Removing a corpse from its resting place was done for the advancement of science and seen as a necessity for medical students to learn the anatomy correctly. Since the 15th century, British anatomists have used corpses for the purpose of study. By law, only executed criminals were available for dissection and learning, which limited the number of bodies available. During the early 19th century in England, capital crimes were continually reduced, which lessened the number of criminals executed, in turn making the growing medical institutions desperate for cadavers. Low supply and high demand brought about the new trade of body snatching. Due to this high demand, authorities often looked the other way when body snatching occurred. Body snatching was kept quiet from the public to prevent riots, which were known to occur when such a crime was publicized. The men that stole the corpses were known as resurrection-men. Unlike grave robbers looking for personal treasures, the resurrectionists snatched bodies to sell.
Body snatching was not considered a felony. The punishment consisted of a fine and imprisonment, whereas, grave robbing, taking personal items from the corpse, was a felony and punishable by hanging. So taking the body wasn’t as bad as taking the body’s socks. Body snatching was considered lucrative enough that resurrectionists were willing to take their chances with the law. The institution of St. Bartholemew’s purchased corpses for four guineas apiece, which was a great sum.
Trade in corpses led to family members watching vigilantly over the deceased to assure themselves that the would-be-surgeons stayed far away. Some decided to “mortsafe” their deceased. This is where the corpse would be placed in a vault and allowed to putrefy before burial, thus rendering the corpse of no value to the robbers who sold them to the colleges. Mortsafes were iron contraptions that protected the coffin from robbers. They were usually removed after six weeks and reused elsewhere; for a special charge, of course. Mortsafes were often weighted with stone, making exhumation of the deceased difficult. The lack of refrigeration at the time meant the bodies decayed quickly, so stealing them had to happen with haste if the corpse was to be useful for dissection.
In part due to the scare from the Burke and Hare murders in 1828, where two Irish immigrants murdered 16 people and sold their corpses to a doctor for his anatomy lectures, vaults and watch houses began to pop up in cemeteries. People with loved ones in the cemetery often took shifts in the watchtower overlooking the cemetery, remaining vigilant for any resurrectionists. People were also known to set traps like spring guns to deter the robbers.
Of course these methods of safeguarding the deceased worked for many, but resurrection-men were tenacious and would dig further away from the mortsafe, and tunnel their way to the corpse, making the grave still appear undisturbed. Nothing was foolproof. With the Anatomy Act of 1832, unclaimed bodies and those donated by families were now allowed to be dissected in the pursuit of knowledge. This left the medical institution with enough corpses to dissect, and body snatching lost its lucrative incentive. The deceased were relatively left in peace, with the exception of the occasional grave robber.
My book Born Reckless delves into the hardships and upset caused by body snatching, when the Earl of Camden’s brother refuses to mortsafe his deceased wife, and her body goes missing. http://www.amazon.com/Born-Reckless-Alter-Ego-Book-ebook/dp/B006V5820I/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1420308908&sr=8-6&keywords=born+reckless
A special thank you to: http://www.kuriositas.com/2013/05/the-mortsafe-or-how-to-protect-your.html http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/body-snatching-a-most-ghoulish-19th-century-affair/