Grave robbers through the centuries

Grave robbers have been with us for a very long time. From Ancient Egypt to the 20th century. But their motives have often differed. Some were looking for treasure while others simply wanted to desecrate the last resting place of a hated individual.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Ancient Egypt

The looting of ancient Egyptian tombs occurred frequently in ancient Egypt. Indeed, going right back to the early dynastic period when the pyramids were being built.

Everybody knew that wealthy elite Egyptians were buried with treasures they could take to the afterlife. It was just far too tempting to leave all that gold and those jewels locked away in a tomb with a decaying mummy.

The rich tried to ensure that theft of their belongings wouldn’t happen by placing blood curdling curses above the door to their tombs or constructing elaborate ways of protecting their grave. But it just didn’t seem to work.

Because many of the robbers – were the tomb builders themselves!

In 1115BC, a man called Amenpanefer and his mates went on trial for being grave robbers. He was a quarry worker and knew the tombs well. The ideal person to lead the operation. Unfortunately he was caught and more than likely executed in a particularly barbaric way. I suspect impalement may have been involved.

Sadly, looting of ancient Egyptian graves is happening on a pandemic scale today. And grave robbers are also systematically stripping archaeological sites from Latin America to China.

In Italy, tombs from the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation have been plundered for so long, it’s almost a family business passed down through the generations.

One group of looters chanced upon an Etruscan tomb while building a garage for their home – and somehow neglected to tell the authorities of their good fortune.

But the forces of law and order caught up with them when they tried to sell their ill-gotten Etruscan gains on the black market.

DISCOVER: Gruesome body of a saint on display

GRAVE ROBBERS: A revolutionary act

Smashing up graves is not always about financial gain. Some grave robbers snatch the skeletons and artefacts of the dead to denigrate them. This is pretty much what happened to the kings of France after the 1789 French Revolution.

They were buried in the basilica of St Denis for centuries – but up they came and out the door their bones went in the revolution. I visited the basilica earlier this year to see what was left of the royal tombs after the revolutionary grave robbers had finished. This is a short film I made below.

GRAVE ROBBERS: To advance the cause of medicine (and make money)

The most infamous examples of grave robbers are those early 19th century ghouls who sold cadavers to dissecting rooms in London, Edinburgh and other cities.

All in the cause of science and getting their palms crossed with silver!

This was at a time when London’s graveyards were full to capacity. So much so that the dead were buried on top of each other and the most recent burials weren’t that far from the surface.

Two enterprising rogues in Edinburgh – William Burke and William Hare – took to selling corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. Realising that fresher bodies sold for more, they started to murder their subjects. Eventually, they were both arrested and put on trial.

Hare gave evidence against Burke who was hanged and then submitted to the indignity of being publicly dissected in front of an audience of paying medical students. Gruesomely, the anatomist Professor Munro wrote a note confirming the dissection with Burke’s own blood drawn into a quill from the dead man’s head!

His skeleton is still on display plus death mask and a book bound with leather made from Burke’s own skin. Nice! Unsurprisingly, the tale of Burke and Hare has inspired movie makers.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Twentieth century celebrities

Grave robbers are still very active in the 20th and 21st centuries. Celebrities have been targeted in recent decades in the hope of securing a quick cash windfall. As was the case of the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin whose coffin was stolen in 1978 and then ransomed.

His widow Oona refused to cough up the six-figure sum demanded and the two robbers were apprehended not long afterwards. They were two jobless car mechanics – Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev – who reportedly wanted to use the money to open a garage!

Another 20th century comedian to be exhumed by grave robbers was the British celebrity Benny Hill. He died in 1992 and not long after his funeral, grave robbers got it into their heads that his coffin included some of his personal jewellery.

He was re-interred but this time with a slab of concrete on top and the grave robbers did not attempt a second break-in.

Galvanism – Frankenstein science and the dead!

The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.

Galvinism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.

If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have encountered Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall.

This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.

While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!

DISCOVER: Why were the bodies of crusaders de-fleshed in the Middle Ages?

Galvinism turns dead murderers into entertainment

The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access.

It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!

A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death.

The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.

Mr and Mrs Galvini – pioneers of Galvinism!

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.

The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?

Truly – Frankenstein stuff!

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A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.

Tony McMahon investigates how criminals were brought back to life using Galvanism in 19th century London
Luigi Galvani – and some frogs’ legs!

The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.

Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).

So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.