Before the demand from anatomy schools for fresh cadavers grew to such an extent that body snatching became a lucrative full-time career in the early 19th century, medical students became body snatchers themselves.
Stealing corpses from Scotland’s churchyards to provide fresh material or the dissecting table.
In the mid to late 18th century, there was no need for a professional resurrectionist. In fact, they hadn’t even been thought of yet.
Medical students in Scotland became body snatchers out of necessity. Few cadavers ended up on the dissecting table via the legitimate route of the gallows. Glasgow students paid their tuition fees by supplying corpses for anatomy lessons while in Edinburgh, students stealing cadavers became so heightened that by 1721, a clause forbidding apprentices’ to steal dead bodies was included in their Indenture.
Student numbers still remained fairly low at this stage and needs could be met simply by snatching your own cadaver.
Public awareness of graves being targeted by students was also low, and so there was nothing for the anatomists or students, Britain’s future surgeons, to fear in regards to losing their reputation.
But students didn’t always make the greatest of body snatchers, as you can see in an earlier blog post, where I share the story of the snatching of Janet Spark in 1808 from the Aberdeenshire village of Nigg.
They were clumsy, untidy and on many occasions, nervous about the task that lay ahead of them.
Glasgow Medical Students
Glasgow’s most notorious body snatching case involving medical students was in December 1813 when they targeted Ramshorn Kirkyard on Ingram Street and stole the cadaver of Mrs. McAllaster.
Word about the snatching soon got out and one of Pattison’s apprentices ran to forwarn the anatomist what he’d heard.
Unfortunately, there were two snatchings that evening, the other being from the Cathedral and Pattison felt sure that it was that cadaver that they were looking for and not the one currently being dissected in his rooms on College St.
He could not have been more wrong. Authorities raided his anatomy rooms, and through the identification of the teeth surmised that the body laid out on the dissecting table was that of Mrs McAllaster.
At the trial which lasted over 16 hours, Pattison and the students involved got off extremely lightly:
You are now acquitted of the verdict of a resectable jury, and from the present trial, I trust you will learn caution and circumspection in your future conduct. You will not consider yourself entitled to violate the graves of the dead, even for the purposes of science
They had been warned.
Glasgow however, braced itself for a steady stream of snatchings many of which involved more than one midnight student raid, and with Glasgow students permitted to pay their college fees in corpses, there was no shortage of takers when it came to keeping the anatomy tables well stocked.
On a May night in 1831, a small gang of body snatchers attempted to snatch the corpse of building worker, John Dempster.
The trio of body snatchers that night included 19-year-old John Carmichael, a medical student, who was either there to line his own pockets with a few pence or, as is more probable, accompany the body snatchers he’d employed to snatch a cadaver for his own studies.
Either he was curious as to the methods used, or, by assisting in the raid, may have been able to bring the price down a little.
Glasgow Cathedral had a watch posted that night, as was usual, and the trio were caught as they were actually snatching Dempster from his grave. Two of the gang were able to make their escape, but Carmichael was less fortunate and was caught by his leg as he tried to climb over the Cathedral wall.
Although he claimed he was merely been taking a shortcut to his residence opposite the Cathedral in High Street, his story wasn’t believed and he was charged with violating a grave.
His case however never made it to the courtroom for it is thought that the family of John Dempster, the would-be subject, were bribed to drop the charge.
Students linked to body snatching became too much for the University and as early as 1813 they had had enough.
A new rule was issued stating that if any student were caught being linked to body snatching in any way, they would be expelled. Not so for John Carmichael, it would seem.
High Church, Glasgow
In 1816 a group of men descended on the churchyard of High Church in Glasgow with the intent of stealing a dead body.
Warned off more than once by the watching party in the graveyard that night, the group paid no heed to the warning shots fired, and by 1 AM, the watch called for the police after taking one of the party into custody.
The unfortunate individual turned out to be a medical student who had entered the graveyard, it was supposed, to steal a corpse, for on the ground near the grave was an empty bag intended for transporting the cadaver to the medical school.
