Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


It's a Living

Body-snatching has long served the purposes of religious cults that need certain human organs for their rituals. In 1604, King James made it a felony inEngland to steal a corpse for witchcraft. Nevertheless, grave robbing reaching its morbid height during the 18th and 19th centuries, when it served the medical establishments. Physicians and medical students needed to dissect bodies to improve their knowledge.

At first, there were no real laws, except prohibitions against taking a corpse's possession, so grave robbers left the clothing behind, but that situation eventually changed. Fines were imposed and grave-robbers were arrested.

In Britain, legal restrictions were especially strict. Although medical schools were allowed to have four corpses per year from the gallows, the supply was terribly inadequate, so in some places, students were actually required to supply their own corpses. That meant raiding the cemetery. Since they couldn't afford to be arrested, they often paid "resurrection men" or "sack' em up" men to take the risk for them.

At night the snatchers would use wooden spades and dig down only at the head end. Then they'd break open the top part of the lid to lift the body out with a hook and rope. Real professionals working in teams could get the corpse and replace the dirt in about an hour. One gang of ghouls had stolen nearly 800 bodies in two years.

Yet some tired of digging up graves and figured that there was an easier way of getting cadavers, so they turned to murder. William Burke ran a boarding house in Edinburgh, Scotland with his partner William Hare. They knew how much they could make supplying bodies to surgeons, and they had a regular customer who asked no questions. The trick was to present a body that had no bruises or wounds, because that was the most valuable, especially if it was fresh.

Sketches of William Burke and William Hare
Sketches of William Burke and
William Hare

The way they worked was to get their victim drunk and then either grab him from behind in an arm lock around the throat or sit on his chest while holding his nose and mouth closed. This method came to be known as "burking," because it left no mark. In nine months, they managed to kill 16 people and to sell them for an average of 10 pounds a piece.

They were caught in 1828, and Hare turned on Burke. He went free while his wife and Burke's mistress, who had also been involved, fled the country. Burke was tried and sentenced to be hanged. Then in an ironic twist of fate, his corpse was turned over to the anatomists at Edinburgh University to be dissected. Thirty thousand people saw his execution and anatomized body, which was put on public display to deter others from mimicking his foul deeds.

It's not unusual that someone involved in a team crime talks, as we will see in the next chapter.


We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'