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body snatching

body snatching, the stealing of corpses from graves and morgues. Before cadavers were legally available for dissection and study by medical students, traffic in stolen bodies was profitable. Those who engaged in the illicit practice were sometimes called resurrectionists; they were active from about the early 18th cent. to the middle 19th cent. Public opposition to any dissection of bodies was further aroused by discovery of the resurrectionists' activities; outbursts of violence occurred in Europe as well as in America. Robert Knox, an eminent British anatomist, became a victim of public attack because a body he had purchased for dissection proved to be that of one of a number of victims murdered by William Hare and an accomplice named William Burke for the purpose of selling the bodies; the murderers were brought to trial (1828) and convicted. This and other similar cases led to the passage (1832) in Great Britain of the Anatomy Act, which permitted the legal acquisition by medical schools of unclaimed bodies. In the United States dissection of the human body has been practiced since the middle of the 18th cent.; riots and acts of violence frequently occurred in protest against lecturers on anatomy and medical students, who reputedly dug up bodies for study. In 1788 outraged citizens of New York City precipitated a riot while ransacking the rooms of anatomy students and professors at Columbia College Medical School in search of bodies. The following year body snatching was prohibited by law, thus creating a climate for the growth of an illegal group of professional body snatchers. It was not until 1854 that anatomy students were allowed access to unclaimed bodies from public institutions.

See The Diary of a Resurrectionist (ed. by J. B. Bailey, 1896); T. Gallagher, The Doctors' Story (1967).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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