6ft Of Strangeness

by

While departing from the land of Maughan on friday night we decided to stop off and go in search of liquid refreshment. Face to face with the fridge I opted for a bottle of Glasgow fizz aka The Bru Of Life. After checkout, while making my way towards the exit I was confronted by a headline in the Hartlepool Mail….. This headline read, Grave Thieves Branded Shameful. Instantly I thought to myself this is something your eyes don’t get to see that often. straight back to the Old School, Grave Robbing at it’s finest, the return of Body Snatching, the plot from Corpse Grinders has come to life and it’s taking place within the boundaries of the north-east.

For those naive creatures that are unfamiliar with 1971’s cult classic The Corpse Grinders here is a quick synopsis, When the Lotus Cat Food Company finds itself in financial trouble, the owners decide to find a new, cheap source of meat.  the local graveyard. Only one problem…. soon cats develop a taste for human flesh, and tabbies are tearing out throats all over town.

As I had broken code, and uncharacteristically left my camera in the car I had to go ahead and reach for the queens and purchase the Hartlepool mail, something I may never do again in my entire life time but the intrigue surrounding this headline was too much to pass up on.

I had reached my humble abode but was still yet to scan the small print allowing my mind to wander even deeper into the maze of the unknown. Was this really a tale of Body snatching? not to be mistaken for the 1993 film where alien clones are replacing humans but a more sinister act, As real as flesh its self, digging up the grave and the removal of the corpse from it’s resting place.

Body snatching is the secret disinterment of corpses from graveyards. A common purpose of body snatching is to sell the corpses for dissection or anatomy lectures in medical schools.

Those who practised body snatching were often called “Resurrectionists” or “Resurrection-men.” A related act is grave robbery, uncovering a tomb or crypt to steal artifacts or personal effects rather than corpses.

Like a leaky brain storm my mind was begging to run out of thoughts and I had such a good time building these different scenarios in my head i decided to give up and not read past the bold headline allowing me to hold on to the hope that one on my twisted versions was in fact the real reason behind this strange Hartlepool article.

When i woke up the following morning i had this headline from the Sunderland Echo to deal with.

 – More information on Body Snatching

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who were sentenced to dissection by the courts were often guilty of comparatively harsher crimes. Such sentences did not provide enough subjects for the medical schools and private anatomical schools.

Before electric power to supply refrigeration, bodies would decay rapidly and become unusable for study. Therefore, the medical profession turned to body snatching to supply the deficit of bodies fresh enough to be examined.

Stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and was therefore only punishable with fine and imprisonment, rather than transportation or execution. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection, particularly as the authorities tended to ignore what they considered a necessary evil.

Body snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being violated. Iron coffins, too, were used frequently, or the graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes.

One method the body snatchers used was to dig at the head end of a recent burial, digging with a wooden spade (quieter than metal). When they reached the coffin (in London the graves were quite shallow), they broke open the coffin, put a rope around the corpse and dragged it out. They were often careful not to steal anything such as jewelery or clothes as this would cause them to be liable to a felony charge.

The Lancet reported another method. A manhole-sized square of turf was removed 15 to 20 feet (5 to 6 m) away from the head of the grave, and a tunnel dug to intercept the coffin, which would be about 4 feet (1.2 m) down. The end of the coffin would be pulled off, and the corpse pulled up through the tunnel. The turf was then replaced, and any relatives watching the graves would not notice the small, remote disturbance. The article suggests that the number of empty coffins that have been discovered “proves beyond a doubt that at this time body snatching was frequent“.

During 1827 and 1828, some Edinburgh resurrectionists including Burke and Hare changed their tactics from grave-robbing to murder, as they were paid more for very fresh corpses. Their activities, and those of the London Burkers who imitated them, resulted in the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832. This allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, and required the licensing of anatomy teachers, which essentially ended the body snatching trade. The use of bodies for scientific research in the UK is now governed by the Human Tissue Authority.

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