Newest Review: ... Act that this finally stopped. It is a quite amazing social history however that this problem took decades to resolve, and caused so much ... more
The gruesome history of body snatching - fascinating read
Body Snatchers - Michael Dowsett
Member Name: julwhite
Body Snatchers - Michael Dowsett
Advantages: Fascinating book, covers the history of body snatching
Disadvantages: None, although I'd have liked some of the themes developed a little more
This review is of the book "Body Snatchers" by Michael Dowsett, a non-fiction book which looks at the 'work' of the body snatchers before the Anatomy Act was passed.
In short, body snatchers were the individuals and gangs who stole bodies from the ground to sell to surgeons. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries anatomy was becoming more important, but surgeons had access to only a few bodies of convicted criminals who were sentenced to death. Therefore in order to operate on the living, they needed to practice on the dead.
To practice on the dead needed a constant supply of bodies, which medical schools across the country, but especially Edinburgh and London, demanded. So literally thousands of bodies were taken from their burial place and sold to surgeons, and it wasn't until the 1832 Anatomy Act that this finally stopped. It is a quite amazing social history however that this problem took decades to resolve, and caused so much worry and misery to so many.
The book also features a number of different cases such as Nellie Torrence and Jeannie Waldie, William Burke and William Hare and John Bishop and Thomas Williams. In all three of these cases rather than stealing dead bodies, they actually killed people in order to sell their bodies to body snatchers, and I hadn't even heard of any of these other than Burke and Hare.
The book then goes on to look at how the law changed, and eventually the Anatomy Act was passed to stop the trade in illegal bodies. I found this interesting, how some politicians delayed taking action, and how the church opposed the legislation at first. It took some determined politicians many years to be able to change the law, and even then , many thought it would fail.
I also found reading about the links between the surgeons and the body snatchers interesting, as there would be no market for the dead bodies if the surgeons didn't purchase them. The book looks at how some surgeons were rather more engaged with the trade than others, and how it's thought some of the finest names in surgery may have actually been at graves whilst the bodies were stolen.
On the positive side, I found this a fascinating read, as it merges my interests in politics and history. It must have been a dreadful worry for families knowing that bodies of their families and friends might be stolen from graveyards, and the book covers just how the bodies were removed. I won't repeat that here however, it's a little too gruesome.
On the negative side, although the book was marked as an introduction to body snatching, which I think would be useful to students, I did think it could have developed some of the themes a little more. However, this did encourage me to find other books about the cases which I wouldn't otherwise have done. The book does contain some suggested reading of other titles, but some of the books were quite old and so obtaining them might be difficult.
At the time of writing the Kindle version of the book retails for 1.53 pounds on Amazon, which seems a reasonable price. The ISBN is 978-1-903838-50-1, and I couldn't see a printed version of the book, so I think it's just on Kindle at the moment.
In summary, I'd have preferred the book to be a bit longer to develop some of the themes, but I found it interesting and a relevant starting point to find out more. I hadn't realised just how many people were affected, and I was particularly interested by the politics behind the changing of the law. Overall I'd recommend this title.
Summary: It's a gruesome story, but amazing this happened in Britain, nice piece of social history