Since spirits linger in Cape May all year around not just during the Halloween season, let’s go to the graveyard for a ghoulish tale of Victorian graveyard lore…resurrectionists, the ghoulish grave robbers who dug up newly-buried bodies for use by medical science.
In the Victorian Era, medical science was advancing rapidly just like many other fields. Overzealous and underprincipled physicians had an ever-growing need for corpses to dissect and examine to advance medical knowledge, yet recent cadavers were difficult to obtain for anatomical research. Resurrectionists filled this void.
Usually individuals of at least questionable reputations and ethics, resurrectionists, a.k.a. body snatchers, worked at night. Having scouted the site of a fresh grave, they exhumed the body head first. Wooden, not metal, shovels were used to reduce noise piling the soil at the foot end of the coffin to help catapult it open. Tarpaulins and sacks were used to muffle any sounds of the excavation and coffin opening. Using crowbars and hooks, the body was removed and stripped of clothing and valuables. The latter were kept by the grave diggers as a macabre bonus for their efforts. The earth was then carefully replaced.
Some resurrectionists hired women to impersonate female mourners and scout for likely targets and assess any difficulties they might encounter in acquiring the cadaver.
Use of resurrectionists was quite common in England. In America, the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York, with their medical schools, were centers of the creepy trade.
The use of resurrectionists was obviously quite controversial. They did provide bodies for much valuable medical research and advancements, yet many were morally troubled by the practice. On both sides of the Atlantic, laws were passed prohibiting the practice. Walled, gated and guarded cemeteries began to appear by the 1870s. Cages were placed over individual graves. These served the dual purpose, also keeping a potentially malevolent spirit from escaping to exact its revenge. Elaborate crypts were built which had the added advantage of becoming status symbols for the wealthy. The poor in public burial grounds had no such protections.
So common was resurrectionism in the Victorian Era that it found its way into popular literature. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher (1884), Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) all include tales of them.
By the end of the Victorian Era the practice of resurrectionism had become so offensive to the public that its practice was strictly prohibited both here in America and abroad. It faded into history as a ghoulish Victorian graveyard tale.
A retired history teacher, school administrator and university professor, Dr. R.E. Heinly writes a weekly column on the Victorian Era in the Cape May Star & Wave. He is MAC’s Director of Museum Education and portrays our own Dr. Emlen Physick.