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A Grave Problem

The Christian tradition that resurrection from death is dependent on the body being intact at burial really only ended with the carnage of the Great War, when heroes who died for their country in dreadful circumstances could not be denied eternal life. Before that time there was strong opposition to cremation and a repulsion of the dissection of the dead.

These strong beliefs brought the general public into direct conflict with the medical men who needed cadavers for study. As early as the 1505, anatomists in Scotland demanded bodies to dissect when the Incorporation of Surgeons and Barbers in Edinburgh stipulated that every candidate for membership should study anatomy. Legal measures were taken to handle the problem by providing the bodies of executed murderers for dissection – no-one objected to this measure which also saved the public purse the cost of burial.

By the 18th century, there was rapid growth in the formal study of medicine and many more cadavers were needed by the expanding medical schools, some private. There were medical schools and also private schools of anatomy in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The spiralling demand for bodies could not be met by convicted criminals and the anatomists became bitter rivals in their efforts to acquire subjects, so the provision of the bodies became profitable. Inevitably the needs were met in the most ghastly way by a new trade – that of the body-snatcher.

The anatomists

At first, the grave-robbers were mainly medical students or hospital porters, encouraged by their professors, but a body was worth £10 - £16, which was more than the annual income of many workers. Poor Scottish students of medicine could pay their tuition fees in corpses. The financial prospects encouraged a group of people to exhume corpses to sell to the medical schools, and they became known as resurrectionists. They would also be referred to as body-snatchers, sack-em-up men, shusy-lifters, or noddies among other names. Under Scottish law, stealing a body was a criminal act, but very few cases came to court. It was only when an offender was thought to be taking an excessive number of corpses, or when bereaved families demanded action that action be taken, and the courts were usually lenient. Without the threat of severe punishment, the gangs of body-snatchers became increasingly active, and few Scottish burial grounds escaped their attention. They were feared and detested in equal measures.

The Resurrectionists at work

Because a graveyard was in a rural area it might be thought that it was safe, but the “trade” in bodies was so lucrative that nowhere was safe, and bodies were taken great distances. There was a good supply of corpses brought into Greenock from Ireland, hidden in barrels or crates, and comings and goings across the Border. The problem was national. Any burial ground near the sea with easy access to a medical school was a target, and Kilmun and the other graveyards around the Clyde were such places.

Newspapers, legal testimonies and memoirs paint a lurid picture of the activities of the resurrectionists in Scotland. Cold weather helped preservation so the grim work was mainly done during winter months when short daylight hours gave an added advantage. To be of use, the corpse had to be “fresh” and without sign of decomposition. A close watch would be kept when a funeral took place; sometimes the watcher even attended the graveside, carefully noting the position. After dark usually at least two men would return, and digging the “head” end of the grave, they would throw the displaced earth onto a sheet they had put on the ground to make their activities less obvious. The body would be pulled from the grave with ropes, the shroud put back in the grave, and the soil replaced as carefully as possible. The robbers would then transport the body as quickly as possible to the anatomists where they would be paid. More sophisticated ways of obtaining fresh bodies were practised to avoid detection. A hole would be dug a few yards away from a grave and a tunnel created so that the end of the coffin was exposed enabling removal of the body without leaving evidence beside the grave. Gravediggers were sometimes resurrectionists by night, and would actually remove the body from the coffin, replacing it with earth before burial. In cities, thieves listened to gossip about illnesses and approaching deaths, and would pretend to be a minister or relative claiming the body. Special tools were used by the gangs – poles with hooks to pull out bodies, wooden spades to lessen the noise of digging, canvas sheets, bars to open the coffin ropes, sacks and carts. Shrouds were normally left behind to reduce the possibility of identification of the corpse.

Public outrage and repugnance of the ever growing practice grew to fever pitch, and there were riots in Scottish cities. The public discontent was by no means confined to Scotland; riots took place in England, Ireland and even New York and other big American cities. It was certainly not helped by the publication in 1812 of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein! Angry mobs gathered at the doors of anatomy schools, and were occasionally so violent that soldiers were summonsed to take control. If a case of new outrage was discovered or suspected people gathered quickly at the scene to see what was happening and ensure that justice was done. It did not take long for crowds to gather at Greenock quayside when news that a body had been discovered concealed on a Belfast ship in 1828.The newspaper reports show a great deal of sympathy for the people who had relatives or friends stolen and a clear condemnation of the thieves.

Various attempts were made in most localities to thwart the thieves. There was a battle between people trying to protect the bodies of their loved ones and the people who were trying to steal them. Some thought that prevention was the best way to deal with the problem, and relatives mounted night watches over recent burials. In time small watch houses or mort houses were built in many graveyards across Scotland, many still standing. The protection they offered made it far more comfortable for the people guarding the grave, especially on a long, cold winter night. There is one of these buildings at Kilmun, which looks over the loch and the graveyard. It is now used for storage.

Physical barriers were also contrived to prevent access to graves. Mort stones, or very heavy slabs of stone were laid over the grave to deter digging, but these were not always effective and mortsafes were developed. These devices were peculiar to Scotland and were often hired out to relatives. They were metal cages, shaped like a coffin which were placed over the wooden coffin in the grave and covered with earth. They were then removed after a suitable time, and re-used. They were highly effective, as their huge weight and strength made them difficult to move. Special lifting gear was required, and this was either stored in a special building or kept by a church official in a safe place. Another method was to have a small building in which the bodies were stored until decomposed and no longer of interest to the anatomists. At Kilmun, next to the graveyard is a small building which may have been used for either this purpose, or for storing the lifting gear, but further research is required. There are two mortsafes remaining at Kilmun, presently mounted on the north wall of the 15th century tower.

As the depredations continued, two Irish men in Edinburgh conceived the idea of avoiding all the problems of raiding churchyards by obtaining the bodies before they were dead. Robert Knox ran a school of anatomy in Edinburgh and paid William Burke and William Hare £10 for the corpse of a sick pauper who they had strangled. This began a business arrangement which suited both parties. While they were the most notorious suppliers of bodies, Burke and Hare were not actually body-snatchers, but murderers, although this did not prevent the new popular name for the snatchers – Burkers. The outrage which ensued when it was discovered that they had murdered at least 16 people led to legal measures in the form of the Anatomy Act of 1832. This allowed unclaimed bodies or those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, revoked the Act requiring dissection of executed criminals, and began the licensing of anatomy teachers. The resurrection trade drew to an close, and with it a most macabre episode of Scottish history.

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