Fig. 6

Close up of drawings attached to rolls chapel patent 4843, National Archives. Image: Colleen McGonegle, 2014.

 

While searching the National Archives patent records I ran across this from September 11, 1823:

 

‘Specification of “Certain means of securing the bodies of the dead in Coffins” -consisting in fastening the body by chains, bars, & c. to a false bottom, and affixing this false bottom of the coffin: also in a grating or cage to cover the body, with a parchment Schedule of Drawings is attached.’[1]

 

Being inundated with twenty-first century media my initial thought was that I was unaware that there was a fear of a zombie apocalypse in the early nineteenth century too. Of course there was not; there was however, a fear of something else equally macabre and even more worryingly, true: bodysnatching. This coffin was designed to prevent resurrection men from removing the body and selling it on to anatomy schools.

 

Grave robbing was not a new phenomenon in 1823, and dates back to at least the seventeenth century. Social historian Ruth Richardson uses Shakespeare’s 1616 epitaph as proof of this quoting[2]:

 

‘Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare.
Bles’e be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.’

 

By 1728 in A view of London and Westminster: or, The town spy, the author discusses the ‘Corporation of Corpsse Stealers’, who make a comfortable living. The author goes on to state that ‘[…] the late Ressurrections in St. Saviour’s, St. Giles’s, and St. Pancrass’s Church-yards, are memorable Instances of this laudable Profession.’[3]

 

1752 brought about the ‘Murder Act’ where in an attempt to ‘increase the deterrent effect of capital punishment,’ the judge could order that the bodies, of people who had been found guilty of murder, to be ‘dissected and anatomised.’[4] This was supposed to provide an ethical source for the cadavers necessary to the anatomy schools. Surprisingly, bodysnatching was actually more of an ethical question than a legal one. A body could not be owned so the removal of a body was only a misdemeanour, while to take the clothes of the corpse was a felony.[5]

 

The failure of the ‘Murder Act’ can clearly be seen in the Old Bailey records as between 1752, when the act was passed, and 1823 when the coffin was patented only 73 people were sentenced to death and dissection.[6] That averages to 1.03 bodies a year. Hardly enough for a burgeoning medical profession. This is demonstrated in 1759, when due to an exhumation at a Lambeth burial ground, fifteen resurrection men were exposed.[7]

 

The resurrection trade was still going strong in the early nineteenth century, providing supply for the demand of the anatomy theatres. Anatomy classes were being advertised in newspapers during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and newspaper reports such as the one mentioned above kept the idea of bodysnatching in the public’s mind. In 1822 English pamphleteer William Cobbett decried the fact that it was punishable by death to steal the body of an animal, but not to steal the body of a human being.[8] 

 

It is perhaps not coincidental that in 1823, the same year John Hughes submitted this patent for a coffin, legislative changes were being made in England requiring that anyone seeking to obtain a medical qualification had to study anatomy at an institution recognised by the Royal College of Surgeons.[9] Ironically, social historian Ruth Richardson estimates that the number of medical students dropped from 1000 to 800 between 1823 and 1828.[10] There had also been a reported case of a young boy who had been suffering from an undiagnosed disease being stolen after having been buried, this was after an original autopsy his father had agreed to.[11]

 

This coffin, with its false bottom and ‘straps’ is clearly designed in reaction to the fear of the body being dug up and sold. A fear so real that Hughes not only designed and patented it, but somebody purchased and used it, or at least a coffin designed with very similar protective measures. The archaeologists at the Museum of London report that they found ‘[m]etal bands and multilayered coffins (one such containing an undertaker!) used at Christ Church in Spitalfields, [which] were also thought to have been intended to counter attempts of theft. Such expensive deterrents were not widely used, however.’[12]

 

While this coffin patent predates the sensational story of Burke and Hare in 1828, newspapers, carrying stories like the one relating to author Laurence Sterne, author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, whose body was buried in London but found in Cambridge, brought an awareness and fear to the general public about grave robbing. ‘Catchpenny’ spoof broadsheets with headlines like ‘More Dead Bodies Discovered’ which turn out to be animals for market, and morbid fascination also helped to create this culture of fear, and in turn created a consumer demand for this coffin.[13] But how justified was this public fear?

 

In 1826, the Select Committee on Anatomy estimated that 592 bodies were dissected by 701 students.[14]

As mentioned above the only legal way to obtain cadavers was from the hangman, and that was an extremely limited source. Body donation was almost unheard of as dissection was viewed with religious and moral repugnance. Dissection itself was seen as a form of punishment. In 1823 ‘Humanus’ urged using bodies of those who had committed suicide, the author claims that the threat of dissection act as a deterrent on those thinking of committing suicide.[15] This same logic was used with the 1752 Murder Act. Given these factors almost all of the 592 cadavers would have been procured from the resurrection men. The earliest death statistic I could locate was eleven years later between July 1st and the 31st of December 1837 where there was an estimated 25,000 deaths in 30 unions/districts of London.[16] This loosely equates to one in one hundred bodies being buried would be stolen.

