are not, as you might be excused for imagining, some born-again American
sect. Far from it. They were the chief players in a macabre custom that
arose in Britain in the latter half of the 18th century and flourished
until the Anatomy Act was passed in 1832. These grave-robbers would open
the coffins of the recently buried and sell the bodies to surgical and
medical schools. They always took care to remove the corpse naked, since
this was a misdemeanour in law, whereas if clothing was taken the offence
was a felony.
murders were committed in order to obtain a body to trade,
with a famous pair of homicidal Resurrection Men being
William Burke and William Hare, who used to suffocate
their victims and sell their bodies to Dr. Robert Knox, an
Edinburgh surgeon. With the assistance of their wives,
they enticed fifteen people to their deaths before their
crimes were discovered, at which point Hare turned King’s
evidence, which left Burke alone to be hanged, in 1829.
became so notorious that it gave Burke’s name to a verb meaning “to murder
by suffocation or strangulation”. The word came later to be used
metaphorically to indicate the quiet suppressing of ideas at inception
(e.g. “the publication was burked”), though it seems to have been
smothered itself somewhere in the first half of the 20th century.