Experiencing the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London

by Carmen Allan-Petale

The Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London is gruesome. It’s grisly. And it’s also fascinating.

I don’t know why people find death so interesting. Yes, it’s morbid but most love reading about it. Think of how popular the Patricia Cornwell crime thriller genre books are. Perhaps it’s fascinating because death is so final. Perhaps it’s because we don’t know for sure what happens to us when we die. Whatever the reason, we’re curious about it. And it’s this curiosity the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London is playing to.

The dead body of a man was crucified and his skin removed before being placed in plaster-of-Paris. The result was this life-size model which hangs in the exhibition.

The dead body of a man was crucified and his skin removed before being placed in plaster-of-Paris. The result was this life-size model which hangs in the exhibition.

Back in 19th century, hundreds of men were coming to London to study medicine. Bodies were required to practice surgery on and to learn more about anatomy. Students could learn from wax models but the real thing was thought to be much more helpful.

As the demand for dead bodies grew, so did body snatching. Men would creep into graveyards at the dead of night and pull fresh corpses from the ground. Body snatching wasn’t deemed as theft and so as long as the snatcher left the valuables buried with the bodies behind, they were unlikely to be arrested.

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition

A realistic wax model of a human torso.
Photo credit: Matt Alexander/PA

Over time the price of a body rose until one corpse could fetch a month’s wages. This led some men to murder. In the 1830s John Bishop, James May, and Thomas Williams were arrested for the murder of an Italian boy after they tried to sell his ‘still warm corpse’ to a London hospital. Bishop and Williams were executed for their roles in the crime and in an ironic twist, their bodies were used for scientific study.

It wasn’t just the thought of murder that had many scared during these times. The idea of your body being taken from its grave had many religious connotations linked to it – it was thought that if your body was pulled apart after death then you wouldn’t be able to reach the afterlife.

Wax anatomical model of a female human head showing the internal structure of skull.

Wax anatomical model of a female human head showing the internal structure of skull.

Because of this iron coffins became popular, making it difficult for thieves to pull your body out of the ground. Snares and traps were also placed around grave sites, so if a body snatcher came near he could be caught. But these methods were pricey and only afforded by the rich, so it was mainly the poor who continued to live in fear of what might happen to them in death.

The remains of an iron coffin and, in front of it, a trap. These were used to deter body snatchers from stealing the bodies of the wealthy who could afford such deterrents.

The remains of an iron coffin and, in front of it, a trap. These were used to deter body snatchers from stealing the corpses of the wealthy who could afford such deterrents.

In 1832 and in the wake of the grisly body snatching murders, parliament passed a law allowing unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, essentially ending the body snatching trade. But once again, this law mainly affected poor people who could not afford to bury their dead.

This law was still in practise until very recently following a scandal at Liverpool children’s hospital Alder Hey in which it was discovered surgeons were removing dead children’s organs and storing them in pots without permission from the children’s families.

It was found that organs from more than 850 infants had been stored this way, leading to the introduction of the Human Tissue Act 2004, which overhauled legislation regarding the handling of human tissues in the UK.

A male memento mori - an artistic reminder of the inevitability of death

A male memento mori – an artistic reminder of the inevitability of death

Not only does the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London give a unique insight into the grisly trade of body snatching, it also shows you what 19th century hospitals were like in London. I must admit it made me thankful to live in the present day!

If you broke a bone back then, an amputation without anesthetic was likely. Four men would hold you down as your limb was hacked off. The best surgeon could operate in 30 seconds. If you weren’t so lucky it took over a minute. Not surprisingly, this operation could lead to your death – around 45% of patients died following an amputation because of infections to the wound.

A tool kit used for amputations in the 19th century. A surgeon would slice through the skin and then saw through the bone to cut off a limb.

A tool kit used for amputations in the 19th century. A surgeon would slice through the skin and then saw through the bone to cut off a limb.

The Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London is not for the weak stomached. It’s deemed too morbid for children under 12 so prepare to be spooked. But if you have a fascination about death – like most of us do – then this could be just the exhibition for you.

A human stomach from the 19th century - gruesome!

A human stomach from the 19th century – gruesome!

What you need to know:

Cost – Tickets for the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London are £9 and you can buy them online here.

When to go – The Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London runs until the 14th of April.

How to get there – The nearest tube stations the Museum of London are Barbican, Moorgate, St Paul’s and Bank. The nearest overground station is Farringdon and City Thameslink.

The Museum of London kindly provided us with two complimentary tickets to The Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition, but as always our views are our own.

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