Dead Men’s Teeth


There are a number of ‘by products’ from a corpse which can be obtained either before or after the anatomist has finished studying the inner workings of the cadaver laying on the dissecting table.
The most obvious is the skeleton of the unfortunate being. Having been stripped of all flesh and probably having been boiled for cleaning, there’s not much left to be done with a human skeleton. Articulators would naturally welcome any full skeletons so that they could reconstruct the human form and sell it on again to the medical profession. The fat from the cadaver, which would have been extracted during the boiling process, could have been turned into candles such as grave digger John Loftus did in 1732:

       ‘ plundered [the] fat where bodies afforded it, which he retail’d at a high price…’

But perhaps the most useful would have been the teeth. The upper classes had a penchant for a decent set of dentures, and if your original set were looking a little stumpy and decayed, then buying new ones was a reasonable alternative. You  had to make sure however that they were real teeth of course and not replicas that soon discoloured. 
Tom Butler, a member of perhaps the most notorious of London bodysnatching gangs the ‘Borough Boys’ was only one of the gang members to have been involved in supplying teeth to the dentist after extracting them from dead soldiers on the battlefields of France and Spain:

  ‘…the battlefield quiet in the half-light, the deadly perfume of blood and gunpowder hanging over the broken remains of men and horses, and the jackal figure moving stealthy from one body to the next, pincers in hand, open haversack at his side, wrenching and twisting, then passing on, leaving each set, tortured face with a wider, bloodier grin than before’. Hubert Cole: Things for the Surgeon

 Before the ‘Italian Boy’ murderers Bishop, Williams and May handed over the body of Carlo Ferrari to the surgeons at Kings College, London, they removed his teeth with a bradawl. Likewise, full time resurrectionist Joshua Naples, a member of the Borough Gang and a former gravedigger, sold teeth when demand for corpses was low, having extracted them with pincers beforehand.


It was always best practice for the teeth to be removed before selling it to the surgeon. These were small enough to slip into a jacket or trouser pocket ensuring that if you had to discard the corpse because of detection, you still had something to show for your evenings work. Teeth could also be sold if the body was discovered to be too putrid to be sold to the anatomists.


When London resurrectionists Joseph Nicholas Collins and Thomas Crowe were arrested in Norfolk in 1823, two teeth were found on the mantelpiece which ‘fitted exactly’ into the mouth of Thomas Brundall, whose body they had recently exhumed from its grave.


Finally, in the 1813-14 trial of the year surrounding anatomist Granville Sharp Patterson, teeth were found during a raid his premises in Glasgow when six bodies were found, all in various stages of dissection. Using detective methods more familiar today, dentist James Alexander identified the teeth of Mrs McAllaster from dental records and concluded that the set of teeth he had recently made for her, were indeed those that fitted exactly into the mandible that could now be found in the pocket of medical student Robert Monro. The dentures were also identified using a beeswax mould which Alexander had used in their preparation. It is unlikely that Mrs McAllaster’s teeth would have been sold to a dentist on this occasion, rather they were removed to avoid identification of the body.