A Fresh Cadaver – Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers

Flash Fiction for for Aspiring Writers (FFfAW) is a writing challenge hosted by Priceless Joy. The challenge asks us to write a piece of fiction from the photo prompt provided in around 100- 150 words – give or take 25 words. It encourages participants to comment, constructively, on other entries, so supporting each other’s writing. If you’d like to join in with this challenge, follow the link to see what to do. The challenge runs from Wednesday to Wednesday every week.

Here is this week’s prompt, kindly provided by Sonya:


. . . and this is my story:

A pale moon cast just enough light to stop Charlie from tripping over Bert’s feet as they traipsed along the narrow path through Lord Harcourt’s estate. Why he’d let himself be talked into this, he didn’t know. It had seemed a good idea at the time – after a few pints at the ‘Duck and Goose’.

‘Light the lamp,’ Bert hissed over his shoulder. ‘We’re almost there.’

The lamplight threw an eerie glow over the small graveyard as they dug rapidly down to the coffin of his Lordship’s recently interred son. Charlie’s heart pounded as he thought of the consequences of being caught in the act of body snatching. Imprisonment would likely be the death of him.

‘Let’s hope old Jacob’s still awake,’ Bert whispered, as they lugged the body back to the horse and cart on the nearby lane. ‘We paid him enough to keep watch, for Gawd’s sake.’

‘Evening, gents’, one of the blue-clad Peelers intoned as they reached the lane. ‘Pleasant night for a spot of digging.’

Word Count: 170

Note: ‘Peelers’ was the name given to the earliest policemen in the U.K. The name comes from that of Robert Peel, the person responsible for the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829  which provided permanently appointed and paid Constables to protect London as part of the Metropolitan Police Force. The earliest ‘Peelers’ wore blue tail-coats and top hats and each carried a truncheon, handcuffs and a rattle to raise the alarm. Rattles were later replaced by whistles. Later on the Peelers’ nickname was replaced by ‘bobbies’ – the shortened name/nickname for Robert.

If you’d like to view other entries, click the blue frog below:

For anyone interested, here’s some information I put together about body snatching, mostly from Wikipedia:

Body snatchers at work – painting on the wall of the Old Crown Inn, Pinicuik, Midlothian, Scotland. Author: Kim Traynor. Commons

Body snatching is the secret disinterment of corpses from graveyards. The people who practised body snatching were often called ‘resurrectionists’ or ‘resurrection men’, and in the UK  during the 18th and 19th centuries, they were commonly employed by anatomists to exhume bodies of the recently dead for either dissection or use in anatomy lectures in medical schools.

Tom Nero’s body is dissected after her has been hanged. Author: William Hogarth, 1697-1764. Public Domain

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes were the bodies of those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those sentenced to dissection were often guilty of harsher crimes. Such sentences did not provide enough corpses for medical purposes, and with the expansion of medical schools at least 500 cadavers were needed yearly.

Burke was hanged for mudering the poor, lost and lame of Edinburgh and supplying their bodies to anatomists for dissection. Credit: Wellcome images (operated by the Wellcome Trust, UK). Commons

Interfering with a grave was classed as misdemeanour at common law – not a felony, so only punishable with a fine and imprisonment, rather than transportation or execution. It was a lucrative enough business to counter the risks of detection. Burke was hanged because he actually murdered his victims.

Body snatching became so frequent that many relatives and friends of the deceased kept watch over the body before and after burial to stop it being violated. Sometimes, graves were protected by a framework of iron bars, or iron and stone devices, called mortsafes.

One of two specimens of mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh. Author: Kim Taylor. Commons
A motsafe near Aberdeen, Scotland. Author: Parrot of Doom. Commons


54 thoughts on “A Fresh Cadaver – Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers

  1. What a terrible job to have.
    I remember learning about how the dissection of human bodies helped us to better understand the our inner workings, but the part which was usually left out was how the bodies were either snatched from their graves or murdered (with reference to the infamous Burke and Hare). Very interesting subject indeed!

    1. Thank you, Francesca. I find it interesting, too, as well as gruesome. The Burke and Hare murders are very well known. I believe Burke smothered most of his victims with his own (very fat) body. What a thought!

