Edinburgh Grave Robbers – Real English

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Welcome to this month’s Real English video where I tell you about Edinburgh and Scotland’s history and culture, and you get a great English lesson looking at language in context! As we back to the spooky season, this month we are diving into the ghoulish world of Edinburgh’s grave robbers, or Body Snatchers as they were know.

Edinburgh Body Snatchers

In this month’s Real English blog, get into the Halloween mood while we discover the gruesome story of Scotland’s Body Snatchers or Resurecction Men, otherwise known as grave robbers!

The need for an intact body after death has a long history

There is a great deal of religious tradition of resurrection from the dead leading to eternal life. ​In many cultures it was thought that resurrection was totally dependent upon the body being intact at burial.​ Think of Ancient Egypt and those pharaohs, or Viking burials​. Christianity was no different and also taught that the body must be kept intact for the day of resurrection. ​This is why there was such strong opposition to cremation that continued into the 20th century. In fact, this attitude to creation only started to change after World War One when the Church couldn’t deny the millions blown to pieces who were war heroes wouldn’t be allowed in the pearly gates and ascend to heaven.

picture of Edinburgh university
Edinburgh University pictured with the Pentland Hills in the background

But in the 18th and 19th century, the need for an intact body after death was still very much the case.

However, this presented a problem to ever modernising medicine. As medical science advanced, it became clear that the only way to learn more was to look inside the body​. This meant they needed corpses​ but they were hard to come by​. Surgeons and anatomists were allowed to use the bodies of executed criminals, but this was limited​ to a tiny amount.

In 1636 William Gordon, a doctor at King’s College in Aberdeen, petitioned the Privy Council to be allowed to teach human anatomy​. The Council told him he would be allowed ​- “Twa bodies of men, being notable malefactors, execute in thair bonds, especiallie being rebels and outlaws”​, which translates to two bodies a year – and that really wasn’t going to cut it (ha ha!).

But that was going to change with the Murder Act of 1752.

As a by-product of this legislation, more bodies came on the scene​. Not for the advancement of medical science, but as a further deterrent against committing a crime. Basically, not only could you now be executed for breaking the law, but you could also be sentenced to having your corpse publicly dissected. For many people, this was a punishment worse than death  as it would mean not being able to get into heaven. ​On the plus side for medicine, the new law significantly increased the number of bodies anatomists could legally access.

But even this change in the law couldn’t meet the needs of the hospitals and teaching centres that opened during the 18th century​ and it was particularly difficult in Edinburgh​. Edinburgh’s Medical School was seen as a world leader​ and THE place to get your medical degree. Due to the amount of students flocking to the university, demand for corpses completely outweighed supply​. The problem was the same for all university towns​. It was clear that the easiest way to get freshly dead bodies was to go straight to the source​ – fresh graves​. Surprisingly, it was initially the surgeons and medical students themselves who dug them up, leading to locals (quite understandably) despising them​. Surgeons and their apprentices would often pay a high price for stealing the dead.

The 1742 Riot in Edinburgh

Take the example of the 1742 riot in Edinburgh. As far as riots go, it was quite something. ​Tensions had already been running high between local residents and surgeons through the city for a few months and it all came to a head when the public got word that a surgeon, Martin Eccles, and his apprentices had got the body of a man called Alexander Baxter​ who had been buried in St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard only a week earlier. The kirkyard was a regular haunt of medics​, so much so that in 1738  the height of the boundary wall was increased to almost two and a half metres in an effort to stop the raids. ​It didn’t work, and bodies continued to be dug up. In response to this, the Edinburgh mob ran riot, surrounding Eccles premises, breaking windows and shouting​.

Painting of the portsburgh riots in Edinburgh
The Edinburgh mob running riot in the Old Town

It was getting riskier and riskier for surgeons and students to steal bodies.

So it was time for someone else to do their dirty work for them​. Enter the Resurrection Men​, or body snatchers. It might surprise you to learn that the taking of corpses from graves was not itself illegal​ as the corpse had no legal standing and was not owned by anyone​.  What was illegal was dissecting the corpses and stealing any items that were on the  corpse itself​. Doctors and medical students who bought bodies didn’t ask questions about where the corpses came from, and the body snatchers usually left behind everything except the body in the coffin.​ So the whole industry existed very much in a legal grey area.

Why would anyone want to dig up the dead?

It paid extremely well​, as much as several months’ worth of a workman’s wages per body​. But it certainly wasn’t for the faint-hearted​. Body-snatchers would often have to drink a lot of alcohol before going to work​. Not only to deal with what the corpse might look like​ but also to deal with the smell​. A dead body’s gas is not good!

​And while it was certainly ghoulish, you can’t fault their professionalism

photo of a tombstone in a graveyard
Edinburgh’s graveyards and cemetries are full of history

Gangs would stake out their areas, going undercover to attend funerals and find out who had recently died in the community​. Women were often sent in as they were much less suspicious when asking questions​. They would do some reconnaissance work to find out if trinkets had been left on the graves​. This was something the poor would do check if they had been tampered with​. And they had an incredible technique to get the bodies out. ​

So here is my easy guide to digging up a body (you’re welcome!)

