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Everything you want to know (and some bits you don’t) about Body Snatchers and The London Burkers

  • Wednesday August 24th 2022

Body Snatcher | The London Dungeon

Victorian body snatchers were an ‘orrible lot. They hunted in dark graveyards, searching for the recently deceased to dig up and sell to the highest bidder (usually hospitals). When that tactic became less fruitful, some nefarious characters turned to more violent means of acquiring dead bodies. Read on to find out all the grizzly facts about Body Snatchers and the London Burker Gang.

Why were Body Snatchers needed?

Fancy pants surgeons at some of the country’s top hospitals like St Barts in London needed a steady stream of fresh cadavers to investigate human anatomy. The unenviable position of dead test subject was filled by every average thief, highwayman or sheep-stealer who had been hanged for their crimes.

Fast forward to the late 1820s and a criminal justice reform (boring) meant hanging was only reserved for the big boy crimes... like murder. In London, that meant only about 55 bodies a year but demand from medical schools was at least 10x that number. Enter The London Burkers to create some fresh supply.

Who were the London Burkers?

3 degenerative devils made up the London Burkers; John Bishop, Thomas Williams, and James May. This was a highly effective group of body snatchers who dug up and sold an estimated 500-1000 bodies before Londoners wised up and started protecting new graves by standing guard overnight or installing grates over the sites.

How many people did they kill?

With easy access graverobbing drying up, The London Burkers turned to killing people and then selling those bodies. They would first drug their victims using laudanum mixed into rum to disguise the taste. Then they drowned them headfirst in a well in John Bishop’s garden. This method left the bodies with no marks or real evidence of the murder. Press at the time reported the kill count of the Burkers to be over 60! That’s way more than the Jack the Ripper, but who do we remember?

How were they caught?

The turning point for the Burkers came with the murder of young Italian boy, Carlo Ferrier. They murdered him as usual but when it came to the selling, alarm bells were set off due to the lack of any evidence of burial (no muddy fingernails). Kings College London called the Police who arrived to apprehend the 3 culprits. Confessions from the gang soon followed and a very swift sentence of hanging for Bishop and Williams. This of course meant they were then taken off for dissection and study by the very doctors they had provided so many bodies to. Ironic eh??

Body Snatcher | The London Dungeon

There you have it! The full story of the London Burkers, body snatchers supreme. If you want to come face-to-face with the terrifying gang then book tickets to The London Dungeon now. The Bodysnatchers are visiting only until the 4th of September.