Medical science in the 19th Century

The Body Snatcher - Robert Louis Stevenson

As I was reading this book the thought that was going through my mind was how doctors in the 19th Century would, during the middle of the night, raid graveyards for freshly buried corpses, exhume them, and take them back to their laboratories to dissect them. This story however goes a little further because it is suggested that the main character goes beyond exhuming freshly buried corpses to creating his own corpses.

However, as I thought about the idea in this book, I came to realise how similar this story is to this movie:



The reason I say this is because both of the main characters seem to go into a very grey world (actually, that is putting it very lightly because the actions of both of these characters are highly illegal) to become successful in their various trades. With the Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort practices stock manipulation, high pressure selling, and multiple other acts of stock fraud to become a multi-millionaire. In this story MacFarlane resorts to murder to obtain the bodies that he requires to be able to study medicine.

I would not be surprised if this happened quite regularly in Victorian England because back in those days one generally did not leave their body to science for study and the ability to obtain corpses to perform autopsies was very difficult. In fact I believe that when somebody died you generally didn't perform autopsies you simply buried the body and were done with it.

I was included to connect this story with the legend of Jack the Ripper, until I discovered that Jack the Ripper was haunting the streets of London four years after this book was published. However, consider this, Jack, whoever he was, would select prostitutes as his targets (namely people that would not go missing, and not important enough to appear on the police's radar) and, as the story goes, would bit by bit remove parts of their body and place them around the corpse. This does not sound like the act of some psychotic serial killer, but rather the actions of a doctor, or a scientist, who was going out of his way to study the human body. Actually, I believe that one of the suspects in the case was a doctor.

The story seems to be told from the perspective of a man named Fettes who gets caught up in this rather gruesome series of events, though as I suggested, it was not simply exhuming corpses from the graves, but rather creating corpses so that at a later time one can then exhume them. Obviously if one is doing this one needs to get to the corpse pretty quickly after it has been buried because if one waits too long then the corpse begins to decay and become useless. Obviously this is something that belongs in the past because these days you can hand your corpse over to science so that they can study it.