There was no effective form of anesthesia until C.W. Long of Jefferson, Georgia, used nitrous oxide gas in 1842. Hence surgeons in the early decades of the century had to operate rapidly, and to acquire this skill they needed real bodies for practice. In Britain, two acts of Parliament (1726 and 1751) made the bodies of executed felons, hitherto hung in chains, available for medical dissection. But the supply dwindled as juries, judges and the system of royal pardons united to reduce the number of executions. In the 15-year period 1805-20 they averaged only 77 a year. Hence the rise of body snatching. Great surgeons like Sir Astley Cooper needed fresh bodies for their own work an, still more, to train their students, and they willingly cooperated with the gangs of criminals who supplied them. Bransby Cooper, in his life of his father, gives biographical sketches of these “resurrectionists”: Ben Crouch, Bill and Jack Hartnett, Tom Light, Hollis, Daniel and Butler. The gangs were usually in league with the badly paid caretakers of the burial grounds that were raided.
Edinburgh, where more British doctors and surgeons were trained than anywhere else, was also a center for body snatching, and in the 1820s the demand seems to have exceeded the supply. In 1827 and Irish canal-navvy, William Burke (1792-1829), took room at Log’s lodging house in Tanner’s Close, Edinburgh, an establishment kept by an Ulsterman, William Hare. In November, Donald, a friendless old pensioner died in the house, and Burke and Hare, instead of burying the body, sold it to a well-known surgeon, Dr. Robert Knox, who kept a school of anatomy in the city. They were paid 7 pounds, 10 shillings. Their greed thus aroused, the two men, assisted by their wives, murdered at least 15 persons during the next 10 months by luring them into the house, making them drunk, suffocating them – so as to leave no marks on the body – and then selling the corpses to Dr. Knox. In November 1828 the police were alerted and found one of the bodies in Knox’s cellar. Hare turned King’s Evidence, and Burke was tried, convicted and hanged.
The full extent of the various rackets associated with body snatching was never established. A House of Commons committee reported (1828) that in one winter a gang of six sold 312 bodies at an average price of four guineas. But a corpse could fetch up to 40 pounds. So great was the fear of resurrectionists in the 1820s that various security devices were manufactured, such as Bridgeman’s Patent Wrought Iron Coffin, advertised as “The only Safe Coffin.” (Birth of the Modern, pgs. 744, 745)