I struggled with this week’s Revised Common Lectionary this week, and decided to expand it to be on the raising of Lazarus, which is actually a subject I have never preached on before. The lections are Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 11:1-27, 38-44, 54-57; and 12:1-11.
I’ve been reading a book titled The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise, which is a book about the public exposure of the dark side of urban expansion in London in the early 1830s, namely, the business that emerged for body snatching. Body snatchers were thieves who stole corpses from graves. The population of London exploded in the first three decades of the 19th century, and these years also saw an expansion of interest in the medical sciences and a new demand for medical workers.
To go back in time a little, fifty years prior, the English Parliament declared in the Murder Act of 1751 that the practice of “gibbeting” was expanded to allow judges to not only order an execution as punishment for murder, but that the executed corpse would be placed on display in a very public place, usually along a highway or at a busy crossroads. The idea was to deter the growing problem of murders in London by treating the bodies of murderers in the same way the royalty would treat the bodies of those who commit treason against the King—traitors—and pirates.
The very next year, another Murder Act was passed by Parliament, the Murder Act of 1752. The Murder Act of 1752 was designed again to further deter murder crimes by making clear that those who commit murder will not be buried after execution, and that their remains must be either displayed by gibbeting, with the body publicly hanging in chains, or—and this is the innovation—the body will be turned over to scientists for “public dissection.” As a result, murder convicts’ bodies could be turned over to medical colleges for use in teaching.
With the expansion of medical education and research, however, there were not enough felons whose bodies ended up on the dissection tables. As a result, a somewhat lucrative black market emerged for fresh bodies to be sold in secret to medical colleges. Body snatchers or corpse thieves became known as “resurrectionists,” who would dig out fresh graves from the ground. Read the rest of this entry »