Cadavers, Corpses, and Bodysnatchers: A Brief History of Medical Dissection

Updated: 4 days ago

by Madeline Baldrey April 3, 2021

Anatomy study, McGill medical students, Montreal, QC, 1884. McCord Museum [Digital image]. Retrieved from https://blogs.library.mcgill.ca/osler-library/history-of-bodysnatching/


If you are a fan of criminal investigation and medical movies or series you’re apt to think that autopsies and human dissection are a very common form of investigation and medical education. TV programs like Murdoch Mysteries frequently feature their protagonists in a morgue examining a dead body, trying to discern a cause of death or discover a clue that will spur them on in the hunt for the killer. Similarly, the medical interns of the series Grey’s Anatomy refine their surgical skills on recently deceased patients, leading to much amusement and calamity.


While now considered light entertainment and fit for television, Western society’s general acceptance of human dissection is a relatively new phenomenon, emerging at the turn of the 20th century. However, the practice of human dissection for the purpose of education goes back centuries and was frequently the source of conflicts between medical professionals and the public at large.


The history of autopsies and human dissection is a fascinating tale full of mystery, murder, and suspense.


The first autopsy can be traced back to 300 BCE in the Mediterranean city-state of Alexandria when a pair of physicians studied corpses in hopes of learning about the origins of disease. This exploration of the body’s mysteries continued through Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire collapsed and the Christian Church came into prominence, human dissection was outlawed. The practice experienced a small resurgence during the Renaissance period as scholars endeavoured to retrace and surpass the ancient world’s discoveries, but the strength of the Church held sway preventing widespread acceptance.


The true golden age of anatomy was in the late 18th and 19th centuries. This period through to the 20th century is due to the emergence of the medical profession as a respectable trade. Human dissection may have been frowned upon by the Church, but in England, it was understood that the study of anatomy would further medical knowledge and therefore some human dissection should be allowed. Starting in the mid-1700s young men flocked to newly founded medical schools, eager to learn all they could about the anatomy and structure of the human body. However, the number of medical students vastly outnumbered the amount of available fresh bodies. And thus, a ghoulish new trend emerged: body snatching.

Medical schools were granted, as cadavers, the bodies of executed felons because dissection was seen as a “vile act” and therefore further punishment for a felon's crimes. This tradition was legalized through the “Murder Act” of 1752 which decreed that, after their execution, the body of every murderer would be given over to medical schools for dissection.


However, even the number of bodies from executed felons was not sufficient to feed the rush of incoming students, which led to an innovative – if macabre – solution to their plight. Students began “body snatching”, which involved digging up freshly buried corpses in the dead of night and sneaking them back to the medical schools where they would be dissected by their fellow students.


Body Snatching Case. (1883, January 18). Ottawa Daily Citizen.


Soon, the self-titled “Resurrectionists” developed a series of strategies for claiming a corpse. The resurrectionists would dig a hole at the top of the grave and pull the body out using a hook. Then they would strip the body of its clothes and valuables, discarding them beside the now empty grave. It was important to leave the valuables behind as it was illegal to rob a corpse of its possessions but not to steal the body itself. The public was so outraged by the body thefts that they began burying their loved ones in metal coffins or covering the graves with large slabs of stone or cement. In one case a father filled his child’s coffin with gunpowder in hopes of deterring thieves.


Despite the outrage, the demand for cadavers increased, and the thefts continued. Legitimate sources for acquiring a fresh cadaver were so limited that soon body snatching became a lucrative trade for those outside the medical profession. Criminal gangs were formed, devoting their time stealing fresh corpses and selling them to desperate medical schools. Demand was so high they were able to demand exorbitant prices which the schools had no choice but to pay. There are infamous stories of gangs selling a corpse to one school, only to steal it back and sell it to another.


William Burke, The Notorious Murderer; [Digital Image] Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2019/10/24/to-study-a-body-first-you-had-to-dig-one-up-how-medical-students-in-canada-earned-a-ghoulish-reputation.html


While the majority of criminals contented themselves with plundering already dead specimens, some men took it upon themselves to create their own product. The most infamous of these was the murderous pair William Burke and William Hare in 1827. Hare owned a boarding house in Edinburgh, Scotland, and after a guest died with an outstanding bill, Burke & Hare sold the body to the local medical school. The pair realised they could turn a higher profit by killing their tenants and selling their corpses than by running a traditional boarding house. By the time they were caught in 1828, they had murdered 16 people. In an ironic twist of fate, after he was executed for his crimes William Burke was publicly dissected and his skull continues to be on display to this day at the Edinburgh College of Surgeons. Clearly, the public did not take issue with dissections so long as the deceased was believed to deserve their fate.


