Burking and Body-Snatching: The Deadly Side of Medicine in Georgian London

Some time ago I noted in a blog post about Bart’s Hospital that the hospital’s methods of obtaining bodies for anatomical study would bear further scrutiny, ideally as a PhD thesis (not by me, I hasten to add).  Last weekend, an article appeared in the Guardian regarding Don Shelton’s latest paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, where he posits that surgeons William Hunter and William Smellie had women at their full-term of pregnancy murdered or ‘burked’ to provide bodies to further their obstetric studies.  He’s right in that the numbers don’t add up, and that it is rare for a woman to die at full-term but without having begun labour, which seems to be their favoured choice of subject.  However, whilst he has made a valuable study and some very salient points, I stall at his inference of murder.  If you care what I think (and why should you?), this is why I don’t agree.

There is no argument that both Smellie and Hunter were unscrupulous when it came to acquiring subjects for study, or for Hunter’s medical ‘museum’ of freakery.  Hunter in particular behaved appallingly over the corpses of various subjects he had his eye on, bribing family and friends to bring the body to him after the final illness, whatever the wishes of the person in question.  Most famously, he paid the friends of Irish giant Charles Byrne five hundred pounds to supply him with Byrne’s body, despite the fact that Byrne hated Hunter and specifically requested that he be buried at sea to avoid the anatomist’s knife <this is an error on my part – it was actually John Hunter, William’s younger brother who did this>.  Being utterly ruthless and sanctioning murder are not the same.  At one point, Hunter noted against Smellie’s study of twins in utero that Dr MacKenzie, Smellie’s assistant had procured and dissected the body without Smellie’s knowledge ‘was the cause of a separation between them, as the leading steps to such discovery could not be kept secret’.  This indicated that the woman had been obtained by methods not sanctioned by Smellie and that he did not want to be associated with such methods.  Hunter and Smellie were rivals medically, and both were aware that the whole business of procuring subjects would not bear scrutiny in polite society, but it doesn’t mean they were turning a blind eye to the possible murdering of pregnant women.

Shelton examines the mechanisms of burial and arrives, quite rightly, at the conclusion that most ‘resurrected’ bodies were obtained from the poorhouses, either pre or post burial.  He also asserts that people in a paupers’ cemetery were placed in large pits and left uncovered until the pit was full.  Nowhere in any of my studies have I found this to be true.  Yes, destitute people were placed in communal graves in burial grounds throughout the city, but they were placed there with a bit of dignity and covered over with earth, even if others were later to be added to the grave.  They were also prayed over by the incumbent.  The pragmatism displayed by Georgian Londoners in the face of death and illness is not the same as being callous or unfeeling.The rarity of death in women at full-term is a fact that cannot be argued with.  However, in this we are largely influenced by modern statistics and the success of modern obstetric medicine, but pre-eclampsia is a dangerous condition still common now, affecting up to ten percent of pregnancies.  Characterized by very high blood pressure, pain in the chest, damage to vital organs through raised blood protein levels, seizures and possible cerebral haemmorhages, there was no effective treatment for this condition in the 18thC.  Sufferers describe the attendant pains of pre-eclampsia as unbearable, and medicate accordingly which may have resulted in overdose.  If untreated, pre-eclampsia can prove fatal to both mother and child, and in Georgian London, would have meant many more mothers died when heavily pregnant, but without loss or damage to the body that would prevent an anatomist making a detailed study of the gravid uterus.

