The Era of the Body Snatchers


You’d think that death and burial would be the end of one’s body, but that isn’t always the case. Keeping the dead in their graves is serious business -and not just in the sense that the undead may rise to haunt us. Sometimes we have to protect those buried bodies from outside forces.

Grave Robbing

Photograph by Andrew Bossi.

The act of robbing graves has been with us since the custom of burial began. If a body is observed to have been buried with any jewelry or other valuables, word will get around. Then someone will be tempted to dig the grave up to help themselves. Tombs of royalty and the wealthy are particularly tempting. Archaeologists are disappointed when they find that a tomb has been looted by grave robbers, yet to some outside the sphere of science, what archaeologists do is grave robbing, too. Looting tombs for valuables is unsavory, but did not bother people as much as what came later: stealing actual bodies from their supposed final resting place.

Body Snatching

Photograph by Kim Traynor.

You can read books for years to learn medicine, but there’s no way of getting around having to deal with the human body. Before medical students are entrusted to care for living bodies, they study anatomy by dissecting human cadavers. Today, people bequeath their corporeal remains to the betterment of science in order to train the next generation of physicians. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, when medical schools were fairly new, the average person did not understand why corpses were needed, and the teachings of some religions forbade desecration of the body even after death.


In the 19th century, medical education was making great strides in the United Kingdom, and professors needed cadavers for demonstrations and lectures. However, the only legal way to procure bodies was after criminal executions, and there weren't enough of them. As medical schools grew, capital punishment waned. This gave rise to the profession of body-snatching, and grave robbers could make a pretty penny for their clandestine efforts. Stealing a dead body was merely a misdemeanor, but people feared such a fate for their loved one’s remains -and there were religious objections. Therefore, body snatching was not safe, and almost always done under the cover of night. A “resurrectionist” named Joseph Naples was one of the rare body-snatchers to keep a diary of his work. Here’s a snippet from the diary:

13th January 1812

Took 2 of the above to Mr Brookes & 1 large & 1 small to Mr Bell. Foetus to Mr Carpue. Small to Mr Framton. Large small to Mr Cline. Met at 5, the Party went to Newington. 2 adults. Took them to St Thomas’s.*

26th August 1812

Separated to look out, the party met at night…Willson, M. & F. Bartholm, me, Jack and Hollis went to Isl [ingto]n. Could not succeed, the dogs flew at us, afterwards went to [St] Pancr [a]s, found a watch planted, came home.

The New York Doctors Riot

In America, the disgust with medical anatomy classes led to a riot in 1788. Medical students at New York Hospital were digging up graves for their own instruction. This was given little notice among the citizenry as long as the grave robbing was restricted to the black graveyard or the “potter’s field” for the poor. Then a story hit the papers of a body stolen from Trinity Churchyard -that of a white woman. A group of men stormed the hospital’s anatomy room, removed the corpses, and burned them in the streets. Doctors and students were taken to jail for their own protection. The next day, a mob moved on to Columbia Medical School and then to the jail. Only the intervention of the state militia ended the riot, which left between six and twenty people dead. And that was in just one city! A slew of riots elsewhere in America finally led to laws against body snatching. Medical students continued to dig up bodies, but were more discreet about it after the laws were passed.


Photograph by Martyn Gorman.

Families of the recently deceased were determined to protect their loved ones from the resurrectionists. Whereas rocks were placed over graves since ancient times, previously they were to keep animals from digging up the corpse, or to keep the undead from rising. With the very real danger of corpse robbery, the stones became bigger, and new devices were fashioned to thwart the body snatchers. Mortsafes, metal cages that covered the grave, became popular with those who could afford them. Some still survive in cemeteries in the U.K.

Booby Traps

Some people employed an extra deterrent to body snatchers: guns. Cemetery guns could be loaded at night by a cemetery keeper. If a trespasser tripped a wire, he would be blasted by a flintlock loaded with birdshot, salt, or a more deadly ammunition. In 19th century America, several devices to booby trap individual graves were patented, such as the “grave torpedo,” which operated like a land mine, and a gun placed inside a coffin, set to blast away at anyone who raised the lid.

Buried Alive

As graves were made more secure, the fear of being buried alive grew among morbidly nervous people. The devices that protected graves from body snatchers only made it more difficult to rescue someone who’d been buried prematurely. This led to several inventions for coffin alarm systems that could be used if one were to come to and find himself lying in a coffin. The vault shown above can be opened from the inside by turning a wheel.

