Author Interviews/Guest Bloggers

Body Snatching: A Morbid Curiosity with Author Lee Murray

Free image courtesy Attila Lisinszky on Unsplash.

Happy new year, everyone! 😊

To start off 2022, I have the pleasure of hosting multi-award-winning author, Lee Murray, to the blog. Her flash fiction story, Heart Music, appears in the upcoming anthology, Among the Headstones, edited by Rayne Hall (further details below). I’ve ordered my copy and I look forward to reading Lee’s story, along with a host of other talented authors.

Today, Lee shares with us some of the history behind body snatching, including two modern cases that are both shocking and macabre.

Thank you, Lee, for sharing and being with us today.

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Body snatching, the theft of a body or body parts from a burial site (as opposed to graverobbing, where sites are excavated for valuable artefacts), is an ancient and macabre practice, and curiosity is a key motivation. Indeed, scientific curiosity, coupled with this morbid practice, contributed much to our early understanding of the human body, for example. While da Vinci is believed to have dissected around thirty cadavers obtained with permission from various hospitals to inform his anatomical drawings, his contemporary, Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius, reportedly pillaged cemeteries for the corpses he dissected, his subsequent book of anatomical drawings, published in 1543, dispelling long-held theories about human biology. In the 19th century when anatomical research was at its zenith, despite the associated cultural taboos, there was a high demand for corpses, so body snatching became a lucrative industry, with the desecration occurring in the few days before the dead had time to decompose. In fact, in many western countries, body snatching for medical use became so commonplace that people took measures to protect their dead, including introduction of mort-safes (iron cage structures), or hired guards.

Body snatching is not confined to the distant past, however. In a bizarre New Zealand case, four young men stole a dead baby’s skull from a Wellington cemetery in 2002. The trio had roamed the cemetery previously, attempting (unsuccessfully) to break into a concrete crypt, stealing a marble ornament instead. Then, six days later, together with another friend, they returned to the cemetery after a night of heavy drinking, this time bringing a spade and a hacksaw. While one of the men served as a lookout, the others broke into two century-old vaults. In the first, the ring-leader—a man named Holland—sifted through an urn of human ashes with his hand. The group then stole the remains of a baby from the second vault, carrying it back to Holland’s flat in the lead lining of its coffin, where they cut a section from the baby’s crown and removed part of its jawbone. Holland went on to use the skull as an ashtray and the infant’s jawbone as a necklace (which he later lost). The group disposed of the rest of the corpse and the coffin lining by throwing them into the harbour. Days later, a man walking his dog through the cemetery reported that the vaults had been vandalised and a subsequent inventory uncovered the missing coffin. In his diary, one of the convicted men confessed to the crime, writing: “We stole a coffin with a dead baby in it and took it back to our place and broke into it. This is as bad as murder; I can’t believe we did it.” He could not explain his involvement, putting it down to madness: “I am deranged. Today has been terrible and we have earned backstage tickets to hell.” However, ring-leader Holland’s explanation for his role in the bodysnatching was that he was “curious”.

While I’m not at all tempted to scour the cemeteries for freshly opened graves, I can attest that my flash fiction tale, “Heart Music”, which appears in Among the Headstones (edited by Rayne Hall) was the result of my own grisly curiosity surrounding body snatching. I was drawn, not to the cemetery, but to multiple news reports of Russian scholar Anatoly Moskvin, who was arrested in 2011 for stealing the remains of forty-four dead girls between the ages of 3 and 12 years. Moskvin mummified twenty-six of the girls in salt and soda and kept the resulting ‘dolls’ in plain sight his parents’ apartment, claiming at a parole hearing in 2020 that he had “brought them home and warmed them up” after their parents had abandoned them to the grave. Some of the ‘dolls’ had music boxes wedged in their chest cavities, hence the title of my piece.

I’ll admit that while the reports of Moskvin’s crimes are gruesome and shocking, they hold a certain fascination. Such a macabre story. Moskvin, who suffers from schizophrenia and remains incarcerated, claimed the children “sang to him” and that he did not exhume them until they responded to him, giving him their permission. His motivation for bringing the corpses home? In part, it was because he was getting too old to spend the night in cemeteries, so instead he brought his “children” home where they might be more comfortable. But another motivation was his curiosity, as Moskvin was convinced he would one day discover a way to revive his beloved corpses, either through science or black magic.

With “Heart Music”, I hoped to bring a fresh perspective to the reports, taking the point of view of an imaginary teenager, one who had died before she’d had a chance to live, curious as to how she might respond to the body snatcher’s advances.

References

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/graverobbers-who-used-skull-as-ashtray-jailed/UGSINXO5S543XRMBWMGZDPWWTY/

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8904599/Graverobber-stole-girls-corpses-doll-collection-refuses-apologise-parents.html (Warning: Graphic content).

About the Author

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror from Aotearoa-New Zealand, and a USA Today Bestselling author. Lee’s flash fiction, “Heart Music”, a 2021 Ladies of Horror Fiction Award finalist, first appeared in her Bram Stoker Award®-winning fiction collection Grotesque: Monster Stories (Things in the Well, 2020) Read more at  https://www.leemurray.info/

About the Book

This book, edited by Rayne Hall, presents twenty-seven of the finest – and creepiest – graveyard tales with stories by established writers, classic authors and fresh voices.

Here you’ll find Gothic ghost stories by Robert Ellis, Lee Murray, Greg Chapman, Morgan Pryce, Rayne Hall, Guy de Maupassant, Myk Pilgrim, Zachary Ashford, Amelia Edwards, Nina Wibowo, Krystal Garrett, Tylluan Penry, Ambrose Bierce, Cinderella Lo, Nikki Tait, Arthur Conan Doyle, Priscilla Bettis, Kyla Ward, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul D Dail, Cameron Trost, Pamela Turner, William Meikle and Lord Dunsany who thrill with their eerie, macabre and sometimes quirky visions.

You’ll visit graveyards in Britain, Indonesia, Russia, China, Italy, Bulgaria, Thailand, USA, Australia, South Africa and Japan, and you can marvel at the burial customs of other cultures.

Now let’s open the gate – can you hear it creak on its hinges? – and enter the realm of the dead. Listen to the wind rustling the yew, the grating of footsteps on gravel, the hoo-hoo-hoo of the collared dove. Run your fingers across the tombstones to feel their lichen-rough sandstone or smooth cool marble. Inhale the scents of decaying lilies and freshly dug earth.

But be careful. Someone may be watching your every movement… They may be right behind you.

Purchase Link:  mybook.to/Headstones

The ebook is available for pre-order from Amazon at the special offer price of 99 cents until 31 January 2021. (After that date, the price will go up.)  A paperback will follow.