Case Study: Grave Robbing

The development of a modern and scientific understanding of the body was the result of replacing the acceptance of classical authority on scientific matters with empirical observation. In the case of the human body that meant that medical students and scientists needed to inspect the interiors of actual human bodies. While the bodies of executed criminals were available to anatomists, there were not enough to satisfy the needs of the numerous medical students and private anatomy schools that sprang up in major cities such as Edinburgh. A thriving black market in corpses was supplied by ‘resurrection men’: corpse thieves who stole bodies from mortuaries or new graves and sold them directly to anatomy schools or students. This practice caused great public upset and there were a number of riots and disturbances focused on the anatomy schools. At a personal or local level, the fear of grave robbers is evident in the existence of mort safes, jankers (heavy stone or iron grave covers), kirkyard watch towers and other security measures (an archaeology of the fear of grave robbing).

A photograph of a solid metal frame shaped like a coffin

Mortcages, mortsafes and heavy stone or metal ‘jankers’ such as this one from the kirkyard at Kilmun were designed to protect new burials from Resurrection Men (photo courtesy of Chris Stewart-Moffitt)

The widespread public horror of grave-robbing is an interesting phenomenon. Although theological writings on the nature of the resurrection and of Heavenly life were quite clear that God would be able to effect bodily resurrection, no matter what the condition of the physical body, and although scientific orthodoxy increasingly saw the dead body as a broken machine, dread that the body might be cut after death remained very strong, arguably until the present day. The reasons for this are complex and not entirely rational. However, it is likely that a popular understanding of the newly dead body as still in some ways powerful and even sentient combined with a ‘modern’ kind of selfhood, in which the person was very closely identified with their individual body were significant.

Eventually the Anatomy Act of 1832 gave anatomists the right to take ‘unclaimed’ bodies from poorhouses and similar institutions. The Act was passed in response to public unrest about grave-robbing but also in the wake of Edinburgh’s Burke and Hare scandal. Burke and Hare were not grave-robbers but murderers who killed people on the margins of society for the lucrative price of their bodies. After his execution William Burke’s body was dissected and his skeleton can still be seen at Surgeon’s Hall, along with a book bound in his own skin.

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    In 2012 the disarticulated remains of at least five individuals were unexpectedly discovered by workmen in the rear garden of a house in Grove Street, Edinburgh. Skeletal analysis and historic research concluded that these remains were most likely part of an anatomical teaching collection of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The archaeological report can be found at

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