The art of dissecting human bodies for medical research in Britain got off to a slow start. No devout Christian wanted their body to be desecrated by curious surgeons at the risk of losing their chance at eternal life. A body torn apart by a scalpel may not be resurrected.
Henry VIII brought in legislation allowing barber surgeons to claim four bodies of executed murderers per year. After all, murderers were going to Hell anyway so their mortal shell could be used as a doggy chew toy for all anybody cared. Charles II bumped the number up to six murderers per annum.
Progress was being made but the restrictions meant that there was less than one body per London hospital each year. The dangers of being operated on by a surgeon who doesn’t know what an internal organ looked like were huge.
Whenever there is demand for a rare product, people have found ways to capitalise on the opportunity and find supplies from somewhere, however unsavoury.
A new profession appeared in the streets of London and Edinburgh. Resurrection men began to haunt cemeteries for freshly buried corpses. In the dead of night these men would dig up these cadavers and sell them to eager anatomists who were so desperate to study dissection that they were willing to turn a blind eye to bodysnatching. A Resurrectionist could earn far more money than a highly skilled craftsman.
Interestingly the theft of a corpse from a graveyard was only considered a minor misdemeanour in the eyes of British law. However the theft of shrouds, mementoes left in coffins, coffin nails etc was a felony. As long as you made sure the body was naked (and relatively fresh) the worst you could expect as punishment was a fine.
One such Resurrectionist at the start of the 19th century was a man by the name of Benjamin Crouch. The renowned anatomist Sir Astley Cooper lured Crouch into a life of bodysnatching with promises of large quantities of cash for every fresh corpse Crouch could deliver. As a bonus, parts that anatomists weren’t interested in such as hair and teeth could be sold on to wigmakers and dentists as a bit of extra pocket money for lugging corpses around the city. Crouch earned quite a tidy sum selling teeth to dentists, half of London had dentures made with the teeth of dug up corpses and demand for false teeth was always high.
Bodysnatching was arduous work and it was almost guaranteed that the local community would hate you for dragging up their beloved dead relatives. It is no surprise that Ben eventually wanted out of the Resurrectionist business. He took his tooth money and moved to Margate. He used his dental earnings to set up a cosy little seafront hotel and settled back to enjoy life as a tourist town businessman and respectable member of Kent society.
Unfortunately for Benny boy, rumours from London soon reached Margate about where the new hotelier had found the capital to open his B&B. Sickened, the local community treated him with just as much contempt as grieving Londoners had. The hotel was boycotted and Crouch was forced to retreat back to London. Crouch was reduced to a life of escalating crime and died in poverty.
Personally, I see Crouch as a bit of an unsung hero. The bodies that he provided to Sir Astley Cooper came in very useful and Cooper was able to make huge leaps in vascular surgery that may never have been possible if dozens of anatomists had a mere six corpses to fight over. Who knows how many lives have been saved thanks to men like Crouch who were willing to carry out an unsavoury job for the benefit of progress.