Body for Sale

Body for Sale

The Victorian Era was a blizzard of societal change, an avalanche, a cascade, a tsunami. We look on the age as prim and tightly buttoned-up, but perhaps it had to be because so many things were unraveling at such a rapid pace. Manners, morals and attire needed to have the appearance, at least, of propriety and stability, because much of life was suddenly unstable. The Enlightenment of the 18th century, and the scientific revolution which formed a part of it, ran bang into the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. The results were various. Two of these results came together to demonstrate forcibly the laws of supply and demand.

Medical science, which for all centuries previous was something of an oxymoron, started to become a reality. Surgery moved from the barber shop to the hospital – and the classroom. Baby steps, admittedly. You still had a good chance of dying from infection when you went under the knife, especially if you were poor and operated on in hospital. If you were wealthy, the surgeon might do his work in your front parlor, and wouldn’t have taken his unwashed hands directly from another person’s insides to yours. But surgery, in hospital and out, did begin to save lives as well as take them. Suddenly physicians clamored to better learn the skills. But how?

Practice, practice, practice.

At the same time, the number of corpses available for dissection plummeted. The only bodies legally available for study were those of executed prisoners, for the most part. But the humane advances of the 19th century, gleaned from the Enlightenment, were ruinous for the hangman. Where you used to be hanged for the theft of a loaf, a lamb, or pocket-watch, now you generally had to be a real stinker to get a noose round your neck. Medical schools needed bodies desperately, but they couldn’t get nearly enough of them.

Answering the call of supply and demand came the body-snatchers. They called themselves Resurrectionists, and they were always busy.

A favored technique involved the nocturnal digging of a relatively small hole near the top of a burial site, descending and opening that end of the coffin, and pulling the corpse out head-first. Less dirt was disturbed this way, and the diggers’ tracks could be more easily covered. Sometimes the entry hole would be dug several feet from the grave, so as not to attract notice. From there a tunnel would be constructed, and small adults or sturdy children would be sent down to open the box and haul out the body. All this had to be accomplished as soon after the burial  as possible for obvious reasons, flesh being what it is, especially in the warmer months. The situation got so troublesome that families would post guards to watch over their loved ones’ plots during the first critical days, when the body still had monetary value.

In mid-19th century London, in addition to the Royal College of Surgeons, there were a number of hospitals which also served as teaching institutions – St. Bartholomew’s among them, located near the Smithfield Market. Just up the road from St. Bart’s was a venerable public house called The Fortune of War, and a secret back room of this pub became a depot for the sale of bodies, a little warehouse of the dead. It was only a short walk away for the surgeons of St. Bart’s. They could choose and purchase their stolen corpses, and still have time to enjoy a pint.

Today’s surgeons-in-training need to practice, just as did their 19th century predecessors. Today, though, the medical schools’ supply of post-mortem subjects comes primarily from people donating their own bodies to the cause of medicine and science, via their last wills and testaments. It’s a remarkable gift, and anyone who ever needs to undergo an operation owes these generous souls a debt of gratitude.

So, yes – it’s a noble act, body donation, but far less gruesomely interesting than the work of the Resurrectionist. It’s for his entertainment value that the grave-robber has proven tempting to the novelist. The entire plot of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer hangs on the murder of Dr. Robinson by one of the men he’d hired to disinter a corpse. The crime is witnessed by Tom and Huckleberry Finn, and puts the boys in fear of their own lives until the novel’s resolution.

A decade earlier, in Charles Dickens’ last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, the impoverished, self-sacrificing Lizzie Hexam, rows a boat along the Thames in the dead of night for her father, who makes his living by robbing the corpses he snags from the river’s dark waters.

Real-life Britons had been looting colonial and classical gravesites throughout the 19th century, of course, and shipping the artifacts home as curiosities or objets d’arts. Sir John Soanes filled his remarkable London townhouse with them; he was not a looter, but rather a preserver, and his intent always was to share beauties of the past with the public (the British public). Lord Elgin’s appropriation of ancient Greek marbles was a kind of tomb raiding, the tomb artifacts being the prized works of an entire civilization. And in the early 20th century, Lord Carnarvon (whose home became the setting for the fictional Downton Abbey several Lords Carnarvon later) financed Howard Carter’s Egyptian excavations, and the snatching of King Tut from his long rest.

But the 1800s were the dead center of British for-profit necrophilia.

And for some entrepreneurial folk the grave-robbing business model did not provide a sufficiently quick turnaround of merchandise, and was seriously labor-intensive. Why bother digging someone up to sell his body, was the thought, when rendering the living person lifeless would save time and trouble?  Then you’d haul the body to the nearest hospital or medical school possessed of a tolerant spirit and a desperate need, and make your sale.

Take this trio of beauties, for instance:

Thomas Williams, John Bishop, and James May. They formed an alliance, working together in 1830 on a get-somewhat-rich scheme involving persons not yet dead. They would befriend their intended victims, give them rum spiked with laudanum, and when they were unconscious, would pitch them into a well with a rope tied round their ankles, where they would remain until their expiration date. No bullet holes, no knife wounds, cause of death unknown! They had unmarked corpses to sell, and they got £7 or £8 pounds per body, without all the fuss involved in actual grave-robbing.

Win, win.

At the trial, James May was acquitted. John Bishop and Thomas Williams were hanged on the 5th of December, 1831, before an eager crowd, reputed to number 30,000.

Presumably, their bodies were then sent off to the teaching hospitals for prompt dissection.

Win, win.


Tim Mason is the author of The Darwin Affair and a playwright whose work has been produced in New York and throughout the world. Among the awards he has received are a Kennedy Center Award, the Hollywood Drama-Logue Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Rockefeller Foundation grant. In addition to his dramatic plays, he wrote the book for Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, which had two seasons on Broadway and tours nationally every year. He is also the author of the young adult novel The Last Synapsid. The Darwin Affair is his first adult novel.

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