Pembroke’s Clinic – The Resurrection Men, Pt 1 – Extraction

Onyxfeld, Early Winter

As I was recently traveling to the city of Onyxfeld, the train passed by a large, snow covered cemetery. The sight of it brought to mind a common issue faced by surgeons and anatomists of the modern world in which we live, namely the sore deficit of cadavers available for the study of anatomy and surgical techniques.

Grave Robber 1

To us, a cemetery. To others, a meal ticket.

I would like to spend time this week honoring those who would assist contemporary medicine in the most noble way; by providing the canvasses upon which doctors such as myself can practice our art. Society has condemned such characters, whilst in turn benefiting from the longevity and happiness that a greater understanding of the human body has granted, enabled by the regular supply of the deceased. That many of the now defunct Resurrection Men were of ill-repute and criminal backgrounds has little to do with – they provided a service to acquire the dead, former people that have no further use for the materials that comprised their human-frames – organs, limbs, viscera, even the brain. The body is merely detritus at that point – infinitely useful to doctors, but hardly sacred. It is not as if the previous occupant is using it further, now is it?

Prior to the enactment of the Anatomy Act of 1832 in England, and similar acts passed in America much later, there would not, nay, could not have existed a doctor or surgeon in either country who had not formulated some agreement with nefarious types for the purpose of corpse-procurement. With the burgeoning growth in number of private anatomy houses and the insatiable hunger of Universities and Academies for cadavers on which to practice, the historical treatise dictating the postmortem use of only the bodies of recently executed criminals simply did not cover the requirements. To cite even the fool Sir Astley Cooper, a man of singularly poor vision:

“[There was] narrated the case of a young man who was rejected […] on account of his ignorance of the parts of the body; it was found […] that his ignorance arose entirely from his being unable to procure that which was necessary for carrying on this part of his education.”

This deficit could not be fulfilled by the demise of ordinary folk; it was not seen as proper for citizens to throw their bodies to the knives when it was so frequently the final fate of the worst elements of society.

Grave Robber 2

She’s not dead, she wants to go for a walk

Where there is a need, there is a person willing to make money from that need and this was no exception. So proliferous were the Resurrection Men that there is hardly a grave site in the British Isles or the United States that has not been tampered with. By the bribery of cemetery attendants, undertakers, officers of the law, relatives, not to mention the former servants of the deceased, bodies were removed, sometimes prior to burial, sometimes afterwards. To cover the removal of the body prior to internment, coffins were weighted with stones to provide the illusion of an occupant. Gravesides of weeping mourners where undoubtedly unaware that the relative they were fawning over was already butchered and laid out upon a not too distant surgical slab.

If no effort was made to conceal the digging of the grave, the soil would simply be removed, rope attached to the cadaver and it hauled from the good earth. Where discretion was key, great efforts would be taken to conceal the removal, including in some cases the use of tunnels to leave the ground around the site undisturbed. Who should say that these men were without honor, as personal effects and jewelry belonging to the deceased would frequently be left, or else following the hanging for the pernicious crime of exhumation, they might also be tried for larceny…

Many such measures of ingenuity to procure subjects: from the agents hiring women to pass as weeping relatives, cleverly ascertaining the nature of the coffin’s occupants, enabling the body to be dug up the evening following; to plying with drink the cemetery attendants allowing for discrete removal; wooden spades to minimize sound; exhumation timed to allow for the extraction to occur while the ground was still soft following burial. In some cases, following the delivery to the dissection school, information would be secretly passed to the police as to the whereabouts of the subject, then once the body had been retrieved, the shrewd ‘body snatchers’ would pose as relatives to acquire the corpse once again, selling it over to yet another teacher.

Grave Robber 3

Prime time entertainment à la 1870’s

Following dissection, the deceased would again be buried, however the bodies, now stripped of identity, not to mention a great many limbs and internal organs, would be bundled in with other items from many other bodies. Many grave sites exhumed in recent years for archaeological purposes (what, may I ask, is the damn difference between this and extraction for purposes of medical science) have revealed coffins filled entirely with arms, or legs, or containing animals bones. Bisected corpses were placed in with halves belonging to entirely different people and in some cases, twin upper or lower halves were placed in the same coffin.

The apparent maltreating of the dead has caused alarm among those who treat the rotten, decaying corpse as if it were still the relative or friend that they lost. Backwards thinking, I say, and after medicine is done with it, let Nature resume her harvest of organics materiel, back into the soup that spawned it. This is not the commonly held belief, and as such, I will next week be discussing the means by which the dead were and still are protected by those opposed, it seems, to enlightenment.

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