The business of body-snatching thrived in Jane Austen’s England. It also flourished in Scotland (1), Ireland (2), on the continent (3), and in the United States (US) and Canada.

The success of the body-snatcher or Resurrection man (as he was sometimes called) arose from the advancement of medicine as a science. Doctors and surgeons wished to further their knowledge of disease and anatomy by dissecting the dead. Thus, medical men and students sometimes raided graves at night to obtain fresh bodies. Unlike the body-snatchers, however, medical men were exposed to significant danger: they might get caught disturbing a grave! A doctor might lose his good reputation or a student lose his medical scholarship if his body-snatching activities were discovered. By comparison, a body-snatcher would be fined a small amount or spend a night in jail.

Caricature of an anatomical dissection by William Hogarth titled “The Reward of Cruelty”

Body-Snatching Paid Well

Body-snatchers took up the trade of stealing bodies because they had few other employment options and the demand for the commodity was high. Moreover, the work paid well (4). A body-snatcher could earn more than £67 (roughly £5,766 in today’s British pound) for a few night’s work.

One colorful body-snatcher was William Cunningham of Cincinnati, known as “The Ghoul” and “Old Dead Man.” He did not fear getting caught by angry citizens, for if he was taken up by the authorities, he would stand his captors a round of drinks and promise not to dig up the body. Later, he would go back to the grave and claim it. He also used a novel transport method: he dressed the body and propped it up next to him on the wagon seat. He even talked to it. Anybody seeing him traveling at night would not suspect that his companion was a cadaver (5).

Laws Did Not Prevent Body-Snatching

Despite the public’s anger at the Resurrection man’s trade, laws forbidding body-snatching did not always succeed. In 1815, the state of Massachusetts outlawed the possession of a dead body without permission. In 1818, the other states in New England followed suit. Unfortunately, these laws did not address the practical issue of how students in training could obtain bodies for dissection. As a result, the resurrection men continued their body-snatching, despite the laws forbidding it (6).


(1) Suzie Lennox. Bodysnatchers: Digging Up the Untold Stories of Britain’s Resurrection Men. Barnsley (Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 2016), pp. 15-19.

(2) Herbert Cole. Things for the Surgeons: A History of the Body Snatchers. London (William Heinemann Ltd., 1964), p. 81.

(3) PBS. Body Snatching Around the World.

(4) Body snatching. Wikipedia.

(5) Bridget Hosey. Who were the body-snatchers? A portrayal of those men that resorted to the occupation of stealing human cadavers in 19th century America. (2015) History Class Publications, #29, PDF pp. 12-13.

(6) Rachel H. Mathis, et al. Grave robbing in the North and South in antebellum America. American College of Surgeons, 2016. Available online here and here.

The Featured Image at the top of this blog is a colored lithograph titled “Three anatomical dissections taking place in an attic.” It was drawn by T. C. Wilson and is based on a pen and wash drawing by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). Wellcome Collection: Public Domain Mark.