It is well known that in the early nineteenth century there was a grave digging problem in Scotland and Aberdeen was not exempt from this. The purpose of collecting bodies from their resting places was primarily for research; doctors required specimens to learn more about human anatomy and further their studies. However, sometimes this academic enquiry was taken a step too far.
Stories surrounded the College buildings in Aberdeen and many people were scared to go near the college at night in fear of being whisked away for medical experiments. While there is no proof that people were taken off of the streets for medical experiments, it is clear that grave robbing was a real fear at this time and many people chose to be buried in mortsafes or vaults such as this one from Belhelvie as seen in the picture. These vaults would protect the body and were used to deter grave robbers. This vault also came with a list of regulations for the Mort House.
Prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832 the legal source of bodies for anatomical study were convicted and executed felons. In 1636 the Privy Council ordered sheriffs and provosts of Aberdeen and Banff to deliver bodies to an Aberdeen doctor for his studies, stating that they should deliver:
‘twa bodies of men…expecialle being rebells and outlawis; and failzeing of them, the bodies of the poorer sort, dieing in hospitals; or abortive bairns…or those of no qualite who had died of thare diseases, and has few friends or acquaintance that can tak exception.’
The bodies of those who had broken the law or had no one to dispute their use for anatomical research were to be delivered to the doctor so that he could use them in dissection and further the study of the human anatomy and medicine. Similarly in 1752 the Murder Act, an Act for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder was introduced, making it compulsory for the bodies of murderers to be donated for dissection. This act was not only to aid in the study of anatomy but to deter murderers from committing such crimes, stating that ‘in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murdered be suffered to be buried.’
Though there were laws in place to supply medics with bodies for their research, the early nineteenth century saw a rise in grave robbing as some of these academics desired more specimens for their studies. Normally professional grave robbers were hired by these men but some people were known to have collected bodies themselves. Dr. Andrew Moir of Aberdeen was said to have accompanied his medical students on body-snatching trips. Known as a ‘resurrectionist’ this doctor set up his own teaching hospital in 1831. However, just one month later this hospital was burnt to the ground by a mob after a dog discovered a bone in the back garden, thought to have been human. Dr. Moir and his students escaped through the back door and no one was harmed. Despite this he was appointed the first official lecturer in Anatomy at the University of Aberdeen 10 years after his hospital was burnt down.