The Diary of a Resurrectionist: The Value of Death

The Dissecting Room by Thomas Rowlandson
The Dissecting Room by Thomas Rowlandson

Attending medical school in this century has a number of challenges. There is tuition, books, fees, and even things such as parking stickers that the students may have to worry about getting before the first day of class. However, back in 1896 the major supplies that medical students and schools were concerned about were cadavers.

Rise of the Resurrection Men

In the United Kingdom, specifically, there was a huge deficit in cadavers to use for instruction, training, and demonstrations. The need for these dead bodies became so intense that the occupation of “Resurrection Men” was born. The job description for these Resurrection Men was simple – they were instructed to go into cemeteries, exhume corpses, and transport them to the respective schools and institutions for dissection.
Previously schools in England gathered their cadavers from the judicial system, and criminals that were sentenced to death were the sole suppliers. During the 18th century, hundreds of people were put to death over petty crimes, but by the 19th century the judicial system and laws had matured so much conviction to capital punishment became less common. An average of only 55 people per year were sentenced to capital punishment, but, with the expansion of medical schools, the need for cadavers climbed to 500 bodies per year. This made the need for Resurrection Men vital in filling the gap.

Efforts to Protect the Dead

This lucrative, yet illegal, punishable by fines or imprisonment, business was booming for quite some years. It became so popular that friends and family of the recently deceased would take turns watching over their loved one’s dead bodies. The angst did not stop there. Once the corpse was in


the ground, many families continued to protect their dead by adding iron bars and structures over the graves called mortsafes or morthouses. This did not discourage all stealing as there were several techniques used by these men to retrieve the bodies.

The first, in which they would use a wooden shovel to create less noise than metal, was to dig 4 ft. into the ground at the head of the grave, expose the coffin, break it open, and then tie a rope around the corpse and pull it out. An 1896 article in the Lancet reported a much more complicated, inconspicuous approach where the Resurrection Men picked a spot 14 – 15 feet away from the head of the grave, removed some turf, dug a small slanting tunnel towards the grave to reach the coffin buried 4 or 5 feet down, tore off the head of the coffin, then pulled the corpse out through the tunnel, replacing the earth in the tunnel afterwards and covering it with the turf square. The article claimed in some cases the family would not even be able to tell that the grave had been disturbed. However, this method would have been almost impossible to carry out and would have been more obvious than re-digging in the original earth that had been removed during the burial. Some Resurrectionists were cemetery-keepers who would simply remove the body to a sack before they buried the coffin. In whatever method used, they were extremely careful not to take any clothing, personal belongings, or jewelry that had been on the corpse, as stealing was a felony, even though body snatching was not.

Anatomy Act of 1832

Anatomy Act of 1832

As this business became more and more profitable for the Resurrection Men, it became more and more disheartening for the families around the United Kingdom. After extreme cases occurred where people who were innocent and perfectly well were murdered to provide bodies, an uproar arose with many rallying and crying that enough was enough. In a move to protect civil justice and peace of mind, the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed. The Anatomy Act required the licensing of anatomy teachers and regulated the supply of cadavers for medical research and education by giving physicians, surgeons, and medical students legal access to unclaimed corpses, especially of people who had died in prison or workhouses. It also allowed a person to donate his own or next of kin’s corpse, if there were no objection by other kin, in exchange for burial paid by the anatomy school. This completely dissolved the need for Resurrection Men.

Diary of a Resurrectionist

Front cover of James Bailey's Diary of a Resurrectionist. P. I. NIxon Medical Historical Library.
Front cover of James Bailey’s Diary of a Resurrectionist. P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library.

The Diary of a Resurrectionist, a book published by James Bailey in 1896 that contains portions of a diary actually kept by a member of a resurrectionist gang in London,  is owned by the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library. Though Bailey left out any gory details, it still proves to be an interesting read. Even though you are able to find almost the entire body of the work online, being able to view the hard copy is a treasure itself, reminding you to value life the way these resurrection men of the 1800’s valued death.

Anatomy Act of 1832.” Segen’s Medicial Dictionary, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 14 Jan. 2015. Act 1832
“Body Snatching.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 14 Jan. 2015.
Bailey, James. The Diary of a Resurrectionist. The Project Gutenberg. Web. 14 Jan. 2015.
“Thomas Wakley, the Founder of ‘The Lancet.’ A biography. Chapter III.” Lancet, vol. i. p. 285-287, Jan 18, 1896.

Anatomy act of 1832:
The Dissecting Room:

Tressica Thomas B.S., SLP-A
DEHS Student- School of Medicine

Article Categories: Treasures of the P.I. Nixon