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Victorian Grave Robbing

Definition: Grave robbery by the 'Resurrectionist Men', often doctors themselves was a problem in the 19th century as medical schools needed fresh cadavers for dissection classes.
Grave robbery by the 'Resurrectionist Men', often doctors themselves was a problem in the 19th century as medical schools needed fresh cadavers for dissection classes.
Grave robbery by the "Resurrectionist Men", often doctors themselves was a problem in the 19th century as medical schools needed fresh cadavers for dissection classes. "Bricking-over" a grave was a way of guaranteeing some security after death. The fear of a loved one being buried alive inspired coffin makers to design warning systems such as a bell on the grave which was connected by a chain to the inside of the coffin in cases of premature burial, thus the expression, "Saved by the bell."

Enter the Resurrection Men

In the late Regency period and the early Victorian era, grave robbing paid quite well and wasn't particularly risky because it wasn't a felony. All the grave robber had to do was make certain he didn't help himself to any valuables buried along with the dead, such as an expensive piece of jewelry, and he had no fear of being executed for his crime.

Naturally, the bereaved fought back with vigils, watchmen, metal coffins, and even iron cages to protect graves.

Taking It to the Next Level: Burke & Hare

In 1828, Dr. Robert Knox hired Brendan Burke and William Hare to procure cadavers for study. But grave robbing was hard physical labor, especially when it came to getting a nice fresh corpse suitable for study. (After all, this was before the advent of good embalming techniques or refrigeration.) Burke and Hare decided it would be easier to create fresh bodies than to dig them up. Their technique, to suffocate weak or inebriated victims, came to be known as "burking." Their imitators in the city called themselves the London Burkers.

Eventually the duo was brought to justice and hanged. But the idea of Resurrection Men continued in popular culture for a long time after, and was referenced by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist.

 

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Collections:

Victorian Era Funeral Customs and Rituals

 

Related Categories:

| Victorian Era Superstitions | Victorian Funeral Cards | Victorian Funeral Processessions | Victorian Hearses and Horses | Victorian Mourning Clothes | Professional Mourners |

Resources:

  external linkGrave Robbing, or The Resurrection Men Stephanie Abbott
  external linkVictorian Funeral Customs and Superstitions Friends of Oak Grove Cemetery

 

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