An Australian murder-mystery from Rachael Weaver’s article “The Morgue” in Meanjin:
On 17 December 1898 three boys reported having seen a wooden trunk bobbing in the Yarra River near the Church Street bridge. The Richmond police soon managed to retrieve it—still floating though wired to a heavy stone. As they raised it from the water, the side of the box broke away, revealing a human leg, so they prised it open on the spot and found the naked body of a young woman. […] There was nothing to identify the woman’s body and so it was put on display in the hope that she would be recognised. Those who hurried to view it were described as ‘sensation-hunters eager to describe the appearance of the body to their acquaintances’. Parties of clairvoyants joined the throngs, offering their services to help unravel the mystery.
By 22 December, due to warm weather accelerating the deterioration of the corpse, authorities undertook to bury the body after first removing the jaws, which were missing several teeth, with a view to a future identification. But this was not to be. Two days after Christmas it was announced instead that the whole head had been severed from the body, plunged into a glass cylinder of methylated spirits, and placed on exhibition. The head alone continued to draw unparalleled public interest, but no useful information, so on 5 January 1899 two police detectives carried it to the General Post Office inside a cedar box. There it was removed from the spirits by cords that had been fixed to it for the purpose and mounted on a wire mesh partition in the letter carrier’s room where it was shown to all the city’s postmen that evening.
You’re probably right; it makes sense that somewhere between only one and just a few of them would ever commit this stuff to paper.
So, my post earlier today should have said, “One of them kept a diary.”
Remember those “Resurrection Men” I mentioned yesterday? Some of them kept diaries.
What follows is a fairly typical week, taken from December, 1811. Note that a ‘small’ refers to the cadaver of a child. Adults were paid for by surgeons and anatomists on an individual basis, with rare medical conditions fetching a premium. Children were paid for by the inch.
Sunday 8th. At home all night.
Monday 9th. At night went out and got 4 at Bethnall Green
Tuesday 10th. Intoxsicated all day : at night went out & got 5 Bunhill Row. Jack all most buried.
Wednesday 11th. Tom & Bill and me removed 5 from St. Bartholw., 2 Wilson, 2 Brookes, 1 Bell ; in the evening got 1 Harps, went to St. Thomas’, at home all night.
Thursday 12th. I went up to Brookes and Wilson, afterwards me Bill and Daniel went to Bethnall Green, got 2 ; Jack, Ben went got 2 large & 1 small back St. Luke’s, came home, afterwards met again & went to Bunhill row got 6, 1 of them with ———- named Mary Rolph, aged 46, Died 5th Dec. 1811.
Friday 13th. At Home all day & night.
Saturday 14th. Went to Bartholomew tookd. two Brookes : Packd 4 and sent them to Edinborough, came Home to Benn., settled £14 6s. 2 1/2d. each man, came home, got up at 2 me Jack & Bill went to Bunhill Row and got 3. Ben & Daniel staid at home.
Mo medical schools, mo problems.
About 200 years ago, the expansion of medical schools meant a growing need for bodies suitable for dissection. From Wikipedia:
Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who were sentenced to dissection by the courts were often guilty of comparatively harsher crimes. Such sentences did not provide enough subjects for the medical schools and private anatomical schools (which did not require a licence before 1832). While during the 18th century hundreds had been executed for trivial crimes, by the 19th century only about 55 people were being sentenced to capital punishment each year. However, with the expansion of the medical schools, as many as 500 cadavers were needed.
Before electric power to supply refrigeration, bodies would decay rapidly and become unusable for study. Therefore, the medical profession turned to body snatching to supply the deficit of bodies fresh enough to be examined.
Stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and was therefore only punishable with fine and imprisonment, rather than transportation or execution. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection, particularly as the authorities tended to ignore what they considered a necessary evil.
The mortsafe was invented in the early nineteenth century to protect graves from the so-called “Resurrection Men” who plied this trade. Mortsafes were contraptions of iron and/or stones that essentially served as re-usable, coffin-sized padlocks: to make the graves of the newly dead inaccessible for as long as it took for their bodies to putrefy past the point of medical “usefulness.” (Morbid Anatomy wrote a really good post about mortsafes a while back, by the way.)
A few mortsafes are still on display in some churchyards in Scotland. Not coincidentally, these churchyards were near medical schools.
Mortsafe (in the form of an iron coffin) in Colinton Kirkyard, outside Edinburgh. Photograph by Kim Traynor.
Mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh. Photograph by Kim Traynor.