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18 June 2014
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men robbing a grave
Bodysnatchers being disturbed while robbing a grave

© The Wellcome Trust
Bodysnatching for Cambridge anatomy

Today, if a Cambridge anatomy student wanted to practise dissection, they would not have too many problems in legally acquiring a body to use. However in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, strict legal restrictions on dissection meant that only one source of bodies was sanctioned – hanged murderers. With a growing number of people studying medicine, demand soon outstripped the supply of corpses, leading to an underground trade in the dead. “Professional” bodysnatchers, or resurrectionists, emerged, who raided graveyards and sold their wares onto anatomy schools like the one at Cambridge. Although dangerous work, it was highly lucrative, and the bodysnatchers could virtually name their price, as schools depended on them for a continuous supply of bodies. But they were never popular, and during their heyday from 1740-1830, they encountered both hostility and violence from the Cambridge public. More...

Words: Dr Ruth Richardson

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