While researching funeral arrangements for pauper lunatics at the Three Counties Asylum we uncovered evidence of patients being sold off after death for the purpose of anatomical dissection and dismemberment at the Cambridge anatomical teaching school at Downing Collage, It is hard to believe that “Body snatching” could have possibly been going on, but it was,To look at this we have to go back to an article we found :
In May 1901 an article appeared in the Yarmouth Advertiser and Gazette entitled ‘Alleged
Traffic in Pauper Corpses—How the Medical Schools are Supplied—The Shadow of a Scandal’.
It recounted that, although a pauper named Frank Hyde aged fifty had died in Yarmouth
workhouse on 11 April 1901, his body was missing from the local cemetery. The case
caused a public outcry because the workhouse death register stated that Hyde had
been “buried by friends” in the parish five days after he had died. An editorial
alleged that “the body was sent to Cambridge for dissection” instead and that the
workhouse Master's clerk profited 15 shillings from the cadaver's sale. Following
continued bad publicity, the visiting committee of Yarmouth Union investigated the
allegations. They discovered that between 1880 and 1901 “26 bodies” had been sold
for dissection and dismemberment under the terms of the Anatomy Act (1832) to the
Cambridge anatomical teaching school situated at Downing College. The Master's clerk
staged a false funeral each time a pauper died in his care. He arranged it so that
“coffins were buried containing sand or sawdust or other ingredients but the body
of the person whose name appeared on the outside of each coffin never reached the
grave. This was Hyde's fate too. Like many paupers who died in the care of Poor Law
authorities in the nineteenth century, Hyde's friends and relatives lacked resources
to fund his funeral expenses. Consequently, he underwent the ignominy of a pauper
burial, but not in Yarmouth. His body was conveyed on the Great Eastern railway in
This was by no means a one off, Workhouses and Pauper lunatic Asylums across the country were contacted very discreetly by Alexander Macalister of Cambridge anatomical collage, he had to build up a very special and trustworthy relationship with those at the top of certain Asylums (Three Counties Asylum being one of them), who would then fix a line all the way down to make sure a supply of the dead could be secretly supplied.
The location of supplier Poor Law unions and asylums within the Eastern counties railway network reveals that Cambridge anatomists targeted towns on the Great Eastern, Great Northern and Midland main and branch lines.For example, Bedford, Biggleswade, Hertford, Hitchin, Huntingdon, Luton, Stevenage and Three Counties Asylum were all stations on the Great Eastern line going out of Cambridge. Similarly, Bishop's Stortford, Bury St Edmunds, Ely, Haverhill, Histon, Fulbourn, Lakenheath, Mildenhall, Saffron Walden, and Thetford surrounded Cambridge on branch or main lines.
As Macalister wanted Cambridge to be the country’s leading anatomical collage, more and more bodies were needed as more and more students came to study, In a private letter sent to many Workhouses and Lunatic Asylums he says in this section:
“ The school, is however, increasing so as to become one of the largest and most important Medical Schools in the country; and the numbers of the unclaimed bodies in each rural Union being small, it is necessary to endeavour to extend the area of supply so as to meet the growing demand for the means of acquiring a knowledge of Anatomy. The School pays all the expenses including the coffin, carriage and interment, thereby relieving the Union of certain expenses in each case.”
Although with certain cash incentives, (Macalister's personal archive reveals that the anatomy school regularly paid Poor Law personnel in workhouses and asylums to ensure a regular supply of bodies.) He did manage to increase his cadaver specimens supply by 100%
Not all Asylums would entertain such a horrid idea , In a letter from the The medical superintendent at Norfolk County Asylum, for example, outlined his board's reluctance to accommodate the idea of supplying cadavers.
“ Alas and alack! no luck. I tried my level best at the meeting of my committee yesterday, but they wouldn't have it. My Chairman rarely speaks but on this occasion he got up and made a speech, which carried the waverers with him. Of course he took the old line about the sentiment of the thing, that if it got about that the cases dying here were sent away to “be cut up” in the dissecting room, no cases would be sent to us and so on .”
Hertfordshire Asylum also sent a letter back saying:
“ The committee was of the general opinion that as persons sent here are detained against their will, difficulties would arise in the event of friends enquiring (as we have experienced) some years after a patient's death ”
In October 1912 we find a revealing letter has survived from the superintendent of
Three Counties Asylum , Mr W H Ekins, to Dr Barclay-
“ In the ordinary course when a patient dies and is buried in the Asylum cemetery,
we make a coffin and the Union to which the patient belongs pays 15/-
The policy is to say nothing, record nothing, and evade all enquiries when questioned ”
This was not written by some attendant, this was from the Superintendent him self!
This shows how high-
This show us that, not only were they supplying bodies, they were also fiddling accounts and pocketing payments, a lucrative side line indeed.
It is hard to believe this was going on, how many people were sent to Cambridge for dissection? We know that Fulbourn Asylum in Cambridgshire sent over 100. Many pauper lunatics had no family or friends, even if there was a problem and the deceased had somebody to speak on their behalf, they probably would not have pursued a line of enquiry , the chances are these people would have been low in the social pecking order and would not dare to challenge the asylum authority.
Finale thought, how many marked graves never had a body put in them at the Three Counties Asylum Cemetery?
no wonder the cemetery plan showing who is where has vanished!
In circa 1875 a “law” was passed that stated, if a body was not claimed within 72 hours of death the Asylum / workhouse could “dispose of it” as they seemed fit, and they did!