to give just enough light to work by, and a pair of irons to remove the body from the coffin.
Incredible though it may seem stealing a body was not a clime. Legally a corpse was not classed as ‘real property’ so could not be owned (and therefore could not, in principle, be stolen). The shroud, along with any other grave goods, were, so most body-snatchers unwound the shroud taking only the body. It was a lucrative trade as a body in good condition during the 1830s would fetch between eight and twelve guineas. By comparison the weekly wage of a master tailor or carpenter was thirty shillings. With the profits being so high the body-snatchers could easily afford to bribe the less-than-honest church official. They could often earn a ‘bonus’ as well by removing the teeth and selling them to dentists.
To help prevent the body-snatchers grave diggers would mix straw and twigs in with the soil making the earth harder to dig. Raising the level of the churchyard wall and the addition of iron railings did little to deter body-snatchers. Other methods were to place a large slab or iron grill, known as mortsafes, over the grave which were removed when putrefaction had begun. However these were not always successful as the gangs would dig down by the head of the grave at an angle to reach the coffin and remove the body from the head of the coffin by dragging it out with a pair of irons.
All of this changed in 1832 with the introduction of the Anatomy Act. This allowed for the provision of any unclaimed pauper dying in the workhouse to be supplied to medical schools. Because of this change body-snatchers became redundant almost overnight.