27-Oct-20 Body Snatchers

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

In a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (2003 [1859], Penguin), there is a character called Jeremiah (“Jerry”) Cruncher, who is a porter at Tellson’s Bank in London. Reading the book last year, it took me a while to twig the nature of the business that he and his young son engaged in at night. We know that Jerry carries something on his conscience as he is enraged and violent each time his wife takes to praying on her knees. He is in fact a body snatcher or ‘resurrection man’.

Initially employed by anatomists in the 18th and 19th centuries who required bodies for dissection, body snatchers exhumed the bodies of the recently dead. They were grave robbers. As the number of teaching centres and hospitals grew, so did their trade.

In 1752, Parliament passed the Murder Act which allowed the bodies of executed criminals to be made available for dissection, rather than public display. However, the demand for bodies was unsated and grave robbers interestingly operated in a grey zone: human corpses were not legal property so could not be stolen or owned, as such.

Indeed, the (secular) status of the body after death remains in some legal and philosophical limbo. As Ellen Stroud (2018, p.115) neatly summarises:

The central puzzle of the law of the dead is that a corpse is both a person and a thing. […] Scholars generally divide the law of the dead body into the three intertwined realms of defining, using, and disposing of the dead, and debates in each realm center on where and how to draw the line between person and object. The thing-ness of the dead human body is never stable or secure.

The poor were most likely to fall victim to these resurrectionists, as were abandoned children, infants, and suicide victims. Deals could be struck with prison and gallows officials over recently dead or condemned prisoners.

The rich were able to secure their graves with mortsafes (iron cages around the coffin or iron boxes), with booby traps or pay a night watchman to patrol the cemetery.

In 1832, the Anatomy Act ended the tradition of anatomising felons but did allow for people to give up their bodies for dissection after death. There is evidence that this was abused by some of those managing workhouses, who facilitated for payment the journey of the unwilling but dead paupers to the anatomist’s table (Sen, 2017).

Captive populations, the poor and vulnerable remain at risk of corporal exploitation: in China, there have been allegations of organ harvesting among Falun Gong detainees; in the United States, the Arkansas Prison Plasma Scandal saw prisoners paid for blood donations, infecting thousands across the world with Hepatitis C and HIV (Chase, 2012), to devastating effect in the UK and elsewhere; in hospitals in Liverpool and Bristol, it emerged that for decades the organs of babies and children were systematically removed after they died, without their parents’ knowledge or consent (Bauchner, 2001).

While work on violence, punishment, trafficking, abuse and so on is concerned with incursion into, and exploitation of, the physical body, corporal dignity after death deserves attention too. I think of this today following the news of four deaths of migrants, including two children, in the English channel. Media coverage referred back to the death of 3-year old Alan Kurdi, whose small drowned body was photographed and disseminated around the world in 2015. Published on the pretext of ‘shocking the world into action’: no action came.

Resurrectionists are the grotesque characters of a Dickens novel: a macabre chapter of history. But we should be alert to the contemporary ways in which bodies continue to be stolen and misused.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 


Bauchner, H., 2001. What have we learnt from the Alder Hey affair? That monitoring physician’s performance is necessary to ensure good practice. British Medical Journal, 322(7282): 309–310. Available at:  https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7282.309

Chase, S., 2012. The Bloody Truth: Examining America’s Blood Industry and its Tort Liability Through the Arkansas Prison Plasma Scandal. William & Mary Business Law Review, 3(3). Available at: https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmblr/vol3/iss2/6

Sen, S., 2017. From Dispossession to Dissection: The Bare Life of the English Pauper in the Age of the Anatomy Act and the New Poor Law. Victorian Studies, 59(2), pp.235-259. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/victorianstudies.59.2.02

Stroud, E., 2018. Law and the Dead Body: Is a Corpse a Person or a Thing?Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 14, pp.115-125. Available at: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-110316-113500

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