In Canada, while there are no recorded cases of murder for medical purposes, body snatching was a ‘grave’ problem during the mid to late 19th century. With three new medical schools in Montreal and Kingston, the country’s small population was overrun by young medical students who viewed body-snatching as a rite of passage. In Montreal, young, wealthy students would get drunk and break into the Côte-des-Neiges cemetery, wrap the corpses in blankets and use them to toboggan down Mount Royal’s hills. In Kingston, male medical students would use the bodies to pull pranks on the female students at the women’s college. One such prank involved propping a body in trees outside the women’s dorms in hopes of scaring them. These flagrant acts enraged the local public who on several occasions stormed the medical schools in angry mobs determined to punish the culprits.

Body Snatching. (1884, April 01). Manitoba Free Press.


While the general public was against human dissection, the Canadian government understood that the practice was vital to learning about disease and health and that no matter how distasteful, was essential to ensuring the population’s health. Therefore, in 1843, the federal government passed the Anatomy Act which was intended to make bodies more readily available for students’ medical studies while placating the public’s anger at the ongoing grave robbing. Once enacted, anyone who died in government-run facilities had to be handed over to universities if no one claimed their body.

While Central Canada might have a long-established history of utilizing the dead for the sake of furthering medicine, British Columbia has also recognized the benefit corpses pose to education, albeit in a slightly different manner. While there is no record of grave robbing in BC, the province does have a fascinating footnote on the use of autopsy results for education, thanks to Glen McDonald, Vancouver’s very own Chief Coroner from 1954 to 1980. McDonald, who worked in the very building which now houses the museum, believed that the general public, not just medical personnel, could learn a lot from the dead.


Glen Mcdonald: Vancouver's Colourful Coroner; [Digital Image] Retrieved from https://evelazarus.com/tag/glen-mcdonald/


McDonald liked to call himself “the ombudsman of the dead.” While normally a coroner’s court holds inquests and endeavours to investigate the manner of deaths in order to prevent future deaths, McDonald believed that it was his duty to go a step further, and he created a visual presentation so that the dead could “educate the living.” With the help of his colleague, Morgue Technician George Shoebottom, McDonald set up a travelling museum of preserved specimens obtained from various BC autopsies, including those from grisly deaths. The items were all real and preserved in formaldehyde and included aborted fetuses, a stabbed heart, a brain with a gunshot wound, a smoker’s lung and much more. The display was dubbed “The Fabulous Travelling Wax Museum”, as a nod to early ‘freak shows’ from the early 20th century. McDonald knew that, sometimes, images speak louder than words.


People often do not like to hear or read about death, but the visual nature of the exhibits captured the audience's attention making them want to learn more about the topic.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the specimen exhibit travelled across the province to visit high schools, educating teenagers about the detrimental impact risky behaviours, like smoking and drinking, could have on their bodies. However, the travelling museum was not solely reserved for educating young students; the exhibition was frequently presented at luncheon meetings in local NGOs, such as the Board of Trade, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, and the Chamber of Commerce. The macabre collection was so popular that it was even displayed, to long lineups, at the annual Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) one year.


While the Travelling Wax Museum is no longer in rotation, it continues to educate the public as part of an exhibit at the Vancouver Police Museum and Archives.


As the Travelling Wax Museum grew in size and became more popular, the formaldehyde specimens were hung like “Venetian Blinds” onto a custom-designed box attached to folding doors in order to facilitate their presentation and ease of travel. These specimens – still housed on their original doors – are on permanent display in the museum’s autopsy suite where visitors can see for themselves the impact of gunshots on hearts, aneurysms in the brain, and alcohol on the liver.


For over 300 years human dissection has played a critical role in the advancement of Western medicine. While initially abhorred by almost all members of society and the cause of encouraging criminal activity in the form of ‘body snatching’, human dissection is now accepted as a vital teaching tool for both the medical community and the public at large.



Sources

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Frank, Julia Bess. "Body Snatching: A Grave Medical Problem." The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, March 3, 1976, 399-410. https://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC2595508&blobtype=pdf.


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Belyea, Scott. "A Century of Snatching." Ontario History 108, no. 1 (2018): 24-42. doi:10.7202/1050610ar.


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Daubs, Katie. "To Study a Body, First You Had to Dig One Up. How Medical Students in Canada Earned a Ghoulish Reputation." Thestar.com. October 24, 2019. Accessed November 05, 2020. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2019/10/24/to-study-a-body-first-you-had-to-dig-one-up-how-medical-students-in-canada-earned-a-ghoulish-reputation.html.


Mitchell, Piers D., Ceridwen Boston, Andrew T. Chamberlain, Simon Chaplin, Vin Chauhan, Jonathan Evans, Louise Fowler, Natasha Powers, Don Walker, Helen Webb, and Annsofie Witkin. "The Study of Anatomy in England from 1700 to the Early 20th Century." Journal of Anatomy. August 2011. Accessed November 05, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3162231/.


McDonald, Glen, and John Kirkwood. How Come I’m Dead? Surrey, B.C.: Hancock House, 1985.


Lazarus, Eve. "Glen McDonald." Eve Lazarus. January 19, 2019. Accessed November 05, 2020. https://evelazarus.com/tag/glen-mcdonald/.