Volume > Issue > “The Body-Snatcher.” By Robert Louis Stevenson

“The Body-Snatcher.” By Robert Louis Stevenson


By Michael S. Rose | November 2020
Michael S. Rose is Associate Editor of the NOR.

Before Robert Louis Stevenson became world renowned for The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1888), he wrote a number of short stories delineating many of the themes he would explore more deeply in his famous novella. Among these, “The Body-Snatcher” (1884) is a moral tale of a defective conscience set in the medical world of the late 1820s, one that raises perennial questions about medical ethics, scientific consequentialism, and our general regard for the human body.

Fettes is a fledgling medical student in Stevenson’s hometown of Edinburgh. When he receives the attentions of a “meteorically famous” anatomy professor known only as Mr. K, he believes his life as a successful doctor has been made. In his second year of studies, Fettes is not only handpicked by Mr. K to be “sub-assistant” to his classes, he’s offered a side job that requires him to lodge in the same building, adjacent to the dissecting classroom. It is here, after typical nights of mindless carousing, that Fettes “would be called out of bed in the black hours before the winter dawn by the unclean and desperate interlopers who supplied the table.” In other words, his primary duty in service to Mr. K is to pay for dead bodies delivered to his door — corpses to be used for dissection in Mr. K’s hands-on anatomy course. “In that large and busy class, the raw material of the anatomists kept perpetually running out,” which necessitates a steady supply of fresh bodies.

To Fettes, these nocturnal transactions are simple and routine. He neither feels the need to ask where the bodies come from nor gives much thought to sleeping among the dead. Indeed, Fettes is a young man who is little interested in the fate and fortunes of others; he is a slave to his own desires and low ambitions. Like the weak-minded Henry Jekyll of Stevenson’s later tale, Fettes manages to function as a respectable and successful gentleman by day, but at night he indemnifies himself for his nefarious nocturnal duty with “roaring, blackguardly enjoyment” that numbs his conscience. This Scotsman is, by all accounts, already a confirmed glutton.

His employer, who served as the moral role model for the younger Fettes, seems no better. Mr. K’s policy is to ask no questions when dealing with the body snatchers (as grave robbers were commonly called). “They bring the body, and we pay the price,” says Mr. K, explaining his straightforward quid pro quo policy. Though Fettes asks no questions of the abominable Irish ruffians who make their regular deliveries, “he often remarked to himself upon the singular freshness of the bodies.” Despite his idle suspicions, Fettes understands that his duty to Mr. K includes averting his eyes from any evidence of crime.

One night, however, Fettes recognizes the latest delivered corpse as an acquaintance by the name of Jane Galbraith. “She was alive and hearty yesterday,” he protests as he is paying the hang-dog delivery men. “It’s impossible she can be dead; it’s impossible that you should have got this body fairly.” That’s when it dawns on him that these two men are not grave robbers but cold-blooded murderers, a realization that pricks his otherwise dulled conscience. Knowing that to interfere in this business would be to jeopardize his future medical career and possibly put himself in harm’s way, he seeks advice from his immediate superior, a young doctor by the name of Wolfe Macfarlane, “a high favourite among all the reckless students, clever, dissipated, and unscrupulous to the last degree.”

It is hardly surprising when Macfarlane, given his own lack of moral scrupulosity, counsels Fettes to look the other way. “The fact is,” explains the young doctor, “this has been going on too long. Stir up the mud, and you’ll get K into the most holy trouble; you’ll be in a shocking box yourself.” By Macfarlane’s reasoning, nothing good will come for him or for Mr. K should Fettes decide to make a moral or legal issue of the matter — and, to be clear, Fettes understands now that Macfarlane is admitting to him that moral and legal issues are at play. “Practically speaking all our subjects have been murdered,” Macfarlane admits.

Fettes, who is no moral activist, could have possibly stomached this tough truth had it not been for Jane Galbraith. Here was not just a body, “material” to be cut up and studied by budding medical scientists and future surgeons. He knew Jane as a real person, someone who had a life to live, with parents and family and friends. Who has the right to take this young woman’s life, Fettes wonders, either for personal financial gain or for the universal benefit of science? Fettes’s moral life has been jarred and, like a sleeping giant, his conscience is awakening to the horrible reality.

