Feature Body Snatching Around The World

Find out more about this historical, gruesome crime.

Body Snatching Around The World

The dark practice of body snatching is directly tied to the advancements in the study of anatomy and medicine. The term was coined to describe the act of secretly removing corpses from graves for sale, primarily to medical schools where they were used for dissection and anatomy lessons.

In fact, the first known case of body snatching was committed by four medical students in Bologna in 1319. Several years earlier the famed professor at Bologna, Mundinus, had revived the study and teaching of anatomy. He conducted public dissections of bodies, usually those of condemned criminals.

In the 17th and 18th centuries body snatching reached epic proportions around the world. There was a reduction in executions, the traditional source of cadavers. There was also, simultaneously, a proliferation of medical schools and the study of anatomy. Poor refrigeration methods meant a deficit of fresh bodies for medical study. Furthermore, the punishment was minimal – the convicted were given a fine or imprisoned.

The practice was condoned by many medical practitioners and institutions who believed it was a necessary evil, one that was offset by the benefits anatomical study of the bodies would produce.

The increasing demand for fresh cadavers gave rise to “ressurectionists”, men paid to dig up and deliver bodies. Ressurectionists would work in teams, mainly targeting new graves because it was easier to dig up the unsettled earth. They would send spies to funerals - usually women - to scout the grave and plan for the removal of the body.

A particular target for ressurectionists were the mass graves that the poor were often buried in. These graves were left uncovered until they were full of coffins. Single graves were far more troublesome to break into – a tunnel would have to be dug, sometimes four feet down, the coffin broken into and the body carried to the surface.

It became more common, especially in Europe, for the relatives of the deceased to watch over their graves and many means of prevention were developed, such as iron coffins, grave alarms and more famously the iron bar structure built around a coffin known as a Mortsafe.

To try and contain the escalating situation, the 1832 Anatomy Act was passed in the United Kingdom, making body snatching a criminal offence.

However, body snatching continued to occur throughout the late 19th century. In 1875 the bodies of typhoid affected students at a Canadian convent school were stolen before relatives could arrive to claim them.

The dark practice continues to haunt the dead today. In 2006, four men were charged with body-stealing. They had been selling body parts they obtained without consent from corpses in morgues and funeral homes in New York City. The body parts were sold for transplant and medical study.

Although there are many modern laws designed to prevent body snatching, it continues to be a lucrative underground business.