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Pinching by the Inch

When demand exceeds supply, either prices go up or supply increases. And people often go outside the law to increase supply. That’s why they steal copper today and why they stole corpses in the past.

It was called body-snatching and it began when demand for corpses exceeded legal supply. Medical schools needed them to teach their students anatomy, but dissection of a corpse was seen as disgusting and degrading and it was legal only if the corpse was that of an executed criminal. In a way, it was an additional punishment: the criminal had broken society’s laws, so society would not protect his corpse from desecration.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, laws were very harsh and there was a steady supply of executed criminals for dissection. Then this slowly changed: capital punishment began to be used only for serious crimes like murder. The supply of corpses fell sharply even as the demand for them rose, because more medical schools were opening. The gap was filled by body-snatchers, who dug up graves, extracted the corpses  and carried them off to sell to dissectors at medical schools.

The body-snatchers, or resurrectionists, were paid by the size of the corpse, so you could say that they were pinching by the inch. Body-snatching became a serious problem, often reported in the newspapers and described by famous authors like Charles Dickens. Although the authorities were inclined to tolerate it, because doctors would otherwise be unable to learn anatomy properly, the friends and relatives of a dead person were understandably horrified and sickened at the thought of their loved one being stolen and cut up. There was a battle of wits with the body-snatchers, who had to steal the body while it was still fresh or it would be useless for dissection.

Knowing this, friends and relatives would keep watch over the grave until the body was too decomposed to be useful. Another precaution against body-snatching was burial in an iron coffin, but the ingenuity of the body-snatchers often defeated the vigilance of the body-protectors. If a grave was being watched, they sometimes dug long tunnels to reach the coffin. If they could, they would break the coffin open before it was buried, taking out the body and replacing it with something heavy so that the theft was not suspected.

They had to be careful about what they stole from the coffin. If the body was buried in expensive clothes or wearing jewellery, it was safer to leave these items behind. “Interfering with a grave” and stealing a body was a misdemeanour, punished by a fine or short term of imprisonment, but theft of clothing or jewellery was a felony and could be punished by transportation to an overseas colony or even execution.

But some body-snatchers weren’t frightened of these risks. Indeed, the notorious Burke and Hare of Edinburgh went even further. They didn’t steal bodies, they created their own by committing murder. This guaranteed that their bodies were very fresh, but it also guaranteed the death sentence if they were caught and found guilty of murder. They were indeed caught, but Hare turned “king’s evidence” against Burke, testifying against him in return for immunity from prosecution. Burke was found guilty and hanged, then his corpse were handed over for immediate dissection at the University of Edinburgh.

After his release from jail, public indignation at Hare was so intense that he had to flee Scotland in fear of his life. He was last seen near Carlisle, tramping south towards an unknown fate. The activities of body-snatchers like Burke and Hare made the authorities realize that the law had to be changed. In 1832, Parliament passed the Anatomy Act, which made it legal for bodies to be dissected if they were unclaimed or had been donated to medical science by the family. This meant that the legal supply of corpses now met demand from the medical schools, so the market in stolen corpses collapsed. Body-snatching had been an interesting, if unsavoury, lesson in the laws of economics.