Museum of London showcases ‘bodysnatchers’
Many surgeons in early 19th Century London faced a stark choice: should they hone their skills on stolen corpses or practise on their living patients?
The gruesome quest for bodies to dissect is explored in a major new exhibition at the Museum of London.
The display highlights the gruesome trade of “resurrection men”, plundering graveyards to meet demand from the city’s anatomy and medical schools.
Surgery in the early 1800s was a brutal business. The standard treatment for a broken bone was amputation. There was no anaesthetic or antiseptic. There was a risk of death from blood loss or infection, even after successful operations.
These procedures demanded speed and precision, but that in turn demanded practice. In the early 1800s the only legal source of bodies for dissection was executed criminals, transported straight from the gallows.
Yet by 1820 London had four major hospitals offering dissection classes and 17 private anatomy schools. For many, obtaining bodies for dissection was a problem.
All too often the solution was provided by gangs of grave robbers, raiding cemeteries and offering corpses for cash. Some even resorted to murder. These were the “resurrection men”.