Body Snatchers, the Cemetery Entrepreneurs of the 18th and 19th Centuries

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Anatomy lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt (1617) (Public Domain)

Body Snatchers, the Cemetery Entrepreneurs of the 18th and 19th Centuries

Anatomists of the 18th and 19th centuries faced a dreadful predicament in that they lacked what would today be called ‘educational aids’.  They needed cadavers to dissect.  These circumstances created an ideal opportunity for the body snatchers to set up a lucrative business as cemetery entrepreneurs.

A nightwatchman disturbs a body snatcher who has dropped the stolen corpse he had been carrying in a hamper, while the anatomist, William Hunter (1718-1783), runs away. Etching with engraving by W. Austin, (1773) (Wellcome Images / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A nightwatchman disturbs a body snatcher who has dropped the stolen corpse he had been carrying in a hamper, while the anatomist, William Hunter (1718-1783), runs away. Etching with engraving by W. Austin, (1773) (Wellcome Images / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson's The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) depicts the story of the presence, in the same individual, of the principles of Good and Evil - principles that would emerge following the consumption of certain psychotropic substances. The protagonist, Dr. Henry Jekyll develops a potion and experiments with it on himself, thus he transforms himself into a monstrous being who commits all sorts of heinous acts in a 19th-century London, immersed in its perennial fog. Stevenson had intuited that in every man is hidden both Good and Evil, in a strange symbiosis that often makes the study of the human soul impenetrable. Therefore, at night, Dr. Jekyll upon consuming the strange mixture of psychotropic chemicals, would have enticed the dark side of his ego, his second nature, to come out, whilst during the day it was masked by a necessary respectability imposed by the rules of civil living.


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