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100 Years on a Dirty Dog: The History of Greyhound

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Greyhound has been busing Americans around for a century. It's hard to believe that after all these years, the company is still riding high.

As careers go, Carl Eric Wickman’s stint in the car business was less than auspicious. In 1913, the immigrant drill operator paid $3,000 to open a Goodyear Tire/Hupmobile car franchise in Hibbing, Minn., not far from the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. Unfortunately, Wickman was even worse at selling cars than he was at picking car makers—so the enterprising young Swede abandoned his dealership dreams soon after making his one and only sale … to himself.

Realizing that most iron miners were too poor to afford their own vehicle, Wickman decided to start transporting workers between Hibbing and Alice, a mining town two miles away. Cramming 15 passengers into his eight-seat “touring car,” the 27-year-old charged 15 cents a ride. On his first trip, in 1914, Wickman collected a grand total of $2.25. But 100 years later, that modest sum has grown into nearly a billion dollars in annual revenue.

Wickman, it turns out, pretty much invented intercity bus travel—which for most Americans equals Greyhound, the company that emerged from that long-ago Hupmobile ride. “Greyhound has become generic for bus travel,” says Robert Gabrick, author of Going The Greyhound Way. “Like Kleenex for tissues.” Indeed, this classic American business icon—which, as it happens, is now owned by a British conglomerate—today has more than 7,300 employees, with estimated yearly sales of $820 million and 2,000 buses serving 3,800 destinations in 48 U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces. “I’m amazed at Greyhound’s brand recognition,” says DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman, an authority on intercity bus travel. “It’s an American success story.”

But Greyhound’s journey to bus-industry dominance was far from smooth, not least because U.S. roads were god-awful bumpy when Wickman started out. Indeed, Uncle Sam’s first serious stab at building a quality national road system was the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which by coincidence was the same year that the first intercity buses rolled off assembly lines.

Yes, Wickman invented the bus business before the bus was invented.

But that wasn’t his only challenge. Wickman’s “Snoose Line”—“snoose” was Swedish for snuff, which local miners snorted to stay alert—also faced competition from other car owners who saw money-making possibilities in hauling people to work. So in1916, Wickman and his two partners merged their company with a rival outfit operated by a 19-year-old mechanic and Studebaker-owner named Ralph Bogan. They called their new company Mesaba Transportation Co., and the deal became a template for the future, as Wickman expanded his bus empire across America by acquiring hundreds of competitors over the years. In fact, Greyhound was for decades really just a collection of regional bus lines united under a single brand—Great Lakes Greyhound, Florida Greyhound—connected by sophisticated timetables and transfers. Even Greyhound’s corporate history reflects a slick transfer. The company officially traces its lineage to Wickman’s Hupmobile, but he actually sold his stake in Mesaba in 1922 and invested in another Minnesota operator soon after. In 1925, that company merged with a Wisconsin bus line operator to form Northland Transportation, which was Wickman’s first stab at interstate bus travel. It was also—for anyone still trying to keep score—the official birth (following a couple of name changes) of the modern Greyhound Corporation.

But first, a railroad big shot had to see something hiding in plain sight.

Early in the 20th century, Americans generally took trains when they needed to travel between cities. But after World War I ended in 1918, train ticket sales started to decline, a development that prompted railroad executives to attack bus companies—whose fares were cheaper—by accusing them of ruining America’s roads and failing to pay their share of repair costs. Then, in 1925, Great Northern Railroad president Ralph Budd decided to actually study the matter. Surprisingly, Budd’s investigation showed that passenger traffic on trains declined even when there was no route competition from buses. The real culprit, his research showed, was Henry Ford, whose introduction of the assembly line into car-making in 1913 resulted in drastically lower car prices: The railroads were losing business to Model T’s, which many former train riders could now suddenly afford. Those unlucky folks who couldn’t—or those who didn’t know how to drive—still traveled by train, unless they were too poor to afford a ticket, in which case they took a bus.

Budd quickly understood that train and bus operators should be allies, not enemies. Bus routes could replace money-losing rail runs, while also feeding passengers to trains when it made sense. And so, in 1925, Great Northern Railroad bought 80% of Northland, transforming Wickman’s company from a cash-strapped regional operator into a well-financed national company. This deal, as much as anything, allowed Wickman and his colleagues to expand, not to mention survive the Great Depression and emerge with a national brand: Greyhound, the name of a small bus line Northland Transportation bought and decided to use for the whole shebang.