 

In 1828 a resurrectionist only identified as A.B. stated that ‘when I go to work, I like to get those of poor people buried from the workhouses, because instead of working for one subject, you may get three or four.’[17] Richardson points out that the story of Laurence Sterne mentioned above was ‘lent some credence’ for the fact that Sterne died ‘insolvent’ and was most likely buried in a pauper’s grave.[18] In the 1840s George Walker, a doctor in Drury Lane, reported that paupers graves were often left open for weeks at a time and filled with many bodies, even once closed they were only covered with a thin layer of dirt, making it very easy work for the resurrectionists.[19] A pamphlet published in 1823 written by ‘a Humanus’ states that:

 

‘’The tombs of the rich are generally too well secured to leave much fear that their remains will be visited by sacrilegious thieves; the poor are oftener the victims, and their slender graves offer little resistance, and, of course, greater inducements to disinterment.’[20]

 

There is also evidence to suggest that schools attached to hospitals frequently used the hospital graveyards as sources for bodies.[21] What becomes clear from this is that the majority of the bodies being provided to the anatomy theatres had been poor, due to convenience and availability. The 1832 Anatomy Act allowed people in charge of workhouses and hospitals to send the remains of the unclaimed dead for dissection.[22] This law effectively put the resurrection men out of business, by taking their primary source of bodies.

 

It could be argued that Hughes coffin played a role in helping to prevent the robbery of rich graves, as stated above, by making it too time consuming for the resurrection men to free the body to be worth their time. At the same time it can also be argued that it was much more likely that the resurrectionist would focus on the poorer graves where the pickings would be more plentiful, and therefore such stringent measures were unnecessary. Regardless of the realities, the fear created by the popular press was sufficient to create a market for John Hughes’ patented coffin.

 

Colleen McGonegle

 

 

Interested in how body donation works today?

 

https://www.hta.gov.uk/faqs/body-donation-faqs 

 

Places to visit in London:

 

http://www.thegarret.org.uk/tour.htm

http://www.rcseng.ac.uk/museums/hunterian

http://wellcomecollection.org/

 

Additional reading/listening with an American/Humourous slant:

 

Hudspeth, E. B., The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black (Quirk Books, 2013)

http://thedollop.libsyn.com/52-resurrection-men

http://www.maximumfun.org/sawbones/sawbones-corpse-theft-and-resurrection-men

 

 

 

[1] Hughes, John, Patent Number 4843, Rolls Chapel, National Archives, September 11, 1823.

[2] Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987) p. 54.

[3] A View of London and Westminster: Or, The Town Spy, (London, 1728) p. 50.

[4] ‘Death with Dissection and Hanging in Chains’, Old Bailey Online, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Punishment.jsp#dissection, [accessed 6 March 2015].

[5] The Times, 15 October, 1819, Issue 10751, as cited by Louise Fowler, Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men: Excavations in the 19th-Century Burial Ground of the London Hospital, 2006 / Louise Fowler and Natasha Powers., MOLA Monograph; 62 (London: Museum of London Archaeology, 2012) p. 145.

[5] ‘Search for Death and Dissection 1752-1823’, Old Bailey Online, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/search.jsp?foo=bar&form=searchHomePage&count=0&_punishments_punishmentCategory_punishmentSubcategory=death%7CdeathAndDissection&fromYear=1752&fromMonth=00&toYear=1823&toMonth=99&start=0, [accessed 6 March 2015].

[6] ‘Search for Death and Dissection 1752-1823’, Old Bailey Online, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/search.jsp?foo=bar&form=searchHomePage&count=0&_punishments_punishmentCategory_punishmentSubcategory=death%7CdeathAndDissection&fromYear=1752&fromMonth=00&toYear=1823&toMonth=99&start=0, [accessed 6 March 2015].

[7] Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, p.57.

[8] Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, p. 58-59.

[9] Fowler, Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, p. 143.

[10] Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, p. 102.

[11] ‘Vice Chancellor’s Court, Morning Chronicle, 11 March 1823, Issue 16814, as quoted in Fowler, Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, p. 147.

[12] Fowler, Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, p. 146.

[13] Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, p. 60, 56.

[14] England, Great Britain Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages in, Annual Report of the Registrar General of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in England: Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty (H.M. Stationery Office, 1839) p. 114.

[15] John Abernethy M. R.C.S, A Letter to J. Abernethy, Esq. written in consequence of a paragraph which appeared in most of the London papers, stating his having addressed a letter to the Secretary of State, on the necessity of repealing the late act of Parliament which subjects resurrection-men … to severe punishment for violating the sanctuary of the Tomb. By Humanus. (London, 1823), p. 9-12.

[16] England, Great Britain Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages in, Annual Report of the Registrar General of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in England: Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty (H.M. Stationery Office, 1839) p. 114.

[17] Bailey, James Blake, The Diary of a Resurrectionist, 1811-1812, to Which Are Added an Account of the Resurrection Men in London and a Short History of the Passing of the Anatomy Act (London, S. Sonnenschein, 1896)

[18] Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, p. 60.

[19] Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, p. 61.

[20] John Abernethy M. R.C.S, A Letter to J. Abernethy, Esq. written in consequence of a paragraph which appeared in most of the London papers, stating his having addressed a letter to the Secretary of State, on the necessity of repealing the late act of Parliament which subjects resurrection-men … to severe punishment for violating the sanctuary of the Tomb. By Humanus. (London, 1823), p. 18.

[21] Fowler, Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Menp. 157.

[22] Fowler, Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, p. 143.

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