Trailing the 19th century London bodysnatchers

Jan 9th, 2011 | By | Category: London Attractions

The Old Operating Theatre in Southwark is Britain’s only surviving 19th century operating theatre -  offering events, talks, and walks that explore tales in the history of medicine. None of the tales match the horror of the nineteenth century corpse trade.

In the early 1800s London’s cemeteries were never so busy; bodysnatchers plundered their graves by night. Also called resurrectionists, these men made their money stealing corpses. It was a loathsome trade but demand for the commodity they offered – cadavers – came from one of the highest echelons of society, the medical profession. And so the low-life snatchers slipped between the hands of the law. At least for a while, until two renowned resurrectionists terrified London with a crime so shocking that the anatomists they supplied, and the authorities, had to act.

By the 1800s science and understanding about the human body had advanced enormously. Medicine was the profession to be in and numbers of medical students went through the roof. But to become a doctor you needed something to practise on – a body. The only approved supply of bodies were those of executed murderers – and with only 20-30 meeting their end that way each year that wasn’t enough. Stealing, and selling on, bodies became the only way to satisfy the demand. Although abborrent, anatomists turned a blind eye as did the authorities, for whom the benefits of medical advances outweighed the theft and dismemberment of the dead.

It was a hazardous business – night watchmen with dogs prowled the graveyards, pistol-primed graves waited to fire at unsuspecting thieves, and bodies were often riddled with disease. But it was big business. A full size corpse fetched nearly six times the average weekly wage. Gangs planned their raids meticulously. The freshness of the body was crucial and rivalry for these was fierce. The trade in bodies of all shapes and sizes, sold whole or in bits, took place (aptly) just round the corner from Smithfields Meat Market, at the (no longer) Fortune of War pub.

One anatomist of the time who patronised the body snatchers was leading surgeon, Astley Cooper – a carismatic man who gave breathtaking demonstrations to eager students and members of the public. He made his fortune this way – commanding high prices from the audiences – and his work led to a revolution in heart surgery. Amongst those who provided him with bodies were two called John Bishop and Thomas Williams. Having started in about 1817, they were making big money. Until, in 1831, they went a step too far.

Several years earlier in Edinburgh, two men called Burke and Hare had been caught murdering innocent people to supply anatomists. Bishop and Williams were inspired to go on their own killing spree – amongst the poorhouses and slums of London’s East End – allowing them access to an endless supply of fresh bodies. Their method of befriending unsuspecting victims in pubs, spiking their drinks with laudanum, and taking their drowsed up victim back to their house in Bethnal Green to drown him, worked for over four years. They would allow the laundanum and water to drain out of the body before passing it up for sale and the anatomists never asked any questions until they turned up with a body so fresh it couldn’t be ignored. On 4 November 1831 they murdered a man whom became known as the Italian boy. Once drowned, Bishops and Williams removed his teeth (to sell on to dentists – another common practise amongst ressurectionists) and took the body to Kings College hospital. The anatomist noticed that rigor mortis hadn’t yet passed off and that blood in the mouth hadn’t coagulated, which suggested this man had been dead for less than 24 hours. He kept the two resurrectionists talking whilst the college porter ran for the police who arrested them on the spot. Their high profile trial on 2 December was a media frenzy and unveiled the furtive trade in human corpses. Bishops and Williams were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. In a cruel twist their bodies were to be then delivered over to anatomists (who all got off scot free).

A dramatic change was needed and in 1832 the Anatomy Act was passed. It allowed unclaimed bodies from poorhouses to be used for medical purposes – which more than catered for need. Gradually the body snatchers were put out of work and by 1836 the graveyards were quiet again.

Visit the theatre for this and much more.

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