Certainly the most macabre “job” on anyone’s list would be the resurrectionists. (a fancy term for body-snatchers) They earned their living through the gruesome practice of stealing human remains from graveyards under contract of some of the Victorian era’s most celebrated physicians.
Until 1832, the only supply of bodies available was those who had been executed, however physicians were fascinated with human dissection and as a result there was a constant demand for fresh specimens which led to the heyday of the body snatchers… at least the salaries were quite good…
Resurrectionists were commonly employed by anatomist during the 18th and 19th centuries to exhume the bodies of the recently dead. Between 1506 and 1752 only a very few cadavers were available each year for anatomical research.
Grave robbers, resurrectionists or resurrection men as they were called, were viewed by society as the lowest form of life, and considerable public outrage was directed at them. The subsequent passing of laws during the 18th and 19th centuries brought the grisly business of snatching bodies to an end, but a sufficient supply of bodies for educational reasons remained a problem until the early 20th century. Then, a change in public attitude towards human dissection slowly seemed to occur.
However as the new fascination with anatomy and physiognomy grew, so did the need for corpses, suddenly a few felons a year would not suffice! In 1752 the bodies of all hung felons were granted to anatomists but even this proved insufficient with growing numbers of medical schools spring up around the country. To meet this demand, a black market quickly emerged, trading in the stolen dead. ‘Resurrection Men’ could get an increasingly high price for their wares: human bodies that had been stolen from graveyards, and even deathbeds.
A common trick of the trade was to burrow into the head end of the grave and drag the corpse out with a rope tied around its neck. A more subtle method was to dig a hole at a certain distance from the grave and tunnel the body out without anyone knowing the grave had been disturbed. The shroud and grave goods would often be left in the grave on removal of the body, as court sentences were lighter for body snatching alone.
Without refrigeration, decomposing cadavers needed to be replaced frequently and the curious and profiting surgeons often conveniently failed to question from whence their fresh supplies came. Indeed some, including many in authority, condoned the practice as a necessary evil, allowing research necessary to save lives. For example the operation for removing bladder stones was significantly improved in 1727 with knowledge gained from anatomy. When once the operation took hours, new techniques meant that now could be finished in under a minute, reducing blood loss, distress and the likelihood of infection.
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