  1. Identify the head of the coffin​
  2. Lay a sack alongside the grave so the fresh earth doesn’t get on the grass (and give you away!)​
  3. Move the soil from the top to the end of the grave (helpful when it comes to breaking the coffin lid)​
  4. Use wooden spades to keep it quiet​
  5. With some iron hooks or a crowbar tug at the coffin lid​
  6. Thanks to the distribution of the soil, this will break the coffin at the level of the shoulders​
  7. Put a sack on top to dampen the sound of splintering wood​
  8. Stand aside to let the corpse gas escape​
  9. Place ropes around the head or under the arms​
  10. Count to 3 and pull (a jerking movement works best)

You might even hit the jackpot!

Paupers graves were excellent for business because lots of bodies would be buried inthe same place and would give body snatchers a good haul. It did however mean a slightly different approach. ​ ​As all the coffins would be buried to the same depth, all they needed to do was get rid of the loose soil and ​concentrate on opening each coffin individually.

Such a level of professionalism meant that security in graveyards and cemeteries was needed. If you were wondering, a graveyard is attached to a church, and cemeteries aren’t​. In order to protect the dead, watch towers began to be built where armed guards would keep guard at night​. These varied from very basic structures to extremely sophisticated ones.​

However, watchmen weren’t the only line of defence against the Resurrectionists. Various degrees of technology were used. An early and simple approach was to heavily compact the soil when filling in a grave and to put in several layers of branches to make digging more difficult. ​Sometimes incredibly heavy slabs of stone known as mort-stones were placed on top of the grave to put off the diggers. But the body-snatchers soon learned how to work around these and dig down at the head end of the grave, then to break off the end of the coffin and to drag the corpse out by the head.

photo of the watchtower at St Cuthbert's kirkyard in Edinburgh
The watchtower at St Cuthbert’s kirk

Clearly, more effective solutions were needed.

Clearly, more effective solutions were needed. One was the ‘coffin collar’, a thick iron necklace bolted to the floor of the coffin and designed to prevent the body from being dragged from the coffin.​ The next step in the arms race was the mortsafe​, an iron cage that enclosed the coffin.​ Given their great weight and strength, mortsafes were probably highly effective in protecting graves. ​The downside was that their massive structure also meant that they were difficult to manoeuvre into and out of the grave , and removing them could not have been a pleasant prospect.

Iron was the material of choice in the arms race against the body snatchers. A coffin collar was like a thick iron necklace that you put around the corpse’s neck, and then this was attached to the floor of the coffin to stop the body being dragged out. This evolved into the mortsafe, which was like an enormous iron coffin that you put the wooden coffin in. Thanks to its enormous weight and strength, it was probably highly effective in stopping grave robbers. The downside was they were so massive and heavy that they were really tricky to get in and out of the graves. 

A mortsafe on top of grave in a cemetary
A mortsafe

The last and most sophisticated way of protecting the dead, mainly used in the North-East of Scotland, were mort-houses. These were very solid and windowless buildings which were practically impossible to break into. They were designed with huge walls and heavy wooden and metal doors. You could store your loved one’s body there until they were sufficiently decomposed to be of no interest to the body snatchers.

As usual, there was a rich/poor divide.​

Those with money could pay for their loved ones to be locked up with stone walls and iron cages. ​These are most commonly seen in the graveyards of the large University towns, for example in Edinburgh’s New and Old Calton cemeteries.​ Poorer people had to rely on the watchmen who would stand around the graves in the dark​. 

And this divide of how the bodies of the rich and the poor were treated would have both tragic and sinister consequences. There were plenty of people who saw a gap in the market of alternative ways to steal bodies. There were middlemen who would pay church officials or the undertakers to give them the bodies directly, before they were buried. Con artists would go to claim the bodies of the poor, pretending to be their relatives. Some were just amateur resurecctionists who came upon a dead body or fresh grave and decided to make some easy money. And then, there were those who would go to the source itself, and commit murder. If you were destitute, this was an easy way to make a lot of money.

Stone tomb in Greyfriar's kirkyard, Edinburgh
Greyfriar’s Kirkyard in Edinburgh

Helen Torrance and Jean Waldie

In 1751, Edinburgh locals Helen Torrance and Jean Waldie had an idea to make some easy cash​. They would get a weighted down empty coffin and convince some medical students that inside there was the body of a child​. Their plan fell through however, when the mother of nine-year-old John Dallas – the child they planned to pretend had died – refused to cooperate. ​But the 5 shillings they could get was too tempting​. This was equivalent to around £30 in today’s money​, but would have been the same as 2 days’ wages. They plied John’s mother with drink at Torrance’s flat. Waldie slipped out to find the boy at home alone in nearby Stanielaw’s Close​ and took him back to her flat where Torrance joined her​. There, they murdered the boy​, most likely suffocating him. They managed to sell him to some medical students, but they then freaked out and abandoned the body​. Waldie and Torrance were put on trial for murder and hanged in the Grassmarket in 1752.

They became Edinburgh’s first bodysnatchers to murder their victim. They wouldn’t be the last​. A sensational serial killer crime in Edinburgh was to come in 80 years time​.

It would so horrify the entire country that it would change the law​ that it would lead to the Anatomy Act 1832​. This gave free licence to doctors, teachers of anatomy and bona fide medical students to dissect donated bodies. But more about that in our next vlog…..

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