'Resurrectionists' on the prowl for victims struck as much fear into society as serial killers, writes Chris Upton.

It’s a curious feature of our age that what used to terrify us eventually becomes a matter of light entertainment.

So have evolved the Phantom of the Opera, the Living Dead and the Barber of Fleet Street. And this motley crew have lately been joined by Messrs Burke and Hare, the subjects of a new comedy film.

The work of Burke and Hare, supplying the surgeons of Edinburgh with fresh bodies for their anatomy schools, ended on the gallows. But the dread that they inspired on the streets of Britain’s cities by no means disappeared with their execution. Not for some years, at least.

The obstacle that Burke and Hare addressed in their idiosyncratic manner was a “supply side” problem.

By the 1820s medical schools were thriving in the capital cities of England and Scotland, along with smaller ones in provincial towns like Birmingham.

But medical training meant anatomy classes, and the latter required bodies. Yet only the bodies of executed murderers were available for dissection, and then only if authorised by the assize judge. It was a neat way of punishing the criminal even beyond the scaffold.

There was, then, a lucrative trade to be exploited, and the unscrupulous body-snatchers waded in, shovel in one hand and address book in the other.

If a fresh grave could be found – ideally within about three days of interment – then it might yield up a body worth £10 or £20 on the open market. The perpetrators were, rather wittily, known as “resurrectionists”.

In the dark cemeteries shadowy figures moved back and forth, and if they performed their job well, and back-filled the grave, no one need be any wiser. It was, they would no doubt have argued, a victimless crime; they were doing a public service.

The church beadles, whose responsibilities included burial, might be expected to protect the sanctity of the graveyard. But some of them found the lure of cash-in-hand hard to resist. Indeed, the beadles of both St Bartholomew’s and St Mary’s churches in Birmingham were themselves convicted of selling teeth recovered from graves. Dentists would pay good money for these too.

For the bereaved family, understandably reluctant to see their loved one become the subject of a lecture series, there were two easy ways to ward off the resurrectionists. One was to secure the grave with an iron “morte-safe”, a grill that fitted securely over the plot and was far from easy to break open.

Think of it as a steering-lock for graves. The snatchers would, in all likelihood, look for easier prey.

But morte-safes did not come cheap. Instead, the poor wife or mother felt herself obliged to stand guard over the grave night and day – but mostly night – until the three days had passed. After that the body was not thought to be worth disinterring. The price dropped rapidly.

At Aston in 1827 the churchwardens took to keeping watch from the tower of the church, armed with swords.

Any suspicious activity and they were down the stairs in a flash, brandishing their weapons. One resurrection was foiled this way. What made the trade so tempting were the lucrative rewards at both ends of the transaction.

The anatomists themselves made good money from their classes by charging admission, both to their students and to the general public.

In April 1832 the Birmingham surgeon, William Sands Cox, was said to have performed a dissection on the body of a murderer, John Danks, “to crowded audiences” at the School of Medicine in Snow Hill. In a town with only a couple of theatres, the one in Snow Hill made for a popular alternative night out.

Body-snatching was not as common as it was assumed, but the panic it induced in the early 1830s was tangible and ever-present. A stranger lurking in a dark alley could be a Burke or a Hare, and anyone crossing St Philip’s churchyard at night might be a resurrectionist. Innocence was no protection.

In 1831 one entirely guiltless man on Great Hampton Street was pursued by a mob who believed him to be a “Burkite”. Another family, legitimately disinterring the coffin of a relative who had been buried in the wrong plot, were arrested and hauled before the courts.

Then there were the practical jokers. Three boys in 1830 came up with what they thought was an amusing jape, concealing one of the group in a sack and leaving it outside a shop in New Street. When a concerned passer-by opened up the sack, the boy inside wished him ‘Good day”. The three were sent to the house of correction for a month.

Nevertheless, the trade was real enough. A police raid on a coach station in Constitution Hill in December 1831 revealed two bodies, boxed and ready for despatch to a public house in Edinburgh, no doubt to be collected there by the surgeon concerned. Not surprisingly, his home address was not on the label.

Only with the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 was the market freed up, and unclaimed cadavers from the prison, the hospital and the workhouse could then be legally purchased for the medical schools.