Aberdeen Medical Students
If there’s one word that could sum up the medical students of Aberdeen at the close of the 18th century it would be ‘keen’.
It was not unheard of for students to hire a small boat and row up the mighty River Dee to target churchyards along the way. I mentioned the snatching of Janet Spark before, but one group of students in 1882, hired a boat and targeted the riverside parish of Peterculter just so they could keep ‘tradition’ and celebrate 50 years of the passing of the Anatomy Act!
Such was the need for the supply of cadavers in Aberdeen that students established a Medical Society in December of 1789, hoping to build on their knowledge and perhaps get a few extra-mural dissecting sessions in too.
Members of the Society went on a midnight raid to the ever-popular churchyard at Banchory -Devenick, only a few short miles outside of Aberdeen. They were hoping to secure the cadaver of a boy after their medical lecturer had a desire to ‘find out what was the matter with him’.
After taking a well-known body snatcher with them who went by the name of ‘Long Ned’, the gang were caught by a group of angry locals and chased out of the churchyard. On reaching the edge of town their way was barred by more angry parishioners.
Forced to ditch the boy’s corpse into the freezing River Dee and flee for their lives, the cadaver was at least rescued and saved from the horrors of dissection.
It is said that Aberdeen medical students and specifically members of the Medical Society, earned themselves 10s 6d for watching over graveyards in the neighbourhood when in reality, all they were doing is helping their teachers exhume corpses.
Unearthing Human Limbs
Rather a delicate subject finding human limbs buried behind an anatomical theatre. But this is exactly what happened to two boys when they were walking home one evening in 1831 and their route took them along the back of the anatomy theatre in St Andrew’s street.
The bones, more specifically an arm bone, were unearthed by a stray dog, who, presumably attracted by the stench, had started to investigate. With much hue and cry, the boys eventually managed to amass a crowd of around 10,000 – 20,000 (depending upon your source) who descended on the anatomical theatre determined to cause damage.
It turned out that this particular medical establishment, only recently opened by anatomist Dr Andrew Moir, had been burying their subjects in the wasteland at the back of the theatre once they were no longer of any use.
This unethical action caused such a fury in the assembled crowd that the anatomy theatre was sacked and burned, and all its furniture, together with medical equipment destroyed.
To celebrate their triumph over the anatomists, the crowd marched through the street carrying aloft the three cadavers that had been rescued from the dissecting table.
Moir, was in such fear for his life that his only escape was to run to the nearby church of St Nicholas and crouch behind a gravestone until the coast was clear.
Edinburgh Medical Students
Body snatching and Edinburgh is so much more than the duo Burke and Hare, who, as any true crime fan knows, were actually murderers and never touched a spade in their life.
One favourite story of mine associated with Edinburgh’s medical students, and many more parishes besides, is the following story based in Gilmerton, which lies about 4-miles south of the city centre.
Wanting to provide a cadaver for the following morning’s anatomy class, three inexperienced medical students made their way nervously to the church in the hope of lifting a suitable body.
The grave of a female was targeted and the body safely exhumed when the students realised they’d made the most fatal error. They’d forgotten to bring with them a sack in which to carry her.
Not wanting to waste their efforts, the corpse was slung over one of the student’s shoulders and held roughly in place by the burial shroud.
Heads down and focused on their task, the students started to make their way back to Edinburgh.
With nerves already on edge, it didn’t take long for overactive imaginations to kick in. As the party walked home, the corpse slowly slid down the back of the student, its feet dragging on the floor, its knees banging on the back of the student’s legs.
‘My God! She’s Alive’ one of them cried as they dropped the cadaver in the middle of the road and fled in the direction of home.
Imagine then the horror of the woman’s husband as he found her lying in the road the next morning. Wild thoughts of his wife having been buried alive were hard to suppress even after much persuasion from his friends that body snatchers had been trying to do their work.
Curbing the Students of Edinburgh
Student involvement in body snatching was becoming something of a concern in Edinburgh by the early 1700s.
