Grave robbers, also known as body snatchers, resurrection men or resurrectionists, are unscrupulous people who steal from graves. Grave robbing involves the thefts of items or valuables from graves or in the most vile examples the removal and stealing of the corpse itself for some unspeakable reason.
Grave robbing has gone on for centuries and undoubtedly continues today with people breaking into tombs or graves for their own nefarious and unsavoury reasons.
In the 19th century, bodies were often stolen to be sold to disreputable medical organisations in need of fresh cadavers for dissection and other research. These unscrupulous medical experts were careful not to enquire too stringently about the origins of the fresh subjects regularly delivered to them, often via the back door. late at night and under the cover of darkness.
The most famous British grave robbers were William Burke and William Hare who plied their trade in Edinburgh, Scotland. Burke and Hare not only robbed graves but went on to murder 16 people themselves in a 10 month period in 1828. This evil carnage was carried out purely to continue their grisly business of selling bodies to the medical fraternity when the supply of legally acquired human remains ran low. Their loyal customer was one Dr. Robert Knox who used these poor victims in dissection and anatomy lectures.
Eventually the three men were captured, charged and incarcerated awaiting trial.
Burke was hanged on 28th January 1829 for his crimes, this happened in front of a baying crowd reported to be as large as 25,000 strong with some paying up to 20 shillings for the privilege of a good view.
In an ironic twist of fate, the body of the executed Burke was publicly dissected in a university with seats to the event being so coveted there was a small riot amongst medical students wishing to attend. When it eventually got under way, the two hour spectacle took a gruesome turn with a Prof. Monro dipping his quill into Burke’s blood before writing “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.”
The fate of William Hare is less certain. It appears, after a lengthy stay in prison Hare was eventually exiled to England where he was spotted several times by reputable sources but his ultimate fate is unknown.
The evil Doctor Knox received no charges as there was insufficient evidence at the time to tie him with the crimes of grave robbing Burke and Hare. His medical career took an unsurprising downward spiral and he disappeared into medical obscurity. However he didn’t get away unpunished, Knox’s name is forever intertwined with the seedy legacy left by the immoral deeds of Burke and Hare.
Not all grave robbers do it for the money, there are some who do it to sate an even more sick appetite. Take the following true tale for example;
In the 1950s, one famous American grave robber was Edward Theadore ‘Ed’ Gein from rural Plainfield, Wisconsin. For his crimes he earned the unenviable names ‘The Butcher of Plainfield’ and ‘The Plainfield ghoul.’
Ed Gein was a suspected killer and it soon came to light he was also partial to sneaking into the local cemetery and digging up the dead.
In 1957, while searching for the murderer of a local hardware store owner called Bernice Wordon, police wound up on the remote farm of local oddball Ed Gein and they made some disturbing discoveries.
These discoveries left nobody in doubt how much of a ‘sick puppy’ old Ed was. As well as coming upon the naked body of Bernice hanging in an outhouse, gutted like a deer and minus her head, they gained entry to the main house and found numerous items around the property that made it abundantly clear Ed had been visiting the local graveyard with intentions of stealing the corpses of locals. It was obvious the strange man who lived all alone had plenty of time to kill and was using the bodies he brought home for some of the sickest craft projects you could imagine.
Items found on Gein’s property included (but where not limited to):
- Whole human bones and fragments
- A wastebasket made of human skin
- Human skin covering several chair seats
- Skulls on his bedposts
- Female skulls, some with the tops sawn off
- Bowls made from human skulls
- A corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist
- Leggings made from human leg skin
- Several masks made from the skin of female heads
- A human skull in a box
- Bernice Worden’s entire head in a sack
- Bernice Worden’s heart “in a plastic bag
- Nine vulvae in a shoe box
- A belt made from female human nipples
- Human noses
- A pair of lips on a window shade drawstring
- A lampshade made from the skin of a human face
- Fingernails from female fingers
Well, what else can a guy do to fill those cold, lonely winter nights?
Not surprisingly Ed spent the rest of his life in a hospital for the criminally insane where he was reported to be a quiet, gentle soul and a model patient.
The Butcher of Plainfield couldn’t last for ever and while he died in 1984 at the age of 77, his story lives on.
The crimes of Ed Gein served, in part, as inspiration for at least two movies:
Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film and vision of evil, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The killer called Buffallo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs starring Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins.
There are so many more fascinating details to the two cases of grave robbing mentioned above. I heartily recommend you seek out more information to get the full picture of the atrocities carried out by those grave robbing bad guys Burke and Hare.
A fascinating documentary about Ed Gein can be found here. Check it out, you won’t regret it.
© Colin Lawson Books