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Good thing, too, since it’s tough to imagine people writing crowd-pleasing lyrics about “Northland Transportation.” Greyhound, on the other hand, has turned up in songs ranging from Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” to Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” to the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man.” But the free product placement that truly turned Greyhound into a cultural icon was the 1934 movie It Happened One Night. A huge hit, the Columbia Pictures comedy starred Claudette Colbert as a spoiled heiress on the run and Clark Gable as a reporter chasing her, but third billing should have gone to the Greyhound bus featured prominently in the action. Company officials credited the film for spurring interest in bus travel, and 12 years later Greyhound was still inspiring silver screen romance: The 1946 musical No Leave, No Love, featured the hit “Love On A Greyhound Bus” (a song that won’t be confused with the less romantic 2003 Sara Evans country hit, “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus). Eleven years later, Greyhound launched another improbable cultural touchstone: Lady Greyhound, whose 13-year career as company “spokesdog” began on The Steve Allen Show in 1957 and included chairing the “pet division” of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, not to mention her own canine fashion show at the New York World’s Fair and dozens of fans clubs around the U.S.

It was during these decades—from the 1930s through the 1950s—when Greyhound was among a small group of U.S. firms that helped America reimagine itself. Mostly movie studios, automakers and large consumer product companies, these firms painted a picture through their ads and products of a country whose future was only exceeded by the gumption of its citizens and the bounty of its natural resources. Greyhound’s self-selected role was as unofficial tour guide. “Greyhound invested time and financial resources in advertising its ability to transport passengers all over the U.S.,” says Margaret Wash, an intercity bus historian. “They suggested it was fashionable to take bus trips.”

Image courtesy of eCrater

Starting in the 1930s, Greyhound’s national ad campaigns emphasized (or exaggerated) bus travel’s excitement (“Now I Know How Columbus Felt!”), low cost (“Spend less … and have the best vacation ever!) and killer app: someone else at the wheel (“Leave the Driving to Us”). But the real stars of these ads were America (“Roaring Cities, Calm Countryside”) and family (“Rolling Home”). “These campaigns made bus travel into a business of aspirations,” says Robert Gabrick, author of Going The Greyhound Way. “They idealized their passengers and the country they lived in.”

Greyhound was especially enmeshed in the fabric of American life during a crucial period in the nation’s history: World War II. From 1941 to 1945, the company aggressively adopted a patriotic mission, even going so far as to outline its priorities in its 1942 annual report to shareholders. Through its ads, meanwhile, Greyhound told consumers what it saw as its primary wartime function: transporting troops and other crucial personnel around the country (“This Army Moves By Greyhound”); after that came educating the public about efficient travel (“Serve America Now So You Can See America Later”), which mattered a lot now that fuel and rubber were being rationed.

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Before and after the war, though, Greyhound spent much time, money and effort on forward progress. In 1930, company headquarters relocated from sleepy Duluth, Minn., to wide-awake Chicago. Ten years later, Greyhound became the first bus line to launch a national chain of depot restaurants—Post House—aimed at riders who didn’t like greasy roadside diners. (Ask your grandparents.) The next year, Greyhound bought 10% of the Canadian bus builder Motor Coach Industries (it later acquired the rest). And, of course, Greyhound was for years at the cutting edge of bus design, with models that still enthrall a large community of collectors: 1939’s Super Coach (first bus with an all-metal body and rear-mounted engine), 1953’s Highway Traveler (picture windows, power steering, air shocks) and 1954’s Scenic Cruiser, which debuted the year Wickman died and gave the world a gift for the ages: on-board bathrooms.

Greyhound was the official bus line at both the Chicago (1933-34) and New York (1964-65) World’s Fairs. But nothing at either of those fantastical expos matched the company’s 1943 application to the Civil Aeronautics Board, which outlined a plan for “the integration of air service and bus service”—a.k.a., a helicopter-bus! Sadly, this crazy-genius idea was not to be. Just four years later Greyhound told annual report readers that “it will be some years before the development of a helicopter with sufficient capacity for economical capacity” to make the idea a reality. But if Greyhound failed to lift bus travel to new altitudes, the company did manage to usher America into other strata of uncharted territory. During WWII, for example, Greyhound replaced many of its drafted bus drivers with women, which was arguably the first time America confronted such a wholesale substitution of traditionally male authority figures.

