Dead Men’s Teeth: Artificial Teeth in Georgian Britain

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Skeleton of a woman anterior view. Line engraving by A. Bell after J.-J. Sue, 1798..
Skeleton of a woman anterior view. Line engraving by A. Bell after J.-J. Sue, 1798 [Source]

The cadaver had many uses in Georgian Britain. It could be sold as a whole; chopped up and its extremities sold separately; its hair snipped off and used for wigs, or, which was nearly always the case, have its teeth knocked out so they could be sold separately to the upper members of Georgian society as artificial teeth.

A Cadaver’s Uses

Georgian England saw cadavers snatched from pretty much all of its inner-city churchyards.

If a snatching hadn’t taken place, then you could be certain that the parish was either prepared for a visit from the body snatchers or they’d heard of a parish that had already been targeted.

They would almost certainly be on their guard from a visit from the body snatcher.

A cadaver had many uses and although the primary reason for stealing a body was so that it may be used as a teaching aid for the anatomy students of England and Scotland, cadavers could also fetch a handsome sum in a much wider economical market.

The most obvious is as a teaching skeleton. Hanging quietly in the corner of an anatomy theatre or even an artist’s studio.

Having been stripped of all flesh and being boiled for cleaning, there’s not much that can be done with a human skeleton.

By-products of a cadaver

The fat from the cadaver, which would have been extracted during the boiling process would not have gone to waste either. Although rather an extreme measure, unscrupulous grave digger John Loftus turned the fat into candles in 1732:

 ‘ plunder[ed]of above fifty [graves], not only for their coffins and burial cloathes (sic), but for their fat, where bodies afforded any, which he retailed at a high price…’

But perhaps the most useful bi-product that a skeleton produced was the teeth.

The upper classes of Georgian Britain had a penchant for a decent set of dentures. If your original set were looking a little stumpy and decayed, then buying new ones was a reasonable alternative.

Although replica teeth were available, these were made of ivory, and the wealthier sectors of society preferred real teeth.

This lead to unprecedented popularity in real human teeth and a profitable sideline was born.

Waterloo Teeth

Tom Butler, a member of the most notorious London body snatching gang the ‘Borough Boys’ was only one of the gang members to have been involved in supplying teeth to the dentists.

Butler extracted teeth from the dead and dying soldiers on the battlefields of Waterloo – eventually coining the phrase ‘Waterloo Teeth’ 

‘…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 stealthily 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

Demand for Human Teeth

Before the ‘Italian Boy’ murderers Bishop, Williams & 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 notorious 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 a cadaver to the surgeon. Teeth were small enough to slip into a pocket, meaning that if you got caught with a cadaver and had to discard it to stop being arrested, you still had something to show for your evening’s work.

Such was the demand for teeth and the financial gain for seeling them separately that resurrectionists would remove them as a matter of course after snatching a body.

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.  

In 1813, teeth were found at the Glasgow anatomy school belonging to Granville Sharp Patterson. Six bodies were found, all in various stages of dissection.

In what was probably one of the first cases of using dental records as part of a criminal investigation, dentist James Alexander identified teeth belonging to a Mrs McAllaster from dental records.

He 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.

It’s 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.  

The demand in human teeth lasted for quite a number of years despite porcelain teeth being introduced circa 1774. These, however, were considered too white and the use of real human teeth continued.

I've been researching the macabre world of body snatching since 2005 when I looked at the topic in depth for my Under Grad dissertation. Since then, I've been absolutely fascinated by this often forgotten side of Britain's history.
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