On a Wednesday in November 1825, the watchman of Vauxhall Chapel, Michael Jones, was approached by three men. After a little conversation one of them said: “If you will work with me, I will make it worth your while, and be a pound or two in your pocket; there were three stiff ones buried on Sunday, I will give you a pound for each of them.” Jones passed the information to one of the Bow Street patrol, and the pair hid and waited.
About one in the morning the trio returned. Jones sounded his rattle and the group fled, leaving behind a spade, a sack, a boring tool and a crow bar. But the patrolman managed to catch one – John Flynn – as he tried to escape over the wall. Flynn was sentenced to two months on the Brixton treadmill.
The growing interest in anatomy had created a lucrative market for fresh corpses. The only reliable and legal supply came from the gallows. But while there were hundreds of medical researchers and students in London, the number of executions was few and declining.
Instead the anatomists depended on people like Flynn – body-snatchers or ‘resurrection men’ – who dug up the newly buried then, under cover of darkness, hawked their wares around the hospitals and medical schools. It was hard work but could be hugely rewarding. A recently warm body might bring in up to twenty guineas – as much as the governor of Brixton earned in three months.
Henry Pether was another grave-robber committed to Brixton – sentenced to three months in 1822 after being found in the churchyard at Newington ‘for the purpose of disturbing the dead.’ But there were other ways of procuring bodies. Some resurrectionists would pose as the relatives of dying paupers before laying claim to the corpse or even strike immediately before a burial – thieving from a coffin on the kitchen table or during the funeral itself.
Such brazenness reflected the ambivalence of the law enforcers who seemed largely to ignore this black market which, although gruesome, was not viewed with particular seriousness. Legally, a dead body had no owner so anyone found taking one was only guilty of breaching common decency. For this reason the ‘snatchers’ were careful not to take any possessions found with the deceased which would have been classed as theft and carried the risk of transportation or even execution.
There is evidence the New Police began to take a more proactive interest in the practice after they were formed in 1829. Unsurprisingly the anatomists – the educated, high ranking members of society – weren’t prosecuted. Indeed it was to their benefit to stimulate pressure to ignore the trade.
Resurrectionists, meanwhile, lurked at the bottom of the social scale. Shunned by their neighbours they stuck together, gathering in insalubrious public houses to plan raids, discuss sales and share potential leads. They could live with being ostracised because their work paid so well, though with demand consistently exceeding supply a sinister side to the trade emerged.
In 1831 three men from London – John Bishop, Thomas Williams and James May – were found guilty of the murder of a 14 year old boy. They later confessed to having sold between 500 and a thousand bodies of which at least three had been killed by their own hands. An estimated 30,000 watched the execution of Bishop and Williams at Newgate. Two years earlier William Burke and William Hare had been found guilty of the murder of seventeen people in Edinburgh whose corpses they’d supplied to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox. Who knew how many others had lost their lives to supply the needs of medical science?
The cases helped see through the controversial Anatomy Act of 1832 which allowed the practice of anatomy under licence but more significantly gave legal access to unclaimed cadavers – including of those who died in prison. With the stroke of a lawmaker’s pen the trade of the resurrectionist was dead and forever buried.