The thought of corpses being dug up from a cemetery in the middle of the night makes the blood run cold. But it often happened in the Victorian East End.
In ill-lit streets around burial grounds at Whitechapel, Mile End and Bethnal Green, chilling tales were told of men carrying slumped shapes to a waiting horse and cart.
Hospitals were helped by an old law which allowed murderers’ bodies to be cut up for research by the Surgeons Company. After all, it was argued, the killers had it coming.
But London was at the heart of international medical research and would-be surgeons required at least a dozen bodies to complete their studies.
They had no other reliable source than shadowy figures, known as Resurrection Men, who roamed the graveyards at night with their shovels and were prepared to provide a freshly-buried corpse at the back door for £4.
Not the least of the attractions were teeth which could be made into dentures. A resurrectionist named Murphy is said to have earned £60 in one burial vault simply by going around, yanking out teeth.
The infamous Ben Crouch Gang used to pay bent grave-diggers in London to slip a fresh body from its coffin soon after mourners left the open graveside. The hole would be filled in with the corpse on top, under a thin layer of earth, to await “collection after dark.”
Grave robbers William Burke and Bill Hare also made a lucrative living selling corpses but went over the top by murdering at least 15 people to step up their supply.
They started their gruesome trade in Edinburgh, then moved to London in the 1820s where there was more demand. Burke was eventually hanged, largely on the evidence of his dim companion who survived to beg on East End streets for many years.
Burke confessed to the world at large after his conviction but was outraged by what he thought was a real wrong-doing. He claimed he had not been paid in full for one of his last bodies and wanted the balance to buy a decent coat for his execution.
Some undertakers took special precautions to thwart grave robbers. An example is recorded of 73-year-old Mary Mason, buried at Christ Church, Spitalfields, who had three iron bands fastened around her coffin. Another was chained to the wall.
Undertaker William Horne was so concerned about his own resting place, at Spital-fields in 1826, that he had three coffins, one inside the other. One was lead, another iron and the last one wood.
Death was almost as important as life to Victorians, and it was many years before fears of bodysnatching finally receded and relatives of the deceased slept soundly in their beds.
For further reading: Bodysnatchers by Martin Fido; and Life and Death in Spitalfields 1700-1850 by Margaret Cox.