BODY-SNATCHING, the secret disinterring of dead bodies in churchyards in order to sell them for the purpose of dissection. Those who practised body-snatching were frequently called resurrectionists or resurrection-men. Previous to the passing of the Anatomy Act 1832 (see Anatomy: History), no licence was required in Great Britain for opening an anatomical school, and there was no provision for supplying subjects to students for anatomical purposes. Therefore, though body-snatching was a misdemeanour at common law, punishable with fine and imprisonment, it was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection. Body-snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for the relatives and friends of a deceased person to watch the grave for some time after burial, lest it should be violated. Iron coffins, too, were frequently used for burial, or the graves were protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes, well-preserved examples of which may still be seen in Greyfriars’ churchyard, Edinburgh.
For a detailed history of body-snatching, see The Diary of a Resurrectionist, edited by J. B. Bailey (London, 1896), which also contains a full bibliography and the regulations in force in foreign countries for the supply of bodies for anatomical purposes.