Birmingham News/Landov

Two decades later, Greyhound found itself in the middle of another cultural shift, when civil rights activists known as “Freedom Riders” rode Greyhound (and then-rival Trailways) buses into the Deep South to protest segregation. Until then, intercity bus drivers followed a common practice when crossing the Mason-Dixon line, asking black passengers to sit separate from whites in the back of the bus. But within a few months of the Freedom Riders campaign, Uncle Sam outlawed segregation in any facilities or vehicles involved in interstate commerce.

Greyhound's overall record on race-relations was mixed. On the one hand, Greyhound had a history of hiring blacks; on the other hand, most of those jobs were menial. The good jobs—drivers, managers, mechanics—generally went to white men. This was especially galling to many because African-Americans always accounted for a disproportionately large percentage of intercity bus passengers. 

Throughout this country’s two “Great Migrations”—during and after each World War—millions of southern blacks moved north and west in search of better lives. More often than not, they rode Greyhound for their big move and also for trips back home to visit friends and family. So it was no coincidence that in 1962, as the Civil Rights movement heated up, Greyhound strengthened its ties to black Americans. Joe Black, a former Brooklyn Dodger who was the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game, was hired as full time director of Greyhound’s outreach program. “The intercourse between Greyhound and blacks is one of the happier aspects of the company’s history,” writes Carlton Jackson in Hounds of the Road, a corporate history.

Still, by the time Black was hired, there were other trends bubbling that had greater consequences for bus travel. In 1956, Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act, which created the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Eisenhower was president at the time, but that’s not why his name is on America’s largest public works project to date. In an earlier career, while saving the world from Adolf Hitler as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, Ike noticed that Germany had a superb highway network, which was helpful when moving trucks and tanks around. He came back to the U.S. pretty well convinced that his home country needed its own system of high-quality roads.

But as much as drivers today love cruising I-4 through I-99, America’s expanding highways were a mixed blessing for Greyhound. Better roads meant quicker travel and fewer repairs, but they also encouraged the growing ranks of car owners to drive themselves on business trips and vacations. As any farsighted executive could see, this development, coupled with the increasing affordability of air travel in the 1950s and 1960s, spelled trouble for the bus industry. So Greyhound started buying all sorts of companies in all sorts of non-bus industries. That’s how Greyhound’s stable of businesses came to include such diverse businesses as Burger King, Dial Soap, Purex bleach, a package delivery service, and even a skin bank for burn victims.

Depending on whom you ask, this strategy was either the beginning of a decades-long loss of focus that ate away at Greyhound’s soul or a smart strategy for diversifying profits and protecting shareholders. “Greyhound was generating massive amounts of cash that probably wasn’t best invested in a slow-growth business like bus travel,” says Craig Lentzsch, Greyhound’s CEO many years later (1994-2003). “Shareholders did very well during those years.” On the flip side, it was during this time that Greyhound’s core business started to weaken: Buses started deteriorating, terminals became seedy and dangerous, and workers grew unhappy. “There were economic and cultural forces at work but Greyhound also lost sight of what made bus travel successful,” says Gabrick, the author. “It became a business of low aspirations.”

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Whatever the verdict, where once the giant company was known, at least somewhat affectionately, as “The Hound,” consumers soon enough started calling it “The Dirty Dog,” with absolutely no affection at all.  “It was pretty bleak,” says James Inman, a comedian whose book about a 1995 cross-country trip, Greyhound Diary, captures the zeitgeist of the Dirty Dog from the late 1970s until the mid 2000s. “It was a lesson in America’s class divide: broke people, unpleasant buses, rude drivers, horrible terminals. There was no romance of the road at all.”

There certainly wasn’t much at Greyhound HQ, which moved from Chicago to Phoenix in 1971. Sixteen years later, like Abraham casting Ishmael into the desert, the Greyhound Corporation spun off its U.S. bus operations. Newly liberated and headquartered in Dallas, Greyhound Lines returned to its roots, acquiring Trailways, its largest rival, that same year. Federal anti-trust lawyers, who take a dim view of mergers that create monopolies, might have blocked the deal in different times. But Trailways in 1987 was in financial trouble, and the government decided that saving jobs and retaining bus routes trumped other concerns. Plus, the bus business was struggling enough that few informed observers worried too much that Greyhound would try to price-gouge in the face of less competition.