Noticing this inconvenient awakening, Macfarlane asks Fettes to consider why Mr. K chose the two of them for his assistants. It wasn’t because they were singularly talented. No, explains Macfarlane, it’s “because he didn’t want old wives.” He wanted men who could turn a blind eye to serious crimes. Mr. K was attracted to them because they appeared to him to be bothered little by conscience. They would ask no questions. They would have no qualms about becoming complicit in murder.

A second incident a few weeks later pricks once again at Fettes’s conscience. This time, instead of the Irish rogues, it’s Macfarlane at the door in the wee hours, delivering a body in a sackcloth package for Mr. K’s dissecting table. Fettes is surprised — but only because Macfarlane went out without him. By this time, Fettes and Macfarlane themselves have begun acting in the role of body snatchers from time to time, going out after midnight into the countryside to dig up fresh graves.

Once they get the body upstairs and lay it on the table — as per the routine — Macfarlane tells Fettes he needs to look at the face. Reluctantly, Fettes uncovers the body to find that he recognizes the face of Mr. Gray, the man he had dined with the evening before: “The shock was cruel. To see, fixed in the rigidity of death and naked on that coarse layer of sackcloth, the man whom he had left well clad and full of meat and sin upon the threshold of a tavern, awoke, even in the thoughtless Fettes, some of the terrors of the conscience.” Macfarlane had introduced Fettes the previous night to this “coarse, vulgar, and stupid man,” who appeared to exercise some mysterious control over Macfarlane, as if Gray had been threatening him with blackmail. It was obvious to Fettes that Macfarlane found Gray to be a “very loathsome rogue.” And now Fettes must grapple with the facts that not only is his closest colleague a murderer but Macfarlane wants him to become complicit in the crime. “You must pay me;” says Macfarlane, “your accounts, you see, must tally…. I dare not give it for nothing, you dare not take it for nothing; it would compromise us both. This is another case like Jane Galbraith’s. The more things are wrong, the more we must act as if all were right.”

Without giving too much thought to the matter, Fettes complies, paying Macfarlane out of Mr. K’s cash kept for that sole purpose — just as he would pay the Irish rogues who usually showed up. But to make matters worse, Macfarlane insists on giving Mr. K’s money to Fettes. He wants Fettes to “pocket the lucre,” not only making him complicit but effectively rendering him helpless to act as whistleblower. “Suppose I got into trouble, where would you be?” challenges Macfarlane. “This second little matter flows clearly from the first. Mr. Gray is the continuation of Miss Galbraith. You can’t begin and then stop. If you begin, you must keep on beginning; that’s the truth. No rest for the wicked.”

Fettes is at a moral crossroads, and Macfarlane makes clear the choices open to him: He can choose to be either “a lion or a lamb.” Offering up a classic false dichotomy, Macfarlane explains, “If you’re a lamb, you’ll come to lie upon these tables like Gray or Jane Galbraith; if you’re a lion, you’ll live and drive a horse like me, like K, like all the world with any wit or courage.” The warning is clear: Either Fettes holds his tongue or he will have no prospect of future success in the medical profession or elsewise.

Fettes realizes at this point that he’s sinking in a moral quagmire. By taking the blood money, he has fallen from being the arbiter of Macfarlane’s destiny to his paid and helpless accomplice. From that point on, Fettes sees no real way out, reasoning that if he didn’t have the courage to do the right thing in the past, how could he expect himself to have the courage to do the right thing in the future? His moral weakness and dulled conscience have reduced him to standing idly by, watching students duly dissect the bodies of Jane Galbraith and Mr. Gray and witnessing their various organs distributed to this table and that for further scientific inspection.

Fettes, like Macfarlane and Mr. K, is a hard man with an ever-hardening heart and a dimming conscience. Three days later, he assures Macfarlane that he has “cast in his lot with the lions and forsworn the lambs,” confirming that he has fully bought into Mr. K’s consequentialist philosophy and his accompanying disregard for the sanctity of the human body. These anatomists were not going to be deterred by the customary piety of burial rights. It was part of their trade “to despise and desecrate the scrolls and trumpets of old tombs, the path worn by the feet of worshippers and mourners and the offerings and inscriptions of bereaved affection.” And, as recent history revealed to Fettes, they would not stop at grave robbing and body snatching. They would welcome freshly dead bodies from the most unscrupulous of men, no questions asked. After all, these three men are working in the highly esteemed medical profession, and they reason — pulling a page from Machiavelli’s playbook — that the end justifies the means. Ostensibly, they are in this trade in order to advance science and medicine, allowing future generations to live longer and healthier lives. At least that’s what they tell themselves. What is only implied may be closer to the truth, that these anatomists who stand over dead bodies, wielding burgeoning knowledge about the medical sciences, see themselves as gods among men, but they suffer under a Promethean delusion.

