Sin Eaters & other macabre events – Part 2

So with the multitude of people dying, Sin Eaters could pick and choose whose funeral feast they wish to partake in and understandably they probably selected the more affluent for a better quality bread and grog

However, with all the imbibing going on at the cemetery and unless the grieving family wanted an inebriated Sin Eater wandering over and falling into the open grave and cracking the coffin lid open, which would justifiably cause the congregation to go into hysterics, this ritual would be performed after the grave had been shovelled closed.


Closing of the grave was usually done by Gravediggers hanging about the cemetery waiting earnestly for a ha’penny in the event that the male family members suddenly realised that they had Spondylolisthesis or Cervical Radiculopathy

As was the trend in those days, the gravediggers (for another couple of pennies) would then notify grave robbers or body snatchers that another one had bitten the dust. Death was definitely a lucrative business

[On a side note: The difference between a grave robber and a body snatcher?

Grave robbers broke into coffins, robbed all the valuables adorning the body in the coffin, including boots and shoes and body snatchers snatched bodies

Actually it was a bit more serious than that. By the 1720’s body snatching was so commonplace that it was considered an industry and cadavers were stolen from hospitals, front parlours, and graves. If a grave robber got there before the body snatchers did, then it would save them the trouble of digging up the coffin. Furthermore, stealing of bodies had become so elaborate that short tunnels would be built and the body stolen without anybody even noticing that it had been removed

Grave Robbing was a felony and could result in penal transportation to the colonies for ten years or even execution but Body Snatching was considered a misdemeanour, punishable only by a small fine

These (for a better word) exhumed corpses were then tied up, packed in cases or trunks, salted, pickled, injected with preservatives and treated like merchandise. The “cadaver” would either be sold whole, by the inch or by the pound to the nearest medical college


As money was just as tight for many people during the 17th, 18th and 19th century as it is now, the grieving family members along with all the unrecognisable seventh cousins removed who crawled out of the woodwork for the occasion and free beer, would go off to have the wake. Usually all the mourners would pile into the nearest pub, order a blood pudding to share and sit around discussing what might have been bequeathed to who and enduring the traditional name calling, hair pulling and the rattling of closet skeletons that would follow the reading of the Last Will and Testament. Things have not changed much in the 21st century

Typically a wake would be the gathering of friends and family congregating with the body prior to burial to offer special prayers for the deceased (who was in need of consolation for passing from one state to another) and to console the family left behind. This was called “watching” but clearly that job had become too tedious for children and elderly family members to stay awake for the duration so alcohol was introduced but that brought along too much merriment that offended the most righteous of the community obliged to attend the wake. This merriment got to the point where the living usually forgot where they were and staggered home in the wee hours leaving the dead body unattended. Therefore wakes were moved to after the burial so that they did not have to pay street urchins a finders-fee to locate the missing coffin and its occupant

If they were not quick enough in locating the body, a lurking body snatcher would not wait for the body to be buried before removing it from the coffin and dragging it off stealthily to the nearest university in need of a cadaver in exchange for a couple of shillings. There hard pressed medical students would learn the correct procedure of removing a man’s appendix without removing a more vital organ by accident


Body Snatchers, known as Resurrection Men, charged 8 to 20 guineas for a cadaver. (£ 3900 – 900. U$ 500 – 1200. N$ 8,500 – 19,000.) For that kind of money, small wonder that no “body” was safe from them. If you had stopped breathing for whatever reason, you were fair game. To curb all the body snatching, family members were getting into debt to have crypts and vaults built for the deceased

Another method of securing bodies was to lock them in a purpose built stone building or Mort House adjacent to the church until the burial service. In other locations, an iron cage was used or a the coffin was placed in a Mort Safe for approximately six weeks until the body became unusable for anatomy lessons and then reinterred. One would imagine that not many visitations were associated with the deceased during this period

Another disturbing burial procedure was the Mort Coffin which was a reusable coffin owned by the Church. The corpse was wrapped in a shroud, tied at head and foot, and placed in the coffin. At the graveside the coffin was lowered half way down and bolts were then removed allowing the floor of the coffin to swing open and the body fall into the grave. The Mort Coffin was then lifted and packed away until the next poor member of the church needed it. This made grave robbing and snatching even easier as there was no coffin to break open which could alert the night watchmen

Resurrection men had no qualms in even bribing house servants for access to the recently deceased Master’s body where it would be exchanged for weights. They were even known for employing women to act the part of grieving relatives in order to claim bodies from poor houses and work houses

Bristol resurrection 1

Americans also got onto the dissection wagon and used the bodies of unclaimed soldiers from the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and after the war ended, Resurrectionists snatched bodies like everybody else but theirs turned slightly viler. After the public hanging of 39 Dakota warriors in the aftermath of the tragic Dakota War of 1862 (also known as the Sioux Uprising), a group of unethical doctors removed the bodies under cover of darkness from their riverside grave. These bodies were dissected in the presence of other doctors.

[On a Side Note: The Sioux Uprising started due to the White Settlers driving the Dakota off their land and into reservations empty of wildlife and refusing to make promised payments which lead to mass starving and death. The identifiable bones of Maȟpiya Akan Nažiŋ (Stands on Clouds), also known as “Cut Nose” who was kept by one of the doctors descendants was finally returned to the Dakota tribe sometime in the 1990’s]

The illegal profession of Body Snatching only started dying out in 1832 when the Anatomy Act was passed in the United Kingdom and the Massachusetts Anatomy Act of 1831 in North America, making it possible for unclaimed bodies in workhouses and hospitals to be used for dissection at medical schools. Until that time it was only legal to use the bodies of executed prisoners]

Most infamous body snatchers were two Irish men, Burke and Hare living in Scotland, who sold a total of 16 bodies to anatomist and zoologist Dr Robert Knox for £ 7.10 ( £ 731, U$ 1 130, N$ 17 000).

The now infamous Dr Knox was an ex-army surgeon and lecturer who charged students to attend his Anatomy Dissection lectures and had no compunction in taking relatively healthy and warm bodies from Burke and Hare



These two ghoulish fiends (Burke and Hare) did not wait for their victims to die, instead took matters into their own hands and expedited matters through suffocation and strangulation. When they were finally caught in 1829, Burke was hanged in front of a crowd of 25,000 spectators, many who paid for seats in tenements overlooking the square. He was publically dissected the following day which caused a riot among medical students clamouring to see the event. One of the professors in a moment of macabre humour dipped his quill into Burkes blood and wrote “This is written with the blood of Burke”

After dissection, the body was displayed for all to see in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School where it is still housed for viewing

[On a Side Note: A book was made from Burke’s skin, including a wallet and a business card case. The business card case sold for £ 1050 in 1988]

With all the body snatchers and grave robbers on the prowl it’s no surprise that cremations started taking off in the 19th century

End of Part 2

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