Body Snatchers, Part II – the Release of “The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy”

On Friday, we looked at Resurrectionists. Today, we will make a slight distinction with Body Snatchers. 

Like what resurrectionists did, body snatching is the secret removal of a corpse from its burial site. As was explained in Friday’s piece the body snatchers sold the corpses to medical schools fro anatomy lessons. Some also refer to this practice as grave robbing, but with grave robbing, the culprits are customarily seeking the personal effects of the deceased. A grave robber finds no value in the body itself where body snatchers and resurrectionists do.

Before Britain’s Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses fro anatomical purposes were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who committed the more heinous crimes were generally those who were candidates for dissection. One must recall medicine in the early 19th Century was making great strides, and private anatomical schools did not require a license up until the Anatomy Act of 1832. In the 18th Century, hundreds were executed, providing a ready supply, but by the 19th Century, the number was reduced to only 50 – 70 per year. Yet, medical school breakthroughs and growth in number required 10 times that many cadavers annually. 

Body snatching was a crime that many authorities overlooked. It was considered a misdemeanour, not a felony. One would be fined for the act and imprisoned for a short period of time, but the fear of transportation or execution was removed. The trade was lucrative and very appealing to those returning from the Napoleonic War and accustomed to viewing death. With no ready means to make a living, men were easily lured into the trade. 

In fact, body snatching was so commonplace that relatives and friends of the deceased often watched over the body before and after burial to prevent it being taken. Some went so far as to use a framework of iron bars called mortsafes to protect the grave. A few opted for iron coffins. Later in the century, mort houses were used to store bodies until decomposition, making the bodies useless for medical school dissection.

Udny Mort House – Aberdeen ~ built 1832 ~

“One method the body snatchers used was to dig at the head end of a recent burial, digging with a wooden spade (quieter than metal). When they reached the coffin (in London the graves were quite shallow), they broke open the coffin, put a rope around the corpse and dragged it out. They were often careful not to steal anything such as jewellery or clothes as this would cause them to be liable to a felony charge. Again, the body had value only if it could be sold to the medical school. 

The Lancet reported another method. A manhole-sized square of turf was removed 15 to 20 feet (5 to 6 m) away from the head of the grave, and a tunnel dug to intercept the coffin, which would be about 4 feet (1.2 m) down. The end of the coffin would be pulled off, and the corpse pulled up through the tunnel. The turf was then replaced, and any relatives watching the graves would not notice the small, remote disturbance. The article suggests that the number of empty coffins that have been discovered ‘proves beyond a doubt that at this time body snatching was frequent’.” [Bodysnatching]

The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery 


Fitzwilliam Darcy is devastated. The joy of his recent wedding has been cut short by the news of the sudden death of his father’s beloved cousin, Samuel Darcy. Elizabeth and Darcy travel to Dorset, a popular Regency resort area, to pay their respects to the well-traveled and eccentric Samuel. But this is no summer holiday. Danger bubbles beneath Dorset’s peaceful surface as strange and foreboding events begin to occur. Several of Samuel’s ancient treasures go missing, and then his body itself disappears. As Darcy and Elizabeth investigate this mystery and unravel its tangled ties to the haunting legends of Dark Dorset, the legendary couple’s love is put to the test when sinister forces strike close to home. Some secrets should remain secrets, but Darcy will do all he can to find answers—even if it means meeting his own end in the damp depths of a newly dug grave.

With malicious villains, dramatic revelations and heroic gestures, The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy will keep Austen fans turning the pages right up until its dramatic conclusion.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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