Monday, March 5, 2012

The Resurrectionists

By Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill

A somewhat macabre but highly lucrative business flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century and while the term body snatchers is commonly used today, those who stole cadavers to sell for medicinal research were more commonly known as ‘sack-em up men’ or resurrectionists. Medical students had been studying corpses since the 16th century. The bodies supplied were those of executed criminals. By the 19th century however, the amount of people studying medicine had risen and the demand far exceeded the supply thus corpse robbing developed into a profitable business. Up to ten pounds was paid for a cadaver, a sum equivalent to a yearly wage for some, that of a child was paid for by the inch, while a set of teeth would earn a pound. Given Dublin’s proximity to the sea Irish cadavers were also exported to England and Scotland in barrels and crates. Once dug up the corpse would be stripped, as to remove anything but the body was regarded as theft. Corpse robbing itself, though not entirely legal was not considered a serious offence. The corpse had to fresh without any sign of decomposition. The corpse would then either be placed in a sack, placed on a cart and brought away. A famous Dublin memoir Malachai Horan Remembers recounts that the horses wore leather shoes to muffle any noise. Sometimes the corpse would be dressed in an old coat, and supported by two people walked out, giving the appearance of a drunk being brought home by friends. The basic method the resurrectionsts employed was using a wooden spade, to create less noise, to dig at the head of the grave, placing the earth on a sheet to disguise their activities. The body would then be pulled from the grave and the earth carefully replaced. Another more refined method; whereby a tunnel would be dug a few metres away and a small boy would crawl into the tunnel and slip a noose around the neck of the corpse and slowly drag the body out, was also used. Thus is appeared that the ground had never been disturbed. Sometimes resurrectionists attended funerals, carefully noting where the body lay and sometimes gravediggers themselves were reurrectionists by night. It was usual at the time for relatives to remain behind after the funeral and watch over the grave of their loved one to deter the resurrectionists. Some resurrectionsts unintentionally provided a service to humanity. When Margorie McCall from Lurgan got the fever and died in 1705 she was buried in haste to stop the disease from spreading. Resurectionists dug her up a few hours later. Intending to steal her wedding ring, one of the party cut off her finger and to his horror the body stirred. She woke up and walked the short distance home, still dressed in her shroud, where her family were gathered grieving their loss until they heard her familiar knock. She lived for several years thereafter.
The main source of bodies was Bullys’ Acre on the grounds of Kilmainham hospital. During the time of the Penal laws it was the only cemetery open to Catholics and as burial there was free it was used until the cholera epidemic of 1832 by Catholics from all walks of life. It was a somewhat lonely location and its low walls provided easy access. Though considered the lowest form of life those who had dealings with resurrectionists were often highly regarded in society and the medical profession certainly did not frown upon the practice. Peter Harkan, a pathologist at a medical institute known as Crampton’s School was caught body snatching with his students by a night watchman at Bullys’ Acre. He fled with the others but the watchman grabbed him by the legs while is students pulled him by the arms and though the students won the tug-o-war he died of his injuries shortly after in 1814. One of the most famous bodies stolen was that of the champion fighter Dan Donnelly who died in 1820 and was buried at Bullys’ Acre. When his body was dug up and sold to a doctor Hall it caused outrage among his fans who threatened to kill the surgeon. Hall agreed to return he body but kept the arm which until very recently was on display in Kilcullen. Soldiers stationed at the nearby Royal Hospital Kilmainham did their best to keep watch over the graves as their comrades were also buried there and would sometimes shoot at resurrectionsists. It is recorded that in 1825 a sentry captured Thomas Tuite, who had five bodies and pockets full of teeth in possession. Digging up corpses was hard work and two Irishmen William Burke and William Hare found an easier way by murdering people. The pair murdered an old beggar in Edinburgh and sold his body to Robert Knox who ran an anatomy school and continued to provide him with freshly murdered corpses. His students became suspicious when well known healthy individuals suddenly turned up as cadavers in the lecture hall. By the time their murder spree had come to an end in 1828 they had murdered sixteen people. Hare turned informer, Burke was hanged, and though never prosecuted, Knox, became a social pariah. The public outrage which that the case caused led to the Anatomy Act. The Anatomy Act of 1832 had a massive impact on body snatching and it resulted in a rapid decline of this macabre practice. According to the act unclaimed bodies or bodies donated by the family could now be used for medical research. Henceforth, an ample supply of bodies could be legally provided. The act was just coming to force when Ireland’s most famous cemetery, Glasnevin was opened in 1832. It was built with high walls and watch towers. The watchmen, who were armed, used Cuban blood hounds to deter any nocturnal visitors. Its security from resurrectionists made it the most popular cemetery in the city and when poets such as Zozimus died in 1846 he insisted on being buried there for this very reason. The grim business did not die out entirely with the passing of the act. In 1838 thirty pounds was paid for an ankylosed skeleton of a man who had died in the Isle of Man. Though his body had been broken up by his relatives to prevent his remains being exhibited, the resurrectionists disinterred it and brought it to Dublin.