Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Dead and Unburied

It's obviously important to ensure that one's research is diligently undertaken when writing historical novels. You can be sure that if you assume you know something and don't bother to check, then nine times out of ten you'll make a mistake, inviting readers' criticism.

With that in mind I was recently researching the origins of death certificates and discovered rather more than I'd bargained for. Death certificates became mandatory in 1832, following the passing of the Anatomy Act in the Houses of Parliament. This was considered to be necessary in order to discourage body snatchers or "resurrection men", who met the demand for bodies for anatomical dissection in medical universies by robbing fresh graves or claiming the bodies of persons without family who had died in hospital or parish workhouses.

With fees of up to fifteen guineas per cadaver this proved to be a lucrative occupation and it didn't take long for demand to outstrip supply. Undaunted, our inventive body snatchers turned to another source, i.e. murder. John Bishop and James May, operating in London's East End in 1831 had the market cornered, so to speak, and many elderly or solitary persons in rooming houses fell victim to their avaracious exploits.

A surgeon in King's College, London eventually found them out. He noticed that the body of a fourteen-year-old boy appeared quite fresh, displaying no signs of recent burial, and had an open wound upon his forehead. The police were called, Bishop and May were tried, convicted and executed. And thus followed the Anatomy Act.

Oh, and by the way, the bodies Bishop and another body snatcher, Burke, were delivered to the anatomists after their executions. Poetic justice?

Wendy Soliman

1 comment:

Melinda Hammond said...

What an interesting subject, Wendy. It was obviously not a good idea to be old or alone in those days!

With no photographs, TV or radio, many people must have just diappeared without trace (some of them probably on purpose).