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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Hidden Ireland

Here's how graves were protected from bodysnatchers in 1800s Cork...

‘Bodysnatching grilles’ were not an uncommon sight.

anti_body_snatching_grill Michael O'Leary An anti-bodysnatching grille pictured in Saint Joseph's Cemetery in Ballyphehane. Michael O'Leary

THE IDEA OF bodysnatching might seem like the stuff of fictional horror, but it was a worry back in early 1800s Ireland.

Corpses were robbed and sold to medical experts to satisfy their need to perform autopsies to learn more about human anatomy, and to educate their students.

Was this legal?

It wasn’t – but it didn’t carry the penalty of execution, only a fine and imprisonment, so people risked it.

Under the Murder Act of 1752, it was legal for surgeons to dissect the bodies of convicted murderers who were hung for their crimes. However, as these numbered only about 30 – 45 actual bodies a year, it just wasn’t enough.

And that’s where the bodysnatchers came in.

On a visit to Bully’s Acre, Dublin’s oldest graveyard, historian Paul O’Brien explained that the robbers used wooden shovels (they make less noise than metal) and sacks. They were able to access the bodies fairly easily as they weren’t buried as deeply underground as they are now.

The corpses of the unfortunate snatched people were pulled out of their coffins using hooks or ropes.

Ireland wasn’t the only place where bodies were snatched from graves, of course – given that medical science was developing, and there was money to be made in the sale of bodies, there were reports of grave robbing in the UK, US, Canada, and across Europe.

Protecting the graves

The anti-bodysnatching grille, also known as a mortsafe, above wasn’t a one off – there were more found in graveyards around the country.

While richer people could afford such grilles, or even vaults or tombstones, the poorer families could not always gather the funds for such elaborate protection.

What put an end to the bodysnatching? The Anatomy Act of 1832, which stated that only unclaimed bodies from workhouses could be used for dissection.

This Act was repealed in the United Kingdom in 1984, but is still in place in Ireland.

Burke and Hare

Some graverobbers went a step further to ensure they made money from fresh bodies. One Edinburgh-based pair, Burke and Hare (born in Ireland, no less), turned to murder to supply one Doctor Robert Knox with corpses for dissection.

In all, they killed 16 people before they were discovered and subsequently hanged.

See more photos like this on the Cork Past and Present website, run by Cork City Libraries.

Read: Hidden Ireland: The capital’s oldest graveyard>

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