Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Body Snatching in Kirkintilloch

With the launch of our new website,, in August we have been starting to index records outside our home area in the Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway. One of these records we indexed recently was Dumbarton Prison Register, 1828 to 1840. An interesting crime that we spotted along the way was ‘Raising and Carrying of the Body of a Woman from the old Burying Ground Kirkintilloch’ and ‘Violating Graves’! Both of these crimes were committed by one Peter Gardner.

Auld Aisle Graveyard Gateway and Watchhouse
© Copyright Martyn Gorman
This seems like a pretty gruesome crime that Peter committed so you may wonder why someone would do this. Until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 it was very difficult for anatomists, surgeons or medical students in the UK to obtain bodies to dissect, which was a vital part of their education. One major reason the public objected to the use of bodies in this way, and therefore a reason for the creation of laws preventing the use of bodies by the medical profession, was that there was a belief that if your body was not buried whole you could not be resurrected on judgement day. This belief was so strong that it was viewed that allowing a body to be dissected was an extra punishment that could be handed out after death. For this reason it was only the corpses of convicted murderers that were given to the medical profession for dissection.

As you may be able to imagine there were simply not enough murderers for the medical profession! The need for corpses was so great that there was a very lucrative trade in dead bodies and in some instances this led to murder!

This is why Peter Gardner was willing to risk imprisonment for his lucrative backstreet profession. The Anatomy Act of 1832 changed everything. It gave legal access, by holders of a licence, to obtain unclaimed corpses. These corpses were often from prisons and workhouses, to be used by medical professionals. It also made provision for a person to donate the corpse of their next of kin to s school of anatomy.

Peter’s occupation, at least the illegal side of it, was now redundant and most of those buried in graves across Scotland would remain there.