Suspense's "The Body Snatchers" is a light-hearted drama, but the true history on which it is based is dark and gruesome. The story is set in the early 19th century when the legal supply of human bodies for medical research in Britain was limited only to criminals given the death penalty. This supply was insufficient for the number of medical students who needed cadavers for dissection and the difference was made up by "body-snatching", the illegal disinterment and sale of the dead. Those who dug up bodies after burial and sold them off for a profit were known as "Resurrectionists" or "Resurrection Men."
As a result, families who lost a loved one had to attend to keeping that loved one buried. In response, there sprang up an industry to deal with graveyard crime. Specialty items like lead coffins, locks, vaults, grills, and mortsafes helped to deter robbers. It also led to fancier cemeteries for the middle class like Highgate Cemetery in London (pictured), which was one of the "Magnificent Seven."
When dead bodies weren't available some resurrectionists committed murder for profit. The West Port Murders by William Burke and William Hare in 1827-1828 in Scotland, as well as the crimes of John Bishop and Thomas Williams (the London Burkers), created a public outcry for change. In 1831 Bishop and Williams were sentenced, executed, and then dissected for study.
The Anatomy Act of 1832 altered the laws and increased the number of bodies available, thereby diminishing the need for body-snatching. The new Act stated that destitute people, with no relatives, who died while in the workhouses could be given over to medical schools. As a result however, the greatly feared public workhouses became even more terrifying in that, if you died there, you could end up being dissected in an anatomy clinic.
Today, the illegal sales of corpses and body parts continues to be a lucrative industry in America.
"The Body Snatchers" was for written for Suspense by John Dickson Carr and aired on November 24, 1942.
(Photo of Highgate Cemetery from Morguefile.com)