The history of the English body-snatchers begins with the introduction of human cadaver dissection into the study of anatomy during the fourteenth-century at the University of Bologna. Although the study of anatomy in ancient times had included human dissection, after the fall of Rome the practice was forbidden by the Church and abandoned in favour of animal dissection, accompanied by the study of ancient texts. As long as monks controlled the practice of medicine, the interdict was obeyed, but in the eleventh- and twelfth-centuries, medicine became a more secular calling.
The first recorded dissection in western Europe was performed around 1300, in Bologna. The first body-snatching scandal occurred in 1319, with four students there arrested for grave-robbing.
Dissection in Europe gained acceptance slowly. In Italy, by the 15th century, the practice had come under legal regulation and was restricted to two public demonstrations per year. A hundred years later, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci still found it necessary to pursue his study of human anatomy at night in newly constructed tombs and was compelled to keep his notebooks so well hidden that they were not discovered for over 300 years. Gradually, however, the skeleton came out of the closet, and dissection began to occupy a central place in European medicine. As the demand for bodies grew, it became customary in most countries for officials to turn over to the universities the bodies of executed criminals and those of people dying in almshouses and hospitals who otherwise would have been buried at public expense.
In England, however, the situation was more complex. Medical education was controlled, in London at least, not by the universities, but by the guilds of Barbers, Surgeons, and Apothecaries. In 1540, the former joined forces to become the Royal Company of Barbers and Surgeons, and in 1541, Henry VIII of England granted this group the exclusive right to four executed felons a year to be dissected. Elizabeth I of England acknowledged the right of the Royal College of Physicians to perform dissection with a four-felon grant in 1564, and Charles II of England increased Henry’s original grant to six in 1663.
Outside the area dominated by these chartered institutions, the English common law provided the anatomists with the bodies of executed murderers. As long as the Barber-Surgeons Company and the Royal College of Physicians could maintain their monopoly on dissection in London, the royal grants, supplemented by the provisions of the common law, were sufficient. By the beginning of the eighteenth-century, however, the strength of the monopolies was failing. The great London hospitals of St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew were teaching anatomy, and private schools run by former hospital lecturers soon appeared in their wake. The demand for anatomical subjects grew proportionately.
In 1752, the common law provision for the dissection of murderers was made statutory law by George II of Great Britain, for the reason that “the crime of murder has been more frequently perpetrated than formerly and it is thereby become necessary that some further terror and peculiar infamy be added to the punishment of death.” Far from being an acknowledgement of the growing scientific importance of dissection, this act made the idea even more repugnant to the public and fuelled its determination to protect other possible sources of cadavers from desecration.
By 1760, it had become customary in the anatomical schools for students to dissect for themselves. It was also mandatory for those applying for licenses from the Royal College of Surgeons (the successor to the Barber-Surgeons Company) to attend two full courses of anatomy, with dissection, in London. The result was a spiralling demand for anatomical material for which, even in eighteenth-century Britain, the supply of convicted murderers was insufficient. In 1793, there were over 200 medical students in London and over 1000 in 1823. Practicing surgeons liked to operate at least once on a cadaver before approaching a difficult case, and they, too, required subjects. The surgeons and the students were competing for less than 100 corpses legally available each year.
This is not to say that plenty of people were not dying from causes other than public execution. The situation was intolerable; the demand for bodies was rising, and the medicine of the day did much to hasten the ill to their graves, yet this plentiful supply of material was being wastefully carted off and buried unexamined. Moreover, through a quirk of English law, to steal a shroud or a coffin was considered a crime against the property of a dead man’s heirs and subject to stiff punishment, but a man did not own his own body. He could not will it as property, nor was the theft of a body a crime, unless for the purpose of witchcraft. In such circumstances, it would have been surprising had grave-robbing not become a common medical practice.