In 1904, the municipal council of Reykjavík agreed that the local medical school should be allowed to use the corpses of the poor for dissection and anatomy lectures. This was not an uncontroversial move, with many detractors remarking that benefitting in this way from the poor and helpless was, at best, immoral. Wrote one critic: “Don’t the poor suffer enough when they die? Should they also feel horrified at the idea of being all torn apart when they are dead?” Moreover, why should only the skinny and hungry be the subject of an autopsy? “The fat and rich should also be investigated to study the impact of excessive eating,” our critic added, somewhat ironically.
A century ago, medical schools around the world were in constant need of human bodies. And indeed, few were really interested in being “torn apart” after their death. This lead to a rise in the very illegal act of “body snatching,” the secret disinterment of corpses that were sold on the black market to medical schools, doctors and students.
Around the turn of the 20th century, there was, not surprisingly, a constant cadaver drought in Reykjavík’s medical school. Iceland’s population was, of course, very small, and autopsies were publicly stigmatised. This situation led to many rather strange events. One year, this shortage meant that the fledgling nation