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

An account from 1824 described an incident in which a man awoke in his coffin, and was rescued by… a body snatcher!

They dragged me out of the coffin by the head, and carried me swiftly away. When borne to some distance, I was thrown down like a clod…Being rudely stripped of my shroud, I was placed naked on a table. In a short time I heard by the bustle in the room that the doctors and students were assembling. When all was ready the Demonstrator took his knife, and pierced my bosom. I felt a dreadful crackling, as it were, throughout my whole frame; a convulsive shudder instantly followed, and a shriek of horror rose from all present,

The drawing above, from the 1830s, illustrates a common fear of a body, thought to be dead, waking up in an anatomist’s lab.


Sometimes graverobbers couldn’t keep up with the demand by digging up fresh graves, and a very few resorted to murder to supply more anatomical specimens. William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants working as laborers in Scotland in 1828. They found they could make money by diverting the recently deceased to an anatomist. Instead of waiting for someone to die, they killed 16 people over a period of ten months. Hare testified against Burke and escaped conviction, but Burke was executed by hanging in 1829. His body was then given to an anatomist for dissection, a fate many at the time found quite appropriate. His skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School.

The Anatomy Act of 1832

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Following the Burke and Hare case, the British parliament saw the need to find a way for medical schools to obtain an adequate supply of corpses legally. The Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed medical schools to dissect, in addition to the corpses of executed criminals, unclaimed bodies of those who died in prison or a workhouse, and bodies that were voluntarily donated.

More Recent Body Snatching

Photograph by Sector001.

When the goal is neither valuables, artifacts, or cadavers, grave robbery still goes on. Often it is because the body is a celebrity. Read about several such cases in the mental_floss article Worth More Dead Than Alive: 5 Famous Grave Robberies.

Modern Anatomy Classes

Photograph by Tulane Public Relations.

Modern medical schools are keenly aware of the history of obtaining cadavers for anatomy classes. Not only is grave robbing forbidden, but the donated cadavers that help teach young medical professionals about the human body are treated with respect and often reverence. An extensive article about a group of medical students in a gross anatomy class shows how much has changed since the days of body snatching.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
A Digital Reconstruction Reveals the Face of Famed Murder Victim 'Bella in the Wych Elm'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For people obsessed with the very specific sub-category of grotesque murder mysteries in wartime England, there’s no better story than that of Bella in the Wych Elm. On April 18, 1943, four teenage boys playing soccer decided to go for a walk in Hagley Woods, a forested area in Worcestershire. There, one of them wandered up to a witch hazel tree, a looming, storybook-sinister growth that was sometimes referred to as a wych elm. The boy, 15-year-old Bob Farmer, caught sight of a white protrusion from its hollow trunk that he thought was a bird’s nest. Peering closer, he realized it was a human skull.

Terrified, the boys backed away from their discovery, figuring the best course of action was to say nothing. By nightfall, however, 13-year-old Tommy Willetts broke down, telling his parents what he and his friends had stumbled across. They duly alerted police, and the next morning, detectives from the Worcestershire County Police and the nearby Birmingham force were on the scene, along with forensic expert James Webster. The team retrieved the skull, most of the skeleton, some decomposing clothing, a wedding ring, and a shoe. A right hand was found 100 yards away, with the other matching shoe nearby.

Webster quickly concluded the remains were the work of foul play, a scenario supported by eerie graffiti that began to spring up near the Hagley site. The scrawls gave a name to the victim by asking, “Who put Bella down the wych elm?”

For the next 75 years, no one could say how or why the woman was struck down before being stuffed in the tree. That may soon change, if someone is able to recognize the first reconstructed image of what Bella in the Wych Elm may have looked like.

A digital reconstruction of the victim known as 'Bella of the Wych Elm'
Courtesy of Pete Merrill/APS Books

Before it became a cold case, the story of “Bella” titillated true-crime aficionados of the era. Webster estimated the woman’s age to be between 35 and 40, and her height about 5 feet. Her murder might have taken place between 18 and 36 months prior to being found; he considered it likely she had been deposited into the tree immediately after death, since any delay would have allowed for limb-stiffening rigor mortis that would have made the task impossible. A wadded piece of taffeta had been found in her throat, leading Webster to suspect asphyxiation.

