In the story, a young medical student named Fettes discovers that many of the cadavers used at the school are supplied by criminals who kill for the sole purpose of selling the victims' bodies. Fettes is horrified, but the class assistant, Macfarlane, advises him to keep quiet in order to prevent a scandal. Fettes agrees to say nothing. His loyalties are tested, however, when Macfarlane himself comes to the door with a fresh corpse.
The story is thought to have been inspired by the infamous 1828 serial "anatomy murders" committed by William Burke and William Hare.
"The Body Snatcher" has been adapted for radio, television, and film.
The unnamed narrator sits every night in the parlor at the George in Debenham with the landlord, the undertaker, and an old drunken Scotsman named Fettes. Although Fettes has lived in Debenham for many years, not much is known about him other than the fact that he is an educated man with some knowledge of medicine. One night, a great London doctor named Wolfe Macfarlane is summoned to the George to treat an important local man who has taken ill. Everyone is shocked when Fettes confronts the doctor and angrily orders him out. Fettes is reluctant to discuss the incident, but the narrator eventually manages to get him to talk about it. According to Fettes, the following events took place when he was a promising young man studying medicine in Edinburgh.
Fettes works as a sub-assistant to the famous anatomy teacher Mr. K—. One of the duties of the sub-assistant is to receive and divide the subjects for dissection. He lives in the same building as the dissecting rooms so he can deal with the ruffians who bring the supplies before dawn. He has been instructed to ask no questions because anatomical supplies are limited – and it is best not to know where the bodies come from.
One morning, Fettes recognizes the body being delivered. It is a young woman he saw just the day before. From the marks on her body, it is clear she met a violent death. Horrified and unsure what to do, he consults his immediate superior, the class assistant. The assistant is a young doctor named Wolfe Macfarlane who is an unscrupulous but agreeable man. Macfarlane and Fettes work closely together, and it is they who, when supplies run low, go out to graveyards in Macfarlane's gig and bring back what they need. Macfarlane examines the corpse of the young woman. He agrees there has been foul play but tells Fettes to let the matter go. Macfarlane says that, since mostly all of their subjects have been murdered, they had better keep quiet to avoid bringing trouble to Mr. K— and also to themselves.
One afternoon, Fettes sees Macfarlane sitting with a stranger at the tavern. He joins them and finds the man, Gray, vulgar and offensive. Gray treats Macfarlane rudely and orders him about, making it obvious that he has control over the young doctor. He takes a liking to Fettes, however, and tells him all about his shady past. He tells Fettes that Macfarlane hates him then makes the furious Macfarlane buy drinks and pay for a feast. The next day, Macfarlane does not come to class. Fettes goes around town looking for him and Gray but do not find them.
Early the following morning, Fettes is awakened by a delivery. He is surprised to find Macfarlane at the door. After they bring the body upstairs, Macfarlane tells Fettes to look at its face. Fettes is horrified to see it is Gray's body lying on the table. Macfarlane tells him to make the payment as usual and enter the transaction in his book to keep his accounts straight. With difficulty, Fettes follows the instructions. Macfarlane gives the money to Fettes and advises him to spend it carefully so as not to raise suspicion. Fettes is distraught at what he has done. Macfarlane tells him that there is no going back and that the only way to survive in the world is to act with courage. He expresses confidence in Fettes and assures him that he will feel better in three days. He then leaves Fettes to deal with the business of distributing various parts of the body to the students. For the next two days, Fettes watches the evidence disappear in the classroom. Macfarlane returns on the third day to direct the students to finish the job. As predicted by Macfarlane, Fettes recovers from the ordeal and learns to look back on it as a rite of passage.
Some time later, Mr. K— runs short of subjects. Fettes and Macfarlane are tasked to go to a graveyard in a rural area some distance away where an old farmer's wife is being buried. The two friends set out in Macfarlane's gig, wrapped in cloaks and carrying a bottle against the cold driving rain. They stop near the churchyard to hide their implements first then stop at an inn for dinner. They drink heartily. Macfarlane gives Fettes some gold pieces in appreciation of their friendship. Fettes receives the gratitude cheerfully and offers a toast to the memory of Gray.
They leave the inn late at night. They first drive out of town deliberately headed in the wrong direction. They then extinguish the lanterns on the gig and drive to their destination in the dark. At the graveyard, they relight one of the lanterns and begin shoveling. They hit the coffin in less than twenty minutes. Macfarlane, having hurt his hand on a stone, flings the offending stone over his head. It hits and breaks the lantern. The two men complete the job in the dark and take the body out to the gig in a sack.
As they ride toward town, the drenched sack which is propped up between them bumps from side to side falling on each man in turn. Fettes looks at the sack. It somehow appears to him to have grown larger. Dogs howl everywhere as the gig drives by, as if they sense something unnatural and unholy happening. Fettes cannot stand it any longer. With a great effort, he asks Macfarlane for some light. Macfarlane, apparently affected in the same way, stops the horse and lights a lantern. The sack, soaked by the rain, clings tightly to the corpse showing its outline clearly. The two men stare at it in horror. Macfarlane whispers "That is not a woman," and Fettes whispers back "It was a woman when we put her in." Macfarlane unties the sack and pulls it down to uncover the head. Both men scream in terror and jump off the gig. The horse takes off in a gallop, taking away the body of Gray.
The 1945 RKO film The Body Snatcher is based on the Stevenson short story. The film stars Boris Karloff as the cab driver John Gray who supplies the corpses to Dr. Macfarlane (Henry Daniell). The film also features Bela Lugosi in a small part of a lab assistant who falls victim to Karloff's Gray.
The story was adapted for the television series Mystery and Imagination. The episode first aired on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on February 5, 1966. It stars Ian Holm as McFarlane.
"The Body Snatcher" was adapted as "The Body Snatchers", an episode of the American radio series CBS Radio Mystery Theater. The episode was first broadcast on December 5, 1974.
- ↑ It is generally assumed that "Mr. K—" is based on the Scottish anatomist Robert Knox (1793–1862) who was an extremely popular lecturer until he became implicated in the Burke and Hare murders. Knox escaped prosecution on the grounds that he did not know where the bodies came from.
- ↑ Prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, only corpses of executed criminals were legally available for dissection. As medical interest grew and demand for cadavers increased, grave robbery became a serious problem in Britain.