On this day in 1832 The Anatomy Act was passed, giving free licence to doctors, teachers of anatomy and bona fide medical students to dissect donated bodies while also effectively ending the practice of resurrectionists in Great Britain.
The 19th century ushered in a new-found medical interest in detailed anatomy thanks to an increase in the importance of surgery. In order to study anatomy, human cadavers were needed and thus ushered in the practice of grave robbing. Before 1832, the Murder Act 1752 stipulated that only the corpses of executed murderers could be used for dissection. By the early 19th century, the rise of medical science – coinciding with a reduction in the number of executions – had caused demand to outstrip supply.
The shortfall had been met by resurrectionists who dug up the recently dead. In London the graves were relatively shallow and wooden spades were used as they were quieter. The body snatchers were careful not to take any clothing and personal items as they would have been found guilty of a felony. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection, despite interfering with a grave being a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and only punishable with a fine and imprisonment rather than transportation or execution.
Around 1810, an anatomical society was formed to impress upon the government the necessity for altering the law. The efforts of this body gave rise in 1828 to a select committee to report on the question which lead to the Bill that would become the act. There was however very little public interest in the cause.
However, around the same time the demand for bodies took on a new dimension when murder took the place of grave-robbing. In Edinburgh, William Burke and William Hare committed at least 16 murders over a period of about 10 months in 1828, and sold the corpses to Robert Knox for dissection at his anatomy lectures. In England a group known as the London Burkers apparently modelled their activity on Burke and Hare. They came to prominence in 1831 when they were found to be murdering victims to sell to anatomists, by luring and drugging them at their dwelling in the northern end of Bethnal Green. The public outcry at the activities of the London Burkers caused pressure for a Bill to be passed and a year later the Anatomy Act 1832 gained royal assent.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on interesting events in British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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