We have to ask ourselves in our day or any: Is the human body — yes, even the deceased human body — sacred? Or is it merely material to be manipulated by scientists who reason away their desecrations because they are undertaking their experiments or medical procedures in the name of science? Are our internal and external organs merely “stuff” to be harvested, probed, and dissected? These questions soon plague the young Fettes. The next corpse he and Macfarlane disinter from a distant grave bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Gray. What Fettes comes to realize after this climactic scene is that he’s become a member of an elite sacrificial religion and he’s partaking in its sacred rituals as if he were sacrificing to Ba’al or Moloch.

Stevenson, writing in the 1880s, dramatized the sordid pursuits of the real-life Dr. Robert Knox, known back in the 1820s as “The Resurrectionist” of Edinburgh Medical College. Knox is presumably the Mr. K of this tale. In his days, the law allowed only for the bodies of executed criminals to be used by medical schools for dissection and study. Because the number of crimes meriting a death sentence fell sharply during that decade, the gap was filled by corpses dug up by grave robbers. (There was no “donating your organs to science” in those pre-Victorian days.) Failing that, some of these body snatchers would resort to murder in order to supply bodies for the trade. The Irish rogues of Stevenson’s tale are modeled after William Burke and William Hare, who emigrated from Northern Ireland to Scotland to work on the Union Canal project. Between 1827 and 1829, in addition to their grave robberies, the infamous duo suffocated 17 lodgers, prostitutes, and other unfortunates in and around Edinburgh before they were caught. Although Hare and Knox escaped to England, Burke was brought to justice. After being hanged, his body was publicly dissected at Edinburgh Medical College, and his skeleton, death mask, and a wallet of his tanned skin were put on public display.

But “The Body-Snatcher” is no mere account of 1820s Scotland. Its timelessness can be found in its exploration of medical ethics, scientism, and a scientific consequentialism that claims that the “end” of medical experimentation (the advancement of science) justifies the “means” (using the human body and its parts as utilitarian “stuff”). With today’s hot-button biotech issues, who can deny that themes of “The Body-Snatcher” are still relevant? Yes, these themes might be expressed in different ways in the 21st century, but the moral and ethical issues involving scientific research and medical experimentation are as relevant as ever — arguably more so. Consider, for example, embryonic stem-cell research in which the embryo is destroyed in the process of extracting its stem cells. Destroying embryos for the purpose of harvesting their parts reduces nascent human life to the moral status of mold. Or consider abortion. As if the willful taking of human life isn’t bad enough (not to mention evil), some medical-research companies have purchased aborted babies to harvest their parts. To give one example of many: In 2017 two of Planned Parenthood’s business partners, DaVinci Biosciences and DV Biologics, admitted to selling aborted baby body parts supplied by Planned Parenthood. Just a few years earlier, in 2012, Planned Parenthood charged a biospecimen company nearly $25,000 for “fetal tissue” and maternal blood samples. Further, some of the vaccines currently used to prevent diseases such as rubella, measles, rabies, polio, hepatitis A, and chickenpox are produced using fetal embryo fibroblast cells from aborted humans. In all of these 21st-century cases, human body parts are treated as commodities to be bought and sold, all in the name of medical progress, much the same as in Mr. K’s time.

After their harrowing experience with Mr. Gray’s doppelgänger corpse, Macfarlane and Fettes go their separate ways. Macfarlane, the consummate lion, becomes a rich and successful London doctor, while Fettes, who has apparently disavowed the questionable ethics of the medical establishment, languishes as an out-at-the-elbows small-town drunk, still struggling decades later to drown the horrors he witnessed and endured in pursuit of respectability and fame in the highly lucrative medical profession. Despite Macfarlane’s worldly success, there’s something in the telling of Stevenson’s tale to suggest that it is Macfarlane, not Fettes, who will come to a truly bad end. Even though Fettes, with his “crapulous, disreputable vices,” enjoys no success and is drinking away his days in the local pub, we can see that even his weak conscience has provided a path to his own eventual redemption.


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