MJ STEEL COLLINS reviews Scottish Bodysnatchers: A Gazetteer by Geoff Holder
Geoff Holder has produced a veritable cornucopia on the art of body lifting and lifts the lid on a part of Scottish history on which there seems to be so little. For instance, I previously only associated bodysnatching with Edinburgh, although I was aware of the odd story around Glasgow, through working on my blog. I also believed Burke and Hare to have been bodysnatchers. Now I stand corrected – as Holder explains, they were in fact mass murderers inspired by the bodysnatching craze and huge sums offered by anatomists for fresh bodies, which were in very short supply. Prior to the 1832 Anatomy Act, only murderers hanged for their crimes could be dissected.
It appears that prior to the passing of the Act, it wasn’t guaranteed that your recently departed would rest in peace for long. Resurrectionists would literally be at the cemetery gates with their spades as the funeral party left. This led to a variety of measures being taken to prevent fresh corpses from being lifted – huge cages being constructed over lairs, mortsafes, the establishment of watches (with accompanying watch towers), and societies such as The Paisley Society for Protecting the Dead (entry fee 6d and then 1d per quarter).
Bodysnatching was rife in Scotland, to the extent that you can still see many of the physical preventative measures against it in the cemeteries. Greyfriars in Edinburgh is probably the best for these, but they can be spotted in several small graveyards up and down the country. And Geoff Holder has documented as many as he can, as well as several tales of snatching. The names of certain anatomists were notorious with bodysnatching; some would actively encourage their students in practice, leading bands of them to cemeteries late at night. Robert Liston is one surgeon who gets several mentions in the book.
The stories are a mixture of amusing and tragic. There are several disturbing tales of children being murdered so that their bodies can be sold for a profit; in Paisley, one father murdered his three month old daughter. At the lighter end of the scale, we have drunk watchmen firing at what they believed to be Resurrectionists, only to discover that it was the minister’s goat, or a pig minding its own business. Sometimes the watchmen shot each other, or were so drunk that the snatchers were able to outwit them and spirit away a corpse or two.
In some cases, it was the snatchers who were outwitted – occasionally the stolen body would be switched for a live one by a witness – several snatchers were probably scared into a new livelihood by the seemingly dead body coming back to life!
One thing that comes through in most of the anecdotes is the absolute hatred the general public had for bodysnatchers. It was probably safer for them to be caught by the authorities rather than the locals, who would beat them to within an inch of their lives if given half a chance. Several riots were ignited in this fashion. Members of the medical profession also found themselves tarnished by association and would have their homes vandalised. Some were innocent, others, not so.
The great thing about the book is the frission you get when reading about bodysnatching in your own area, my case being Glasgow. It was quite something to find out just how much bodysnatching was entwined with the history of my alma mater, Glasgow University. Unfortunately, many of the sites mentioned have been the victims of ‘redevelopment’, as lamented by Holder, and most likely to be found under the concrete of the M8.
A bonus is that at the end of the book, the reader will find Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Bodysnatchers, pretty much the cherry on the trifle.
Scottish Bodysnatchers: A Gazetteer by Geoff Holder is available from The History Press. You can buy it from Amazon here.