My last point is upon Shelton’s light treatment of the ‘resurrectionists’.  Obtaining corpses for anatomical study wasn’t an obvious career choice, granted.  It would require a strong stomach, both morally and literally and a network of connections with like-minded individuals.  Nevertheless, it was a job, perhaps coupled with another part-time occupation, but one taken seriously by those who engaged in it.  They would know the poorhouses and those who supervised, they’d watch to see who came and went.  Scoliotic, palsied, deformed or otherwise ‘freakish’ subjects were all required, as well as pregnant women.  No doubt palms were heavily greased for word of a death.  I don’t believe for a moment that resurrectionists simply disinterred corpses ‘randomly’.  Most were probably never even buried.  Vultures may be abhorrent creatures, but they let nature do the killing.From the study of Smellie and Hunter’s extant works, it appears they obtained 32 full term corpses in 13 years.  I believe this number of women were available through natural death, but their bodies were obtained through fairly creepy and suspect supply chains, rather than murder.  The woman pregnant with twins was clearly too much for MacKenzie to resist, and I am sure there were indeed murders associated with the study of anatomy, but I disagree with the condemnation of Smellie and Hunter as serial-killers and the sensationalism is both unpleasant and inaccurate.  The inference that the men also worked on women rendered unconscious but still alive has no basis in fact whatsoever.<to further clarify this point: women were not ‘anatomized’ whilst still alive, although there are cases where C-sections were undertaken with little hope of the mother’s survival.  This does not make the operating doctor a monster.>  Smellie and Hunter were at the top of the medical tree, doing valuable work.  Associated with them were a large number of ‘worker bees’, from the artist Jan van Rymsdyk, who produced the astonishing images in the gallery to the poorhouse supervisor who shuffled the bodies out of the back door, to the grave-digger who after dark disinterred a body he had only just covered over.  For my money, Rymsdyk is the scary one: he sat with these bodies for hours, studying them in minute detail and there is an adoring beauty to his renderings of these unfortunate women and their children: the sitting posture of the gravid woman, with her knees covered by a blanket, but her internal organs displayed by the neat flaying of the anatomist, and the baby curled snugly inside her, a stray wisp of its hair escaping the womb.  There is a liveliness and humanity to the drawings that eludes the photographer’s lens in post-mortem photography.

It is too easy to look back at history and attribute cruelty and inhumanity to people who lived in a time when death was a closer companion than it is now.  As I hope this blog has shown, the 18thC is an interesting enough place to spend time even without sensationalism.

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15 thoughts on “Burking and Body-Snatching: The Deadly Side of Medicine in Georgian London

  1. michael power

    Lucy, please send this excellent analysis to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. It would be a pity to deprive their readers of a more nuanced and entertaining account of Smellie and Hunter.Your post reminded me that I read Hilary Mantel’s “The Giant, O’Brian”, in one sitting some years ago. Fascinatingly horrible.

  2. donshelton

    I have read your comments on my JRSM article with interest. I wish you had bothered to contact me before you wrote this, so I could correct your errors. I could then have helped you by drawing your attention to the fact that the JRSM article is a much abbreviated extract from a single chapter of a serious and factual ebook of 532 pages and 1450 footnoted sources giving a great deal of contemporary 18C evidence supporting all the conclusions. You would have seen that the JRSM article notes the availability of the ebook for people wishing to know the supporting evidence. Your latter comments make it clear that you have not researched the mid 18C, nor the subject of the resurrectionists in any detail, so you may find it helpful to read The Real Mr Frankenstein and then perhaps add to your blog. By way of example you have mixed up William Hunter the man-midwife and John Hunter the surgeon, the latter was associated with the Irish Giant. I also note that there is not a single reference to Crippen in my JRSM article, nor in the book, so you are being quite misleading in quoting his name.

  3. Lucy Inglis

    Dear Mr Shelton,Many thanks for your comment. I confess I had mixed up the Hunter brothers, and I have also removed the reference to Crippen. However, I quote the Guardian article:”Smellie and Hunter were responsible for a series of 18th-century ‘burking’ murders of pregnant women, with a death total greater than the combined murders committed by Burke and Hare and Jack the Ripper,” writes Don Shelton, a historian.I *may* be utterly wrong in assuming using Crippen as ‘The Ripper’s’ alter-ego, but there we are. I have not read your e-book, nor do I intend to purchase it online. You are the person who abbreviated the article, and submitted it and therefore it is not unreasonable to surmise that you will allow people to draw their own conclusions based upon what you have presented. The newspaper article later referred to your saying with regards to your research on this subject that it was ‘a bit like a thinking person’s Da Vinci Code’. I was unaware such a thing existed.My main argument was against the sensationalizing of anatomical activity during the 18thC, and I have drawn upon your JRSM article, and the media coverage to do so. I have said more than once that the acquisition of fresh corpses for study would bear a close inspection, and agree with Professor Jordanova’s comment: ‘This is an exciting and controversial area of historical investigation, and it invites more meticulous research and judicious research.’This is my blog, and I am not in the habit of seeking approval for the things I post here. Such is the internet. At no point did I accuse your article or book of being shoddily researched, quite the opposite in fact. This post is in no way a personal attack, unlike your response. Unless you can shape yourself to post something constructive, such as the link to full-term pregnant patients being dissected alive as was your inference to the Observer, please resist the urge.Yours &c.,

  4. archaerie

    Brava, Lucy. Badly done, Mr. Shelton. In future you may want to remove the chip from your shoulder before commencing correspondance with a Lady.

