Book review – Bodysnatchers by Suzie Lennox (2016). Digging up the untold stories of Britain’s Resurrection Men
This was my Christmas read, and one of the most enjoyable non-fiction books I’ve read for some time. A bit surprising given the subject matter; corpses, the desecration of graves and dissection of cadavers in Georgian era Britain.
At 118 pages (plus admirable appendices) it’s a short book, but long enough as it is written so concisely. The reward for me was deep emersion in an entirely alien world; reading about the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of “bodysnatching”. There is enough technical detail here for the reader to establish a modern “sack ’em up” business – or set a novel in the 1700s. We are led convincingly through the origins, modus operandi, preventative efforts and the punishments, surrounding this unsavoury crime.
In the eyes of the law, a cadaver was not considered to be real property, yet grave clothes were, hence the theft of such items carried a higher penalty.
I nearly wrote ‘bizarre crime’ but, upon reading, it soon becomes clear that these were rational and, for some, justifiable acts. No less a person than the “father of modern medicine”, Andreas Vesalius (1514 – 64), had stolen a body from the hangman’s gibbet for research purposes, and since that time the demand for cadavers by anatomists had steadily grown, particularly with the rise of private anatomy schools.
The [bodysnatching] season ran from October to May and covered the period during which anatomy was taught .. A corpse gave off a strong enough odour without the added problem of heat, therefore dissection usually took place only during the cooler seasons.
At first, the anatomy students were required to acquire their own dead bodies; I feel fortunate it was only necessary for me to bring a pen and a notepad to class. But in time professional “shushy lifters” appeared on the scene to meet the ever-growing demand from anatomists. They were sometimes paid handsomely for their trouble, at the extreme end, Irishman Charles Byrne’s 7ft+ corpse was sold for £500 in 1783.
Corpses were priced on a sliding scale, depending on their age and size. An adult of either sex, generally over three feet in length, would sell for about £4 4s in around 1810. A ‘small’, ‘large small’, or ‘foetus’, was a body measuring three feet or less and was priced by the inch.
There is no condemning tone in this book; without the “stealers of the dead” the anatomy schools would have been largely bereft of the bodies they needed to use in their teaching and research. Nor is there any attempt to glamorise the profession. The digging up of a recently interred body for the purposes of dissection must have been deeply distressing to family, friends and neighbours. Had such a thing happened to a friend or family member of mine, no doubt I would have been out in the streets with my flaming torch and pitchfork. And yet how else was modern medicine to advance? How many lives were saved because it did? Would you even be reading this if it hadn’t?
This is not a book for everyone; the subject itself may disturb, and some of the details are vivid and horrifying – although necessary. As calm as I thought I was, I jumped several inches in the air when the cat brought in a mouse cadaver mid-read. But the title and subtitle are self-explanatory and should provide warning enough. This is a fascinating and absorbing topic, convincingly covered; a book, once read, not likely to be soon forgotten.
Note: This book was received, at no cost to me, via Pen & Sword Books. I will only review something that I think looks interesting – and what I write will be the usual honest appraisal. To find my reviews click Book reviews on the top menu (above).