The only thing a person expects after one’s death is for it to be the end of his/her body, but in earlier times, that was not always the case. Early in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became difficult to protect the bodies of the dead. A concept called ‘Body Snatching’ was in practice where people would secretly dig up graves and steal the bodies of the dead, and then sell the corpses for dissection or anatomy lectures in medical schools.
The people who would obtain the corpses included the medical students themselves, con artists who claimed the bodies of the poor, amateurs who stumbled upon a body or a fresh grave, and professional body snatchers who dug up and removed bodies from graveyards. Body snatching was a way for people to earn fast money.
In the 18th-19th century, mostly in the United Kingdom, medical schools were in need of human cadavers for demonstration and lecturing in order to teach students. But the problem was that the only legal way to procure the bodies was after criminal executions, which didn’t happen enough. This is when body snatching and grave robbing became popular. The grave robbers, usually in the darkness of night, would dig up graves and steal the bodies. Then the stolen corpses would be sold to the medical school. Some people even resorted to murdering people to literally produce the corpses, and then sell them to medical schools and anatomy labs.
In America, this was also common practice until the news hit the papers that a body of a white woman from the Trinity Churchyard was stolen. This is when a group of men stormed out and went to anatomy labs, took the corpses and burned them all. The doctors and students were put behind bars for their own safety. The riot continued the next day as well but ended on the intervention of the state militia.
But this did not put an end to the body-snatching trend. Medical students continued grave robbing but were more discreet about it after the laws against it were passed.
Body snatching was a lucrative business, paying as much as several months’ worth of a workman’s wages per body, which is why people were ready to resort to this job. Body snatchers had a very difficult and dangerous job. Not only did they have to deliver the body to the medical school before it decomposed too badly, but they also had to be careful and discrete while doing so.
To try to avoid the bodies of their loved ones being stolen, people started to build metal cages around the graves so the robbers would not have any way of getting to the body.
In today’s world, body snatching is not in practice anymore. Bodies available in the medical schools are either legally given or are willingly donated, and young medical students are taught to treat the body with respect and reverence.
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