Dead and Buried
The Horrible History of Bodysnatching
by Norman Adams

Impulse Press: Aberdeen, 1972

Review by
Jennifer Monroe Franson
152 pages; 27 illustrations May 2009

Resurrection Men in Scotland

Sea fog spread cold, clinging tentacles through the narrow, cobbled streets of the Firth of Forth village, as the two well-dressed strangers in the dog-cart drove up to the inn. ...

During the half-hour or so they spent in the pub, the strangers informed the ostler they were expecting a parcel to be delivered by a servant and that it would be put in the box under the seat. ...

The main topic at the inn was the notoriety the village had thrust upon it as the result some weeks before of the death of a boy who had died of hydrocephalus; water on the brain. They learned that while alive the boy had attracted the attention of doctors from as far away as Edinburgh; and the villagers had feared an attempt by medical students to wrench the body from the local graveyard. Every night since the funeral the fisherfolk had shared watches in the cemetery to prevent such an outrage.

Norman Adams' Dead and Buried? The Horrible History of Bodysnatching chronicles the dark practice of bodysnatching in Scotland during the 18th and early 19th Centuries — the heyday of the Resurrection Men.

Dead and Buried? opens on a compelling note with the February 1808 discovery of a woman's body washed up in a Scottish bay. Those who found the body quickly realized that this was no drowning victim, but rather a woman who had been decently buried six weeks earlier in nearby St. Fittick's Kirkyard. Her body had been taken from the grave by two medical students who had, in a bizarre turn of events, lost the body to the sea. The unfortunate Mrs. Spark was reinterred, and the investigating authorities concluded that it was an isolated incident, unlikely to be repeated. As it turns out, they could not have been more wrong.

Medical body-snatchers

Although medical schools urgently needed subjects for dissection, until 1832 they had few legitimate means of obtaining them. Beginning in the late 17th Century, medical schools did receive some bodies of convicted criminals, suicides, and paupers who "has few friends or acquaintances than can tak exception", but the demand for bodies consistently outstripped the supply. As a result, medical schools in Scotland and elsewhere decided to take things into their own hands, and the ghastly trade of body-snatching was born.

The book introduces a variety of colorful characters involved in the body-snatching business, including the body-snatchers themselves, both amateur and professional, and the doctors who employed them. Sometimes the doctors did their own body-snatching. One, Dr. Robert Liston, was so large and strong that he could carry a disinterred corpse under each arm. (According to Adams, Liston also holds a place in the Guinness World Records book for the fastest amputation of a limb in the pre-anesthetic era: 33 seconds — a feat somewhat marred by the fact that Liston accidentally amputated three of his own assistant's fingers in the process.)

Burke and Hare

Adams also describes the body-snatchers' methods and the ways in which survivors tried to thwart them — with contrivances ranging from iron coffins and "mort-safes" to watchmen and even booby traps. And, since the book focuses on Scotland, there are two chapters on the infamous Burke and Hare, who found it easier just to kill potential anatomical subjects than to bother with all that tiresome digging.

Unfortunately, Dead and Buried? is less a coherent history than a collection of anecdotes; the chronology is sometimes confused, and there is an unfortunate lack of footnotes. The style is also a bit uneven; some passages are well and crisply written, while others contain jarring errors in grammar and punctuation. The ambiguous position of the authorities — who understood both the importance of dissection in the training of doctors and the intensity of the outrage and revulsion felt toward the practice by the public — is touched on, but not developed as fully as it might have been. Despite these flaws, however, this book provides a fascinating look at a dark and disturbing facet of medical history.


© 2009 Jennifer Monroe Franson

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