Attempts to identify the woman proved fruitless. Her large, protuberant teeth were circulated among dentists, but none could confirm ever seeing anyone with the same bite. Files of missing persons within 1000 square miles of Hagley Woods revealed no comparable profiles. One man reported hearing screams coming from the woods in July 1941, but no further evidence was forthcoming. Only the graffiti appearing in and around the crime scene—later dismissed as the result of a prankster—gave her any semblance of an identity. Both police and newspaper readers reluctantly filed it away as a morbid story with no apparent end.

In 2017, forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson was approached by father-son authors Alex and Pete Merrill to see if she might be able to reconstruct a digital depiction of the victim’s face using photographs of her skull. Wilkinson, who has performed similar tasks on both recent criminal cases as well as archival reconstructions like Richard III, agreed. With colleagues at the Face Lab of Liverpool John Moores University, she was able to extrapolate facial features based on the available images. (It was necessary to use photographs because the real skull, having been moved around in storage over the decades, could not be located by authorities.)

“When reconstructing using a 2-D photo, rather than a 3-D model of the skull, we may only be provided with one, or sometimes a few, views,” Sarah Shrimpton, a research assistant and Ph.D. researcher at the Face Lab, tells Mental Floss. “However, there is still a lot of information within a photograph that allows us to make an assessment of shape, but as with all photographs, the planes of the image are flattened, which results in some slight loss of perspective.”

The flattened shape can omit key details—like how deep the eye orbits are, for example. Still, the photos of the remains provided valuable clues. “We were lucky to also have a profile view of the skull," Shrimpton says. "This proved useful when trying to estimate the shape of her nose.” A bony protrusion called the nasal spine indicated how and where the nose pointed; the alveolar bone, which supports the teeth, indicated the mouth size and the thickness of the lips as well as the general shape of the jawline. Since part of the victim's scalp was still attached to the skull, her hair length and possible style was available for interpretation. Bella’s unique feature—her protruding teeth—was also on clear display.

“Normally we depict faces with their mouths closed and a neutral expression. However, if the teeth are interesting, as in Bella’s case, then we depict the mouth open. It is also likely that her protruding upper teeth would have resulted in her mouth being slightly open at rest.”

A forest with minimal light is photographed

Upon receiving the image from the Face Lab, the Merrills used the reconstruction as part of their examination of the crime. Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?: Volume One: The Crime Scene Revisited examines the early attempts to solve the mystery as well as some of the more sensational theories to arrive long after the case had grown stale.

The fact that Bella’s hand was found some distance from the tree led one observer, folklorist Margaret Murray, to speculate in 1945 that Bella had been the victim of a black magic ritual in which her hand was said to have occult powers. Putting her in a tree, Murray said, was one arcane way of imprisoning a witch. Webster, the more pragmatic forensic scientist, asserted that it was far more likely that animals had run off with her hand.

Another story—that Bella was in fact a German cabaret singer and secret agent named Clara Bauerle—seemed to lose steam when Bauerle was found to be around 6 feet tall, almost a foot taller than the skeleton found in the tree.

It’s possible that the depiction of Bella commissioned by the Merrills will open up new leads. Until then, she remains defined by the circumstances of her discovery—the woman found, and still lost, in the hollow of a tree.

Report: Police Have Arrested a Suspect in California's Golden State Killer Case

From 1976 to 1986, a serial killer now known as the Golden State Killer committed a staggering number of crimes in California ranging from burglaries to rapes to 12 known homicides. Like the Zodiac killer, the individual’s ability to escape detection and capture led to a public fascination over the decade-long spree. Now, it appears authorities may have finally closed in on the person responsible.

According to The Daily Beast, Sacramento police are expected to announce Wednesday afternoon that an arrest has been made in connection with the 120 burglaries, 45 sexual assaults, and murders that ended more than 30 years ago. Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, has reportedly been arrested on two counts of murder, with authorities expected to confirm he is a suspect in the Golden State Killer cases. DeAngelo is a former police officer who worked just outside of Sacramento in the 1970s.

The Golden State Killer is the topic of a recent best-selling true crime book, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. McNamara, who spent five years researching the case, passed away suddenly in 2016, when she was only halfway done with the project. Her husband, comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, hired investigative reporter Billy Jensen to complete her work. The book, which is currently being turned into an HBO docuseries, is being credited with renewing both public and law enforcement interest in the case, which may have led to DeAngelo’s arrest.

The killer was active in the Sacramento suburbs of Rancho Cordova and Carmichael, as well as other parts of Southern California. He was also given the labels East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Diamond Knot Killer. His last suspected crime was the murder of an 18-year-old girl in Irvine, California in 1986.

[h/t: The Daily Beast]


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