Body Snatchers

Guys Hospital London Operating Theatre 1897 (COPY1/428)

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850, Victorians 1850-1901

Suggested inquiry questions: How common was the crime of Body Snatching? How successful was the Anatomy Act of 1832?

Potential activities: Case studies of 'The London Burkers', class discussion, exploration of different types of sources

Download: Lesson pack

What led to the Anatomy Act of 1832?

The early 19th Century saw many advances in science and medicine, in a time where scientific and religious ideas often clashed over what was morally correct. These ideas are explored in nineteenth century literature such as the novel Frankenstein, but the stories in the real world were often as shocking and brutal as the Gothic fantasy. This lesson explores the business of the grave robber and how they furthered the study of medicine through a grey area of the law.


May’s Confession:

Becoming a resurrectionist:

  • What is a resurrectionist?
  • How and why did May become a resurrectionist?
  • Why does he discuss Patrick Murphy?
  • What do the hospitals think of resurrectionists?

Talking to Bishop:

  • Bishop asked May for the ‘best price’ – what does this tell us about the treatment of bodies?
  • How often are they making sales?
  • What does the word ‘bid’ imply?

May’s involvement:

  • How well treated is the body?
  • Why might they sell the teeth separately?
  • Why is it important to arrive before the Friday evening lecture?

Selling the Body:

  • What is May’s main concern at the beginning of the extract?
  • How many times is drinking mentioned? How trustworthy is his account? How responsible is he?
  • Was May expecting the arrest?
  • What do you think May’s crime was?

Bishop’s Confession:

The Murder:

  • Why was the boy vulnerable?
  • How did Bishop and Williams convince him to go with them?
  • What happened to the boy?

Making Plans:

  • Why does Mr Tuson turn down the sale?
  • What does ‘The Lecture Room’ imply about where he is selling the body?
  • How much does Bishop agree to sell the body for?

Selling the Body:

  • Why does Bishop check with May?
  • What was Bishop’s offer to get May involved?
  • What does Mr Partridge demonstrate?
  • Describe May’s behaviour during the sale.
  • How much does Bishop agree to sell the body for?


  • How does Bishop help May?
  • What do you think May’s crime was?
  • How many bodies has Bishop sold during his career as a body snatcher?
  • What does this tell you about the trade?

Look at the Newgate Prison Calendar.

  • What was the sentence at the trial?
  • What was Bishop’s punishment?
  • What was May’s punishment?

Look at the Anatomy Act 1832. This document is written in legal language so can be quite difficult, try to separate it into blocks of information.

  • Why did the Act come into force?
  • Why is the study of Anatomy necessary?
  • What policies are put in place to help prevent further crimes?
  • List the people who can now apply for licenses to study anatomy.

Read the Letter from the Medical students of Guys Hospital.

  • How successful was the Anatomy Act 1832?
  • What problems are the Medical Students facing in 1859?


The study of anatomy had a troubled history. Religion dictated that dissection of human bodies was an offence leading to misunderstandings of human anatomy based on limited evidence. Galen’s writings ‘On Anatomy’ in AD190 built on the theories of Hippocrates’ Four Humours whilst applying observation of living humans and anatomical study of the deceased. As Human dissection was still not allowed outside of Alexandria, he recommended the dissection of animals such as apes and pigs, using his findings to suggest the anatomy of humans. Whilst some aspects of his observations were accurate, the differences between humans and other animals led to many mistakes but his detailed books on anatomy were believed for many hundreds of years before they were questioned. By the 16th Century, Vesalius had proven that more could be learnt through human dissection and the study of our own anatomy, and attitudes towards medicine began to change.

The industrial revolution brought social change, and significant medical advances through scientific enquiry. In an attempt to prevent murder through increasing the severity of punishment, the Government passed the Murder Act 1751 preventing the bodies of executed murderers from being buried. Instead their bodies would be strung up or given to medical science. As a result, medical students had a greater supply of cadavers to study legally than any previous period, and the study of anatomy through public dissection became a major part of the training of doctors and surgeons.

However, the opening of new medical schools and training centres in the 18th Century meant that even this new supply of subjects could not meet the needs of the students. Buried bodies were not considered property and therefore could be exhumed and sold without restriction, though the practice was hated by the general public. Cemeteries and mourners began to take measures against the business, installing gates, cages and mausoleums to protect their interred. Yet the need for bodies created a profitable black market and ‘Resurrectionists’ or body snatchers became commonplace, leading to notorious cases of murder for the sole purpose of selling the victim’s corpse.

This is the background experience inspiring Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ which sees an ambitious and driven young medical student turn resurrectionist in his quest to discover a cure for death. Through Victor we see several roles of the medical science of the day, with the position of body snatcher and surgeon in one character whilst his friends and colleagues display the public disgust and conflict within the profession in their shock at the character’s descent into desperation.

The most famous Resurrectionists were Edinburgh’s Burke and Hare but London had its own notorious cases including ‘The London Burkers’ or ‘Bethnal Green Gang’ whose case, alongside several others in the early 1830s would lead to the Anatomy Act of 1832 and the legal recognition of the rights of a corpse.

‘The London Burkers’ trial took place under a media spotlight with the accused changing their story several times following the statements of new witnesses. The Home Office documents presented here provide evidence of their trial at the Old Bailey including the final confessions of two of the accused, describing their involvement in the crime and the business of resurrectionism, and the record of their sentences and punishments from Newgate Prison’s Calendar. Also provided is an extract from the Anatomy Act 1832, passed as a direct result of ‘the Bethnal Green Gang’ murders. The final source provided is a later letter sent to the Home Secretary describing the resulting shortfall in subjects for medical students twenty-five years on. This is one of many letters collected by the Home Office after the Act as the appointed inspectors began to keep closer contact with the schools of anatomy and medical profession.

Teachers' notes

This lesson can be used as part of several fields of study for GCSE, including:

  • Crime and Punishment
  • History of Medicine
  • Social Reform of the early 1800s
  • Historical Context of ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley.

The confessions of Bishop and May describe their daily lives in great detail. The full confessions are twelve pages long each, and so have been presented as extracts to provide the most relevant sections describing one particular case. The initial task can be completed as group work, in carousel, or individually as its own lesson before moving on to the rest of the sources. Care should be taken in providing the source describing the murder to students.

The final source shows the on going effects of the Act over twenty-five years later, asking students to consider these sources in the context of a larger narrative.

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Empire and Industry 1750-1850, Victorians 1850-1901

Suggested inquiry questions: How common was the crime of Body Snatching? How successful was the Anatomy Act of 1832?

Potential activities: Case studies of 'The London Burkers', class discussion, exploration of different types of sources

Download: Lesson pack

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