  5. michael power

    Lucy, you made a convincing case that pregnant women were unlikely to be murdered to supply the dissection table, and I think even more strongly now that you should submit this to the JRM.

  6. delhispearman

    I really do think that if Mr Shelton had issue with your blog he might have sent you a private email to discuss his concerns. You would then have had an opportunity to correct any errors of fact, whilst retaining your own voice.If anything his response and its method betrays much that is not to his credit. It is an own goal in my opinion.Please do not be put off by this. I am one of many who enjoy your excellent contribution to knowledge of eighteenth century life in London.

  7. Anonymous

    I found Mr Shelton’s work totally unconvincing and sensationalist. Thanks for writing up this critique. For myself, I would like the hear the opinion of Leonard Schwarz and Jeremy Boulton, who are just finishing a major study of the Sexton’s Books for St Martin in the Fields. Their recent online articles form some of the best demographic work on 18th c. London I have ever read, and with their larger project to digitise workhouse registers and settlement exams for the same parish, actually make it possible to get inside an 18th c. workhouse in a new way and chart the medical and death experiences of tens of thousands of poor Londoners (giving us a real measure of late term deaths). See for instance: http://research.ncl.ac.uk/pauperlives/declineofsmallpox.pdf

  8. schaplin

    I share the view that Don Shelton’s analysis – at least in the form presented in the JRSM article – doesn’t bear close scrutiny. The figures for maternal mortality in the 18th century are low, but as Irvine Loudon has made clear they are also incomplete and, more importantly, vary significantly according to type of birth environment (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1139579/). In particular, Loudon suggests rather higher maternal mortality rates for institutions such as the British Lying-In Hospital in Brownlow Street in London, to which William Hunter was attached. I suspect that connections with lying-In hospitals and charitable private practice gave man-midwives such as William Hunter and Smellie the opportunity to dissect the bodies of pregnant women, rather than relying on random disinterment.

  9. Thomas Vye

    Your response is beautifully written and I share your opinion and doubts. I am no expert on maternal mortality (though I always wonder about the true reliability of statistics according to who is releasing them and why). But I do know about resurrectionists and I am especially doubtful of the suggestion that resurrectionists apparently didn’t have a network of information. I have been researching them for years and they have always seemed very well informed and active to me and it was naturally in their (financial) interests to be so. It’s true there are occaisions where random chance brought a lucky result but to be relying on that would not have been profitable in the long term. They did, as you suggest, take their profession seriously. It’s true that there isn’t as much information about the men who worked in the 18th century as there is about the men who worked during the last decades of the profession’s life, but perhaps it was not the way of working that changed as much as the scale. I also agree with you that the Georgians did care about how their dead were buried. While there were undoubtedly corrupt grave diggers (especially), sextons and undertakers, there were also concerned church wardens and burial ground keepers trying hard to keep the resurrectionists out. I would not rule out burking before Burke full stop, but I am not convinced this time.

  10. Lucy Inglis

    A small but significant little entry from the Penny London Post of 1st of December 1749. http://bit.ly/bC7FLG The dead babies were brought court under the trover law I have blogged about elsewhere on Georgian London, which is both sad and revealing. In the confusion and trauma of delivering conjoined twins, a man-midwife had managed to remove the corpses of the little girls as a medical curiosity. The parents took him to the Court of Common Pleas and he was forced to return the bodies to the father.If one were to judge from what is commonly written about attitudes to ‘freakish’ births in Georgian London, one would conclude that the mother would have been repelled by the birth of such children. Instead, they pursued the doctor to court for the return of the bodies of their daughters. I can find no other mention of these twins, and it is not impossible the parents re-sold the corpses. I find it more likely they were buried with dignity; if the parents were simply after money they would have accepted a payment from the doctor rather than bring the case before a jury.

  11. Sarah Siddons

    Lucy, this is a fascinating, if macabre post – but as you say has to be viewed through the pragmatism about death and dying which informed the times. While not in any way condoning whatever was done, is it not so that knowledge about the workings of the human body cannot be learned without the downside of research? And this was one of the only means available at that time. Thanks, Lucy – and for the illustrations. They remind me of those in my Grey’s Anatomy book 🙂

  12. Anonymous

    Oh My God, Lucy! This post should have some warning, re pictures:) So much for the joys of motherhood? Very interesting though…

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