The Resurrectionists, Rotters, and Corpses for Cash
“How long do you think it takes to dig a six foot grave, six feet deep? What is that, like, a hundred cubic feet of dirt?”
Hundred an’ eight, actually. Assuming shoulder-width is three feet across on average.
“In the dark.”
I’m sitting on a nearby tomb — feet dangling off the ground, shoes kicking so that the lace of my left foot sneaker’s come undone and it’s making a regular ticking sound against the cement resting place of some lady whose name I don’t recognize.
The dark part is important. You don’t want to be seen while you’re doing it. Getting caught’s impractical, especially if the year is 1850ish, you’re in London, and digging that particular hole might feed you for a month. Also, they hang you for this sort of thing. Or put you in the stocks, depending on how the authorities are feeling on any given day.
Not for digging the actual hole — but prying open the pine box at the bottom and collecting what you can to sell later from the body.
Jewellery. Sometimes coins. Sometimes precious heirlooms buried for sentiment’s sake. Sometimes the gold fillings from teeth.
But what to do with the rest of the corpse?
“Five minutes.” Which basically means five hours.
Half that with two people digging like the devil was on their heels.
And, as an afterthought: “You totally need to pack pliers.”
The Thing About Graverobbing
When confronted by folks who don’t often understand my fascination with mortuary customs, cemeteries, my collection of books on forensics and graveyard symbolism, etc. I usually explain things in a couple of ways:
- I’m a writer, and I strive to present as much truth where applicable. I endeavour to establish a believable scenario even if it’s completely outrageous and I’ve not been in that particular situation myself — oftentimes, that requires a certain attention to detail, and a certain amount of research. (P.S. I love gothic horror, so cemeteries are my natural habitat. And old crumbly castles. And haunted houses. Just saying.)
- You learn a heck of a lot about a culture by investigating its funerary customs. The example I like to throw out is usually “The Egyptians.” One of the seven wonders of the world are those fabulous three thousand year old pyramids that were built to bury their kings with all manner of elaborate retinue and accoutrements to see that they were comfortable in the afterlife.
Many of those precious samples unearthed by archaeologists of the 19th century that you now see in museums are the direct result of — you guessed it — grave robbing so eloquently retitled, “archaeological expedition.”
So don’t let’s start but let’s start, because The Resurrectionists are a fabulous example of exploration evolved into a profiteering enterprise with ghastly results.
But again, we come back to the question, what do you do with the rest of the body?
Body Snatchers, Tomb Raiders, and Graverobbers
Body snatching and grave robbing are distinguished as separate enterprises. The latter is preoccupied with the collection of goods from various graves, tombs, mausoleums, sarcophagi, burial mounds, temples, churches, etc. Tomb raiding falls into this category.
However, certain circumstances have resulted in the theft of the bodies themselves — held for a ransom of $600,000, one famous case revolves around the actor, Charlie Chaplin. He was disinterred two months after burial in 1977 by a couple of auto mechanics looking to make a quick buck. Chaplin’s widow, Oona, refused; saying her husband would have thought it ridiculous. The police eventually tracked the two men down after a five week hunt, and recovered Chaplin’s casket (body in tact) buried in a cornfield a mile from the Chaplin family home.
Similar plots to hijack Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, and Whitney Houson were foiled before any digging took place.
But what about the guys that actually got away with it?
OMG, what did they do with the bodies?!
So, I’m hanging out in this cemetery watching the sun slip below the treelike — because, you know, what else are you going to do on a Saturday night in suburbia when you’re too young to drink and you don’t have a driver’s license. And I’m thinking to myself:
They’ve got machines that dig graves. That’s why the plots are so perfect; the lines of the rectangle so exacting. Even the root system gets tucked away behind a veil of astroturf before the funeral directors get ready to set up the coffin on that little dolly-type-thing that lowers these three hundred pound behemoths into the ground.
I imagine that even when you hit pay dirt, you’ve still got to contend with breaking into something that’s potentially hydraulically sealed, locked, or in the very least, nailed shut.
A couple of guys in the 19th century, Burke & Hare figured it might be too much trouble, so they took to murdering a sum total of sixteen people to collect on their efforts. The Resurrection Men, or The Resurrectionists, were body snatchers. They sold of the corpses they harvested to anatomy schools, which would use the corpses for study and dissection in a time where, yeah okay, that was considered desecration and definitely blasphemous in several corners of the world, but also a service to the industry of science. The usual specimens were executed convicts; The Resurrectionists wanted a quicker turnaround, it seems.
(So that’s what they did with the bodies.)
What would it take for two inexperienced guys who were wildly determined to get the job done to accomplish the same task?
The answer came by way of a book written by Daniel Kraus: Rotters. A story about a boy, Joey Crouch, living with his single mom in Chicago, who’s displaced following her death to live with his estranged father in rural Iowa — a guy with many secrets, and a particularly nasty reputation about town.
Hartnett belongs to a guild with a very particular skill and livelihood — a tradition to which Leonardo da Vinci himself belonged. Kraus turns grave robbing into a dark art, and Joey’s initiation into a tentative apprenticeship lies in some shadowy place that mediates on mortality, and hurts with every shovelful the deeper you get.
It’s a rich, gory story that strays from the immediate terrifying possibility that even the dead don’t rest when these guys are out and about.
It’s detail is fascinating, the research staggering, and Kraus doesn’t pull his punches — you’ll learn more about the funeral industry and the process of bodily decomposition in three hundred and fifty pages than you would riffling through a few forensic textbooks.
And yes, it does offer the answer the question I asked at the beginning of this post — how long does it take to dig a grave in the dark?
If you want the answer, you’re going to have to read the book.