As a former medical student, I still recall the horrors of having to cut up dead people – in those days, they were all unclaimed bodies, so old, skinny and the formalin ruined our hands and any spills ruined our clothes. But we were also well aware of the importance of what we were learning from them. There is no way you can understand what’s beneath the human skin without actually going there. For anyone who is horrified by the notion of dissecting dead people, stop and think, would you feel safe having an operation, no matter how minor, with a surgeon who had only cut up pigs?
This made the long standing ban on using human bodies an incredibly lethal law. And the campaigns by Jeremy Bentham and others of immense importance. The following report is unpleasant, but it shows how dangerous it was for surgeons to get bodies. The fact that the practice was done in secret also meant that those with access to cadavers did not share them, so by legalising the trade, it was possible for more students to learn more, so surgery became much safer for all of us.
“The Bristol Journal of the 26th October 1822 narrated that, a few nights previously, a body was stolen from a grave in St Augustine’s churchyard, and conveyed to the “dissecting-room” a chamber hired by two or three Bristol surgeons, and situated in the precincts of the Cathedral. A quarrel having arisen betwixt the “resurrection men” and their employers, a crowd gathered near the house, the door of which was eventually forced, and the crime discovered. the churchwardens were bound over to prosecute the ostensible occupier of the room but no result is recorded, the surgeons having doubtless succeeded in hushing up the matter. Less than a fortnight after this affair, three parish constables, in consequence of private information, visited Bedminster churchyard at midnight, and found six persons busily engaged in raising the recently interred body of a young woman. A severe struggle followed. “There were pistols snapped and rapiers drawn, bloody noses and broken heads. The battle was long and severely contested before the patrol was able to secure five;the sixth escaped.” The prisoners were committed for trial, but the result has not been found. Offences of this character could not have been committed with impunity in populous localities if the streets had been adequately guarded. As a matter of fact the police regulations were farcical. In the newspaper recording of the Bedminster outrage is the mock trial of a gentleman, a stranger in the city, charged with whistling in the public thoroughfares between eleven at h=night and two in the morning, thereby preventing the watchmen from enjoying their accustomed slumbers.One of the injured fraternity, “about sixty years old, and decrepit in the extreme” is mad to depose that “he had originally been in the employment of a member of the -[corporation] but his infirmities having unfitted him for labour, he was appointed watchman.” As regards “body snatching” in rural parishes there is evidence that it was frequently practiced, to the great horror of country people. A ghastly affair of this kind occurred about 1824 or 1825. Three medical students connected with “the college dissecting room” stated one dark evening in a gig for Long Ashton churchyard, for the purpose of disinterring the body of a person whose malady had excited professional interest. One of the youths being left in charge of the vehicle, his companions entered the cemetery and began operations, when one of them was almost frozen with terror on seeing, or imagining he saw, the ghost of the intended “subject”. His companion became infected with his panic, and both fled to their conveyance, in which they hurried homewards. On the following day. the Long Ashton authorities offered a regard for the discovery of the body, which had been stolen during the night; and the students are believed to have had ocular evidence that they had been frightened away by the trick of a gang of professional “resurrectionists,” who did not relish the interference of amateurs. ‘The youth who supposed he saw a spirit, however, died shortly afterwards, having never recovered from the mental shock. he was the son of a disssenting minister in Bristol. His companion in the churchyard, long a member of the Infirmary staff, recounted the story under a feigned name, in Once a ‘week, for October, 1860.