The process of resurrecting, that is, of robbing churchyards for supplying dissecting-rooms, was carried on with great vigour in the early part of the 19th century. In Edinburgh the resurrectionists were chiefly the assistants of the several teachers of anatomy, helped by students who were enthusiastic in the study of this subject. The time chosen in the dark winter nights was from six to eight o'clock, before a watch was set in the churchyard and the city police commenced their
rounds. A hole was dug down to the coffin at the upper end, the loose earth being received on a canvas sheet to prevent any of it from being scattered on the grass.
The digging was done with short flat dagger-shaped implements of wood to avoid the noise of iron striking stones, and the whole process could be completed in an hour, because the digging was done rapidly by relays of active men.
When the head of the coffin was reached, two broad iron hooks under the lid broke off sufficient from the head end to allow the body to be extracted. The grave clothes were stripped off and scrupulously buried, as it was supposed that taking them away would render the depredators liable to indictment for theft.
The surface of the ground was carefully restored to its original condition, the body was secured in a sack, transferred over the churchyard wall, and, once in the
street, the carrier of the sack drew no attention at the early hour of the evening.
It was an understood thing that the followers of one teacher did not invade the territory of another, and so long as Drs. Monro and Barclay were the only
teachers of anatomy, resurrecting went on smoothly. But when Liston also became an anatomical teacher, he paid no heed to these prudent arrangements, so that competition and often fights arose between rival parties of resurrectionists.
As the public became better informed regarding these practices, more effectual measures were taken to prevent graves from being disturbed, such as burial in a heavy mortsafe until a sufficient time had elapsed to make the body useless to the anatomists, securing the coffin by iron bars rivetted across it or on the surface
of the ground, etc. There gradually arose in consequence professional corps called body-snatchers, consisting usually of the greatest scoundrels in the community, , and thus originated the crimes of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh and of Williams in London.