How right they were. Three years later, in 1990, Greyhound faced its own financial cliff when its unionized workers went on strike. This labor stoppage, one of the longest and nastiest in American history, forced the company to drastically curtail operations, which resulted in big losses. So big, in fact, that soon after its union started picketing, Greyhound execs filed for bankruptcy protection, a move that allowed their company to keep operating during a whopping three-year strike. But that labor strife, which often turned violent, had a silver lining. In what might be called a reverse Eisenhower, this overwhelmingly awful turn of events sowed the seeds of Greyhound’s later revival.

Since 1972 Greyhound had been marketing directly to the Hispanic community, with great success, but the strike caused the company to cut many of the routes that catered to Spanish speakers. Not surprisingly, newer, smaller bus companies popped up to serve these passengers. They did very well, largely because many owners, managers and drivers spoke Spanish, which was not often the case on Greyhound. “Bus travel is a service industry,” says Lentzsch, the former president. “When you have Spanish-speaking drivers serving Spanish-speaking passengers in an English-speaking country, the experience will likely be a positive one.”

For Greyhound, though, the experience was negative, as the company struggled to get Hispanic customers back on its buses after settling its labor differences. Things got even worse as the ethnic-bus model was copied in various other ethnic communities around the U.S., resulting in the curbside buses that started popping up 10 to 15 years ago in major cities with large Asian populations like Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. These competitors also cut into Greyhound’s business, not only among Asian consumers but also students and other cash-conscious riders, as well as travelers who simply wanted to avoid airport security and bus terminals.

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But Greyhound, which had merged with the Canadian bus company Laidlaw Inc. in 1999, was finally getting on its feet again. The company began to revamp its fleet, part of an “Elevate Everything” program that included new looks for buses, terminals and uniforms. Then, in 2008—one year after FirstGroup of England bought Laidlaw—Greyhound finally started exploiting the enormous opportunity in the discount and curbside bus business. The company launched (on its own and with partners) three different services: NeOn, BoltBus and Yo! Bus. Amenities like free WiFi, power outlets, leather seating and extra legroom began to appear on more and more of its buses. “I think it’s fair to say that Greyhound is once again proud of its product,” says Schwieterman.

Today, the company is getting more money from more trips from more passengers than ever. The average Greyhound passenger pays $52 to travel 355 miles, and last year the Dirty Dog’s buses covered 5.6 billion passenger miles—about 2.8 billion times the distance between Hibbing and Alice, Minn.

Carl Wickman would be proud.

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Supermarket Introduces 'Quiet Hour' to Help Customers With Autism Feel at Ease
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For some people on the autism spectrum, a routine trip to the supermarket can quickly morph into a nightmare. It’s not just the crowds and commotion that trigger feelings of panic—sounds that many shoppers have learned to tune out, like intercom announcements or beeps from the checkout scanner, can all add up to cause sensory overload. But grocery stores don’t have to be a source of dread for people with such sensitivities. By turning down the volume for one hour each day, one supermarket is making itself more inclusive to a greater number of customers.

As Mashable reports, Australian grocery store chain Coles is partnering with the Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) organization to roll out "quiet hour" in two of its stores. From 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., the lights will be dimmed by 50 percent, the radio and register sounds will be turned down to their lowest volumes, and cart collection and non-emergency PA announcements will be put on hold. The changes are meant to accommodate shoppers with autism and their families, but all shoppers are welcome.

The initiative is based on research conducted by Aspect on people on the autism spectrum and those who care for them. In addition to modifying the atmosphere, Coles has taken steps to educate its staff. If someone does start to feel overwhelmed in a Coles stores, employees trained in understanding and dealing with autism symptoms will be on hand to assist them.

Coles is following the lead of several chains that have made themselves more inviting to shoppers on the spectrum. Last year, British supermarket chain Asda introduced its own quiet hour, and Toys "R" US implemented something similar in its UK stores for the holiday season.

The Coles initiative is just a trial run for now, but if the customer reaction is positive enough it may be here to stay. Visitors to their Ringwood and Balwyn East stores in Victoria will have a chance to experience it now through the end of October.

[h/t Mashable]

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collector’s legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
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Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: Noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
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Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot, the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
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In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their bodies to medical science.

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