Mr. Eric Jackson returned to the Forum to enlighten us with the rather macabre topic of grave robbing.
Back in the old days, British people were God-fearing and studied the Christian Nicene Creed which includes in its beliefs the resurrection of the body. So, when someone dies, there must be a whole body that can, in the fullness of time, rise up into heaven.
In the 16th century when the study of the human anatomy was being promoted this was sometimes difficult to achieve. Bodies for dissection were usually obtained from executed criminals who were publically dissected near the gallows. Both James IV of Scotland and Henry VIII of England had decreed that only 6 felons a year could be handed over to the anatomists.
By mid 18th century, there were 24 lecturers in private Medical Schools in London which begs the question as to where they obtained their bodies for dissection. The 1752 Murder Act allowed Judges to order criminals’ bodies to be handed over to anatomists for dissection rather than hanging the body in chains from a tree until it fell to pieces. However, this did not resolve the rapidly increasing demand for bodies and grave robbing became prevalent especially as body snatching was not recognised as an offence. Records from 1826 indicate that 592 bodies were dissected in London Anatomy Schools.
Around this time there were strong public protests at these grave robbers and measures were often put in place to protect graveyards. To this day, examples of Watchtowers from which the graveyards could be surveilled still exist together with Mort Houses where corpses were kept locked away for months to decompose before burial.
Still, the demand was there and led to alternate means of obtaining “fresh” bodies. The famous case of Burke and Hare was mentioned. Mrs. Hare ran a boarding house in Edinburgh and her son and his friend Burke regularly collaborated to intoxicate guests with whisky and then suffocate them with a blanket. The “fresh” body, without any marks, was then sold on to the Robert Knox Medical School which was close by. In 1829 a victim was discovered dead by one of the other guests who called the Police. Their suspicions led to Burke and Hare being arrested. Hare turned King’s evidence and confessed to 16 murders, whilst Burke carried the can, was convicted, and hanged in public.
In 1832 the Anatomy Act was passed which provided for the needs of physicians and surgeons by giving them legal access to unclaimed corpses from such places as hospitals, workhouses and prisons. This was effective in ending the practice of robbing graves but still gave rise to popular protests that paupers’ bodies were being sold for medical research without their prior consent.
This recognised that those whose bodies were dissected and dismembered could not rise from the grave whole on the Day of Judgement. To avoid such ignominy, families with makeshift economies pooled their meager resources by subscribing a guinea into a Burial Society to ensure that their loved one had a ‘decent’ burial. Headstones with multiple unrelated names marked the location of these Guinea Graves which can still be found in abundance at the Beckett Street Cemetery in Leeds.
On behalf of the members, David Hopkinson commended Eric on his excellent presentation which had kept everyone intrigued throughout.
Next week, on 8th February, Tim Forman has promised us a laugh with his “Tales of 20 amusing years in Sales and Marketing”