    1. It is a rather chilling idea, but poverty often makes people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. The anatomists paid well for the cadavers, too. Thank you, Chioma.

  2. As always Millie a great story and illuminating explanation. For so many death was just another stage in their usefulness. I remember reading Bill Bryson’s explanation of old English churchyard graveyards. The ground rising due to so many bodies being buried in them over the years.

  3. That is uncanny! Back in those days they could exume a body and the “Peelers” didn’t care? At first I thought that the Peeler was a ghost from the graveyard, but second reading made me realize the story was set in the day of the “Peelers.” I enjoyed learning about the Peelers and Bobbies and Body Snatchers. Very interesting! Thank you for adding that information.

    1. The Peelers were waiting there to arrest the body snatcher, PJ. The last sentences are just a touch of British sarcasm. The ‘Pleasant night for a spot of digging’ is said in a way that books and films often portray British policemen (like ‘Aye -aye. Whats goin’ on ‘ere then?) The crooks would know very well that the Peelers were there to arrest them. Body snatching was all very gruesome, but it happened. 🙂
      Pj, I was on Amazon not long ago, putting a review up of a poetry book I’d read, and I noticed you’d reviewed my book! Thank you so much for the nice things you said about it – and for reading it in the first place. I’m very grateful that you took the time to do it. 🙂

      1. I finished reading your book yesterday and I really enjoyed reading it. It was the type of book that once you start reading you have to read to the finish. It was my pleasure Millie!

        I’m glad the grave robbers were being arrested! It is a terrible and gruesome thing to do.

      2. Thanks again, PJ. Is it still OK for me to do these ‘extra’ bits. I wondered with you requesting no more series from people whether my extras didn’t fit with the rules, either. People don’t have to read the additional stuff, of course, but let me know if you’d prefer me to stop. The information can always be made into different posts. 🙂

      3. You adding the extra information about your story is not a problem at all. In fact, I find them very informative and interesting. Like you said, people don’t have to read them, they are there just for extra information.

  4. Great post. I was unaware of the Peepers. I’m glad that you can continue adding the very informative information…I get a lot from it. I’ve never been a “history buff”, but my interests have changed over the years and I find your site very interesting and most definitely well done.

    1. Thank you Jessie! I do love history, more and more nowadays. My teaching subject was always geography, but I had to teach some history along the way, too. That got me interested and now I love it. 🙂
      Yes, I’m glad I can continue. I just worried that PJ might think I was being a pest!

    1. Nor mine. I’m very impulsive when it comes to clicking SEND. I really need to stop and check very carefully for typos because I make so many. 🙂

  5. You flash fiction was a wonderful representation of body snatching. When good money could be fetched for a cadaver, there were plenty of folks willing to risk it. Not the sort of job I’d want.
    I’ve always been fascinated by history and mystery, so your flash was particularly enjoyable!

    1. Thank you, Phylor! I’m quite obsessed with history – and not just British history, either. If only I had a Time Machine… I suppose if I had, there’d be the temptation to go forward, as well.

  6. I enjoyed both your flash fiction and your extra info – I hadn’t heard of Peelers before, but I knew about body snatching. Once, during my family history research on a cemetery database, I was puzzled about a lot of elderly men all being interred in the same grave on the same day, yet they had differing dates of death. Turned out they were probably cadavers used at the medical schools being buried at end of term. Great post, Millie.

    1. Thanks, Christine. Yes, it sounds very likely that the cadavers you mention had all been used for dissection or such like. Gruesome though, isn’t it? Records like that can be very telling, as you know only too well from all your research into your family in England. I’m glad my post meant something to you, As for Peelers, the word only crops up nowadays in historical fiction books and dramas – as welll as text books etc. The name bobbies is still used today, although ‘coppers’ seem to have become a more common term. To ‘cop’ someone generally means to catch them, but there are also lots of refereces to the word referring to brass buttons or brass helmets of early policemen (the first of those referring to New York Policemen, I believe). What fun we can have with words! Thanks again for the lovely comment.

      1. My convict ancestor had citizens grab hold of him until a policeman turned up – they caught red-handed with a big basket of made up and raw silk bundles that he had just pinched from a silk weavers’ house. Oh, I love history!

