Body Snatchers

Body snatching was prevalent in the 19th century, and is often incorrectly referred to as grave robbing (stealing of personal effects from corpses.)

Prior to 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical and lecturing purposes in the UK were those sentenced to capital punishment and dissection by the courts. Demand for bodies increased with the number of new medical schools, and soon outstripped supply creating a new criminal enterprise of body snatching. It became commonplace for relatives and friends to watch over a fresh grave to prevent it from being violated.

Cast iron grates (mortsafes) were placed over coffins to protect the deceased. These grates were also placed over graves in the ground, or in the case of preventing robbery of a tomb or crypt, the mortsafe took the form of an iron fence. However, these options proved to be costly and burdensome.

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In a small cemetery hidden from view, behind a wall on Old Edinburgh Road in Dalkeith, lie very old gravestones. A watch tower dating from 1824, was created specifically to guard against grave robbers and supplied with armed guards to deter body snatchers who were stealing fresh bodies to sell to Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh for medical experimentation.

grave robbers watchtowe

In Edinburgh, the infamous team of Burke and Hare shirked the idea of disinterring bodies and created a fresh supply of cadavers by resorting to murder.

…and on a side note…there is a creepy tradition in Indonesia where the locals ritually exhume their ancestors’ mummified bodies every few years, dress them in a new outfit and tour them through the village before returning them to their place of rest.

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