by Linore Rose BurkardDuring the Regency, (ca.1800-1820) if you had to bury a loved one, surprisingly, you might have been warned to guard the gravesite against thieves.
|A group of infamous "resurrectionists" at work.|
One might object that they were not burying artifacts of value, or jewelry, or possessions, with the dead. So what was there to steal?
At this time in England there was a burgeoning field of medical
inquiry. Bodies were needed for the research which was so vital
for practicing physicians. By law, the bodies of criminals who
were hanged, or who died in prison, were automatically turned
over for medical research. The problem was that these legally obtained cadavers weren't nearly sufficient in number to satisfy the demand from doctors. Furthermore, it was virtually taboo to donate one’s remains for such a use.
So how did early 19th century doctors get the bodies
they needed for their experiments and investigations? Without
officially sanctioning it, they encouraged the practice of digging
up the dead by paying good money for cadavers to anyone
who delivered them. It was a thriving black market.
Did You Know? A cadaver is a dead body specifically intended for use in medical research, training, or investigation. Other dead bodies are mere "corpses."“Body-snatchers,” or, “resurrectionists,” as they were called,
began to haunt graveyards and cemeteries in pursuit of the
recently buried dead. Physicians didn’t ask questions
about where these cadavers came from--the less they knew, the less they could be held accountable for. Scandalously, even
the most respectable of doctors, such as the Royal Physician,
supported the infamous trade by buying bodies.
Did You Know? It was taboo to donate one's remains for the use of science because some believed that a mutilated cadaver was no longer fit for heaven. Bodies of deceased criminals were okay for such a use because they were ALREADY unfit for heaven.The practice was so widespread that funerals were kept secret in an attempt to outwit the grave-robbers; the well-to-do even posted guards around their newly buried to protect them. Guards, however, weren’t foolproof as they could be bribed, and secret funerals could be spied out. The poor, as is often the case, were most vulnerable to losing a loved-one's body to the nefarious trade because they were often unable to protect it with even a coffin. And, winter saw an increase in the perpetration of crimes of this sort because the cold slowed down decomposition.
The situation worsened until a few notorious cases occurred where people were actually murdered in order to be sold as cadavers. This outraged the public and the press. Finally, the Anatomy Act of 1832 addressed
the issue, and helped put an end to the dastardly trade.
FACT OR FICTION? VERDICT: During the seemingly refined regency, body snatchers were routinely stealing bodies and getting paid for doing so. FACT
UPCOMING: Perfect Summer Reading!
Linore Rose Burkard is best known for historical regency romance novels with Harvest House Publishers, including Before the Season Ends, the award-winning The House in Grosvenor Square, and, The Country House Courtship. As a writer noted for meticulous research as well as bringing people to life on the page, Linore’s books delight fans of historical romance with “Heyeresque” humor and Austen-like manners. Linore teaches workshops for writers with Greater Harvest Workshops in Ohio, is a homeschooling mother of five, and has recently finished a YA novel. Keep up with Linore by subscribing to her free newsletter at LinoreBurkard.com