In 1711, following an outburst from the public the Incorporation of Surgeons noted:
Of late there has been a violation of the sepulchres . . . by some who most unchristianly have been stealing, or at least carrying away, the bodies of the dead out of their graves
When apprentices enrolled with the Royal College of Surgeons after 1721, they’d find a clause in their indentures strictly forbidding them to steal dead bodies.
Neither of these warnings had any effect on the students who were determined to carry on as usual.
Perth Medical Students
Perth was the target of some very early body snatching raids by the medical profession and as early as 1724 the Town Council had already passed an act against body snatching in the town’s main churchyard, Greyfriars.
A £10 reward (roughly £1,100 in today’s money) was offered to those who informed authorities of anyone in breach of the act, coming particularly hard down on the ‘chirurgeons’ themselves.
A steep fine of £20 (roughly £2,300) would be issued for those violating the rules as well as losing the privilege of practising medicine in the town.
But the snatchings carried on and the Town Council were forced to issue a further warning in the early 1730s. Written within the Town Council’s own records we find that:
Apprentices and others to be fined £5 Stirling, whipped and pilloried
Cases continued to rumble on however with students being caught red-handed in a body snatching raid in 1784, stealing the body of a man from a local graveyard. Issuing warnings it seems was pointless.
As the medical establishments of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh began to take hold and gain authority, body snatching activities began to slow down and eventually stop in Perth.
Soon there would be no medical students left in the city, but that didn’t mean to say that body snatching in the area would cease altogether. This can be proved by the anti body snatching devices dotted around the local area; mortsafes in Logierait and watch houses in Caputh and Kinfauns for example.
Professional Body Snatchers
As student numbers increased, so the demand for cadavers didn’t abate. The constant need for lecturing material meant that the students couldn’t keep up with demand as well as completing their studies.
Increasingly they would give small amounts of their allowance to men outside the medical profession who were willing to enter graveyards and do the snatching them. As time went on, the benefit to both parties was quickly realized.
By the early 1800s, a new breed of criminal was emerging into the Georgian underworld that society had yet to witness, and their crimes would disgust nearly all sectors of society.
Researching Student Body Snatchers
The story of Scotland’s medical students and their involvement in stealing cadavers in order to have suitable material to study on shows just how determind these young men were.
When I wrote my book ‘Untold Stories of Britain’s Resurrection Men’, I wanted to take the reader on a journey right from the very start of the body snatching trade. To do this, I had to start with the student body snatchers. Their stories are often left untold, being pushed out of the limelight by Burke and Hare when anything in relation to body snatching and Scotland is recounted.
I wrote a similar post for History Scotland in 2016 when my book was published but I wanted to write a fresher post for my blog. You can read my earlier post here on the History Scotland website.
The minute book referred to for Aberdeen Medical Society is kept at the archives at Aberdeen University. The University of Aberdeen Special Collections is usually open to the public but I urge you to contact them regarding visiting restrictions due to the current climate as visiting may be severely restricted. A PDF brochure for the archive can be accessed here or via their website
Banchory-Devenick churchyard is a devil of a place to park. Tight up against the churchyard wall on the busy B9077. When you get there however, you’ll be rewarded with 2 relics associated with body snatching, a simple watch house and an iron mortsafe, both found tucked beside the churchyard wall.
Edinburgh is awash with body snatching tales and most cases for the City of Edinburgh are generally held at the National Archives of Scotland and can be searched via their online catalogue
The Town Council minutes belonging to Perth and dating back to the beginning of the 18th century held at Perth & Kinross Archives, just fall short of the date period for when the warnings to the medical students were given out.
However, the Town Council minute books dating from 1700 and with careful searching, you may find a reference to the warning.
The online catalogue for Perth & Kinross Archives can be accessed here
Historic cases of body snatching can be found written in local histories of which there are many for the individual parishes of Scotland.
The events mentioned here have been gleaned from newspaper articles, primarily using the British Newspaper Archive and from works associated with body-snatching, in particular, Norman Adams’ work Scottish Bodysnatchers: True Accounts
Adams’ small book makes for fascinating reading if you want some quick accounts of body snatching in Scotland.