The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

The Dissected Body and Public Opinion

William Osler at the autopsy table with a group of physicians

William Burke and William Hare, two Irishmen who were living in Edinburgh, were arrested in 1828 after it was discovered that they had murdered sixteen people and sold the bodies to the private anatomy school run by Dr. Robert Knox. This crime spree led to the creation of a new word – "burking" – to describe the act of killing someone in order to sell their bodies to anatomists.

"Resurrection Men," such as Burke and Hare, were emblematic of the issue of supply and demand as dissection played an increased role in the training of new physicians. Fear arose at the thought of beloved relatives being snatched from the grave for the purpose of being defiled. Wealthy families hired guards to protect cemeteries. "Mortsafes," heavy iron cages or grilles that were placed over the graves of the recently deceased, were created in the early 19th century in response the threat of body snatching.

In order to deal with the issues of supply and demand as well as the public fear of desecration, the medical establishment worked through state legislatures in order to pass laws governing the disposal of "unclaimed" bodies. The first anatomy act in the United States was passed in Massachusetts in 1831. Most anatomy acts created a structure that defined the state of being "unclaimed," structures that often took advantage of racial and class divides. For example, under Pennsylvania's anatomy act, first passed as the "Ghastly Act" in 1867 and amended in 1883, a person who died while traveling could not be defined as "unclaimed." It was assumed that a person going someplace must not only have the means to support themselves, but must also be meeting someone at their destination.