      2. Historical tales make excellent books and films. One about this ancestor of yours would be brilliant. You’ll just have to get writing it, Christine.

      3. Good for you! You seem to have lots of great stories to draw on – some very interesting characters in your family! They seem ready made for a great book or two. 🙂

      4. You’ll have to come over here to visit some of the places they lived. I know you mentioned that once before. (Best get saving up!)

      5. The money part is under control, just got to wait a bit longer so there is less of a gap between our trip and being old enough for the aged pension. I’m not holding out hope my book/s will keep me. 🙂

  7. I loved the way you told how they met the police! They knew they would be there but still they take a chance to dig up and take the body out. As you also said, those who do the stealing are so much in need of money that they’ll do anything. Extra information is also very interesting.

    1. Thanks Scraydo. Yes, poverty is a great motive for people to break the law, and I’m sure many of the body snatchers did it just to manage to live. I suppose they’d think, well, the person’s already dead, so what the heck…? There’s always greedy people, too, who would see body snatching as a means of getting easy cash. And people like Burke and Hare who actually murdered innocent people were just despicable. Murderers are on a completely different level. I’m glad you found it interesting. 😀

      1. Yes, I don’t want to think about murders to sell body parts. I had a friend in SA who was an under cover detective gathering information on the “moetie” murders. That is when babies or young children are killed to supply the witch doctors with their ingredients for their moeties or medicine. Same as elephant and rhino parts they use

      2. Your friend is doing a really wonderful job, but very dangerous. The people who deal in this kind of work are unscrupulous people. To take babies and young children to kill them just to supply witch doctors is too awful to think about. Unfortunately, tribal customs are hard to wipe out. Thank you for sharing that, Scrapydo.

  8. Woah! I used to think that the job of early surgeons were gruesome enough. Body snatching from the grave and murdering people for corpses is an aspect that just never comes into the textbooks ! That was an eye-opener complimented by an intriguing story. 🙂

    1. I know…it’s a big an eye opener isn’t it? I think the desperation of anatomists for bodies to work on just propelled these acts along. They were the ones who paid the body snatchers after all. Poor and needy people aren’t going to turn their noses up at earning some easy money. The families of those whose bodies were stolen must have been disraught, though – hence the ‘mortsafe’ idea. Thank you for the lovely comment, Prateek. 😀

  9. Interesting little snippet of events in your flash fiction part! And once again, the additional info was just as interesting! I didn’t know any of that about bodysnatching. Where & how do you come up with all those historical facts and details?! 🙂

    1. Thank you, snowsomewhere. 🙂 As for the historical facts about this topic, I’ve read a couple of books (fiction) about resurrectionists, but I’ve come across the idea many times in non-fiction books and even school text books. I taught history (as well as geography and science) for a lot of years. and things like this just kept on popping up. This prompt was perfect for so many graveyard-type of stories, especially ‘ghosty’ ones. Thank you for liking my story. 😀

  10. Enjoyed your story and that it was historically accurate. I love how you add some historical facts at the end. I fo that sometimes or I get on my bandwagon of causes. LOL:)

    1. Thanks Susan. I know you write about many causes, and care deeply about them. I’ve read a few of your posts that do that. Sometimes, the prompts seem to direct us in a certain direction, don’t they? 🙂

  11. I love a story based on facts and this was that. A nice informative piece on body snatching. I had no idea about Peelers. Thanks for sharing this with us Millie. The story was enjoyable as always and the last line – loved it. 😉

    1. Thanks, Norma. I can’t resist adding a bit of history whenever I can fit it in. The prompt just made me think of body snatching, so that was that. 🙂

  12. Great story, Millie! Love the facts you added with it… never heard of Peelers, so I learned something new 😀

    1. Hello again, Lori. Well, I’m glad you learned something new from my post. As you’ll know by now, I’m mad about history and will always look at prompts to see if I can do something historical about them. I can’t for all of them, of course. But a graveyard was perfect for it (as well as ghost stories, which several people did). Thank you for the lovely comment. 😀

      1. You are most welcome, Millie… I will keep reading to discover more new things 😀

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