The Surprising History of Real-Life Body Snatchers

The Surprising History of Real-Life Body Snatchers

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Earlier this week, while appearing on Hot Ones, Drew Barrymore confirmed the Old Hollywood rumor that Errol Flynn stole the body of her grandfather for a night on the town.

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The legend goes that when actor John Barrymore died in 1942, his friends Errol Flynn, W.C. Fields, and Sadakichi Hartmann broke him out of the morgue for one last poker tournament. Flynn told the story in his memoirs, but no one from the Barrymore family ever confirmed it.

But when Hot Ones host Sean Evans asked Drew about it, she set the record straight:

‘Yes, they did!’ Drew exclaimed. ‘And I will say this, I hope my friends do the same for me. That is the kind of spirit I can get behind. Just prop the old bag up and have a last few rounds.’

But did you know that there is a long history of real-life body snatchers?

Wait, no. Not that kind of body snatcher. We’re talking about grave robbers, the so-called resurrection men who stole corpses for profit.

The Resurrection Men

Ancient Egyptian elites guarded their tombs against grave robbers with traps and curses, hoping to hang on to their worldly possessions in the afterlife. But for ordinary Victorians, there was a very real threat that resurrection men would dig them up and sell their bodies.

Grave robbing is one of the great taboos (unless, apparently, it’s a dead civilization, in which case we’ll put their corpses on display). So how is it possible that body snatching was such a menace during the early 19th century?

It’s because doctors were getting better at their jobs.

Before the 19th century, there wasn’t really such a thing as “medical school” in the Western world. You were apprenticed to a surgeon, read your Galen and Hippocrates, and then slapped some leeches on sick people in the hopes that they’d get better.

But as modern medical training began to emerge, the demand for cadavers skyrocketed. Until 1832, the only legal cadavers available in England were those of hanged criminals. The demand was ten times the supply, and so the body snatchers saw an opportunity. They developed ingenious methods for extracting the corpses as quickly and silently as possible, and undertakers countered with graves caged in iron and other theft deterrents.

Burke and Hare Take Things Too Far

Naturally, the next step was to skip the middleman, as it were, and just start killing people and selling the bodies. That’s what happened in 1828 in Scotland. At the time, Edinburgh was where you wanted to go for a cutting-edge medical education.

The demand for fresh bodies to dissect was overwhelming, and a pair of men named William Burke and William Hare got the bright idea that they could just start killing the lodgers at Hare’s boarding house. They ended up killing 16 people.

After they were finally caught, Burke ended up being hanged and, ironically enough, dissected at the university. If you think people are more violent and bloodthirsty today than they were two hundred years ago, you should know that the doctor who dissected him used the body as an inkwell and wrote, “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.”

Burke’s skeleton is still on display at the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School. A book that’s allegedly bound with his skin is in the collection of the Surgeons’ Hall Museum.

Pro Tip: Avoid books bound in human skin. That’s how you end up summoning demons.

Spurred in part by these events, Parliament passed the Anatomy act of 1832 that allowed doctors to legally obtain cadavers in other ways. Unclaimed bodies, and those donated to science, made resurrection men into a grisly relic of the past.

So that’s the real story about how grave robbing was the gig economy of Victorian era. And while it was an absolutely despicable, disturbing trade, it did inspire some wonderful art and literature. We wouldn’t have Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

Or, perhaps, Weekend at Bernie’s. I’ll leave you with the trailer for that film, which gives away the entire plot in two and a half minutes. Enjoy!