Two body-snatchers dig up the dead while an anatomist holds a lantern. A braying donkey disturbs their clandestine activity. Source: the Wellcome Collection (image no. 25643i).

A previous blog described some of the lessons I learned researching and writing about body-snatchers (1). In Jane Austen’s day (particularly the early 1800s), body-snatchers dug up the dead at night and delivered the fresh cadavers to the surgeons at London’s anatomy and medical schools. These resurrection men, as they were sometimes called (2, 3), and the surgeons they supplied are the subject of my trilogy titled Surgeon’s Duty. In this blog, I provide more detail about the body-snatchers’ lives, how they worked, and how much money they made digging up the dead.

Body-snatchers snuck into graveyards in the dead of night and used wooden spades to remove a grave’s freshly laid dirt. (Wooden spades were used because they made less noise than metal spades.) When enough room had been made to work in, they opened the coffin, pulled out the dead body, and stripped it of its winding sheet or shroud and its mob cap if the body was female. The items stripped from the corpse were tossed into the open coffin along side any pillows and other grave goods. Under the law, it was a mere misdemeanor to be caught stealing a body–because a dead body had no value in law–but it was a felony if caught stealing trinkets or clothing. Thus a body-snatcher caught with a corpse in his cart would receive a modest fine; but if he stole the dead person’s grave goods, he would find himself transported to far-off Australia (4).

Such despicable men worked the graveyards in London whenever chance, inclination, and the weather favored them. On a good night they might dig up anywhere from 5-10 bodies to more than 20 bodies. Popular London graveyards for raids included the Dissenters’ burial ground in Bunhill Fields, St. Luke’s graveyard in Old Street, and the Mile End Cemetery (5).

If the body-snatchers culled the graveyards every night for six or seven nights and collected 25 bodies, they might sell 15 or 16 of them. For this booty, they would be paid about £67, which is roughly equivalent to £5,766 in today’s British currency. Think on it: £5,766 for digging up the dead! This was a substantial payout for a few nights of dirty work (5) at a time when a highly paid laborer earned about £1/day, which is equivalent to about £86 worth of purchasing power today (6, 7). A laborer today who worked 7 days at a rate of £86/day would take home £602/week or about £2,400/month. Those body-snatchers who regularly worked the cemeteries and didn’t get caught made very good money indeed.

Two men prepare to place a shrouded corpse which they have just disinterred into a sack while Death, in the form of a skeleton, holds a lantern and grabs one of the grave-robbers from behind. The woman is wearing a mob cap. Coloured drawing by T. Rowlandson, 1775. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images 25772i (8)

But what about the other side of this nefarious transaction? What about the surgeons? In some ways their behavior was as despicable as the bodysnatchers’ activities, for they were ready to pay the going price to obtain fresh bodies to dissect. I’ll be writing about the surgeons’ role in this enterprise in an up-coming blog. I’ll also write about the most successful body-snatcher in the 1810s. Stay tuned!

Notes and Sources and Questions:

  1. I can’t help wondering what the body-snatchers did with the bodies they didn’t sell. Did they re-bury them and, if so, where? Did they dump them in the River Thames? If you, dear reader, know the answer to these questions, I hope you will contact me.
  2. The word “body-snatcher” has been around since at least 1812, where it was reported in James Hardy Vaux’s A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. A copy of this interesting work can be found on Amazon. Unfortunately, the Look Inside feature does not show the definition for body-snatchers.
  3. The word “resurrection men” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1781. The OED entry refers to a book titled The Complete Modern London Spy, for the Present Year, 1781, by a Gentleman of Fortune. This book is also available on Amazon.
  4. Fido, Martin. Bodysnatchers: A History of the Resurrectionists, 1742-1832. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), p. 43.
  5. Cole, Hubert. Things for the Surgeons: A History of Body Snatchers. (London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1964), p. 25.
  6. CPI Inflation Calculator.
  7. Haithi Trust Digital Library: Comparative Wages and Prices.
  8. Image of body-snatchers digging up a body. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0