Up until the late 14th century, Galen's writings (A.D. 129-216) were an unchallenged source of information on human anatomy. In thelate medieval period, however, the field of medicine began to change. Doctorsand their students sought information that was drawn from their own observation and experience. They believed that a better understanding of the human body would allow them to practice medicine more effectively. Accordingly, dissection of cadavers for information and instruction became a part of medicine.The practice was not widespread until the 15th century and didn't reach the British Isles until the mid-16th century.
Initially, lecturers dissected a body while students observed, and the demandfor cadavers was low. Later, as schools became more numerous and students began conducting dissections themselves, the need for cadavers grew. Countrieson continental Europe met the challenge by passing anatomy laws on how anatomists could acquire bodies. In Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States,however, such laws did not exist until nearly the mid-19th century.
Previously, the laws that did exist were very restrictive. For example, the town council in Edinburgh, Scotland granted a charter to the city's surgeons allowing them one body per year.
In desperation, anatomists turned to grave robbery as a means of acquiring bodies for dissection. Initially, these thefts were conducted by anatomists andtheir students, but by the mid-18th century, there arose a class of thieveswho made their living from this gruesome practice. These so-called resurrectionists or resurrection men entered graveyards on the night following a funeral. Working silently, with as little light as possible, they unburied the upper part of the coffin in the new grave. After breaking through the lid, they slipped a noose around the corpse's neck and dragged the body from the grave.The grave was returned to its original appearance, and the resurrectionists brought the body to an anatomy school. At the anatomy school, they received money for the body, generally with no questions asked.
Thousands of graves were robbed in the late 18th century and early 19th century, primarily in and around Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London.
Descriptions of grave robbery turn up frequently in the literature of the time. For example, the character Jerry Cruncher in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities described his line of work as a "tradesman" dealing in "a branch of scientific goods" in answer to his son's questions about what a resurrection man did. Naturally, the public was disgusted and angry about the resurrectionists' activities and the anatomists' indirect involvement. It was notuncommon for people to sit guard by the grave of a friend or relative for several days following a burial. Some people installed heavy iron gates over the graves of their loved ones in order to discourage grave robbers. Locked gates, traps, and other devices were also used. The resurrectionists ran the risk of being attacked by guards defending a graveyard, and there are reports ofsome being shot and killed. Violence sometimes led to riots, and more than one anatomy school was destroyed by angry mobs both in Britain and the UnitedStates.
Laws regarding the practice were not changed until the British 1832 Anatomy Act. American laws were passed on a state by state basis and most had laws inplace by the 1840s.
These laws were inspired in large part by the actions of resurrectionists whoturned to murder to supply the anatomists with cadavers. The most notoriousof these men were William Hare and William Burke who committed their crimes in Edinburgh in 1828. Burke and Hare first sold the body of a man who had diedin Hare's boarding house. Afterward, they and two female associates allegedly planned and committed 16 murders within nine months and sold the bodies toan anatomy school. Friends of their last victim discovered what they were doing and reported them to the police. Only Burke was convicted of the crimes and was executed at the end of 1828. (Ironically, his body was turned over to an anatomist for public dissection.) Similar crimes were reported in London and in several American cities, and public outrage forced legislators to pass laws permitting anatomists a legal source of cadavers. Once these laws were inplace, grave robbery quickly declined.