Monday, September 19, 2011

The Anatomists and the Body Snatchers

On Christmas Day 1818 William Hurst, one of a family of numerous siblings from whom both my maternal grandparents decended, sat down to eat the cake his wife Sarah had just prepared.

By all accounts it was not a happy marriage and my suspicion, although I have no direct evidence, is that William was an abusive husband. Certainly the neighbours recalled a violent argument going on in the Hursts' dwelling after their return from church that morning - and they did not find this an unusual circumstance.

Their suspicions were not aroused, even when Sarah came round to borrow some rat poison - quite openly asking for it. Nor can William have had any idea what she did with it - for he ate enough of the cake in which she had put it to kill him.

Fifty year old Sarah was arrested on December 28th "on a violent suspicion with having at the Parish of Little Horwood in the County of Bucks, administered poison to her husband Wm.Hurst, in consequence of which he the said Wm.Hurst died."

Sarah was committed to prison in the county town of Aylesbury and, at her trial found guilty. The sentence is given as:
Death - to be Hanged on 12th March, and her Body to be Dissected and Anatomised pursuant to the Statute.

The statute was the Act that permitted the bodies of hanged criminals to be given to surgeons and anatomists for dissection and research if the judge at their trial so directed. It was considered a paticularly heavy sentence for, after the dissection, the unwanted remains would not be permitted burial in consecrated grounds. Sarah had killed her husband - considered almost a form of treason - hence this additional penalty.

But because this severe sentence was relatively rare there was a corresponding scarcity of bodies for the doctors, surgeons and scientists who were finding their researches severely hampered. Soon desperate surgeons and adaptable criminals started to come together to fill this gap in the market. Grave robbers opened fresh graves and stole the corpses and surgeons made little secret of the fact that they would pay good money for such corpses.

The Edinburgh surgeons are perhaps the most famous for this - due largely to the notorious Burke and Hare who moved from grave robbing to murder to keep the anatomists happy. But it happened all over the country, aided by the fact that to steal a corpse was not a felony, but a misdemeanor. Provided the robbers were careful not to remove any item of grave goods with the body the worst that could happen to them was a fine or short prison term.

Sir Astley Cooper, surgeon to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria was quite open about his use of corpses obtained from body snatchers and the practice helped him develop such life-saving procedures as the first tying of an abdominal aorta to cure aneurysm. Astley Cooper boasted There is no person, whatever his position in life might be, whose body after death [I] could not obtain. The law only enhances the price and does not prevent the exhumation.

Last week I visited Great Yarmouth and discovered that in 1827 Thomas Vaughan managed to steal ten corpses from the churchyard of St Nicholas (shown below in a late 18thc view from the market place) over a period of nineteen days, including the body of an infant, a small child, a young woman and a 67 year old man. The corpses were packed in sawdust in crates labelled "Glass - handle with care" and taken by wagon to London where they were exhibited in an upstairs room of an inn outside the gates of St Bartholemew's Hospital. Surgeons would call in and select the body of their choice, paying between 10 and 12 guineas for each one.

Vaughan was arrested and eventually sentenced to six months in prison - his grateful clients paid his legal fees and an allowance to his wife while he was in jail.

The general populace, of course, regarded this practice with fear and horror and all kinds of measures were tried to foil the robbers - watchmen in graveyards, metal cages over graves, iron coffins - but still the grisly trade continued. Eventually, largely due to the outcry over Burke and Hare, the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed, allowing the use by anatomnists of any unclaimed corpse and the worst of the body snatching ceased.

There are so many points of view in this gruesome history - the terrified condemned woman on the scaffold, the surgeons desperate to save lives by the advancement of knowledge, the horrified and grieving relatives and the hardened robbers themselves. What would they have made of modern science and a society where many people, as a matter of course, leave provision in their wills for their organs to be used for transplants and research?

Louise Allen


Jane Jackson said...

A fascinating and informative article, Louise. It's always interesting to have a black sheep or two in the family history. They provide a terrific source of story material!

Alison said...

Have you read The Italian Boy Louise? This is a very interesting book about the consequences of body snatching.

Anonymous said...

Sarah Grizzle Hurst is my fourth great grandmother. I knew she poisoned William, but I did not know what she used or why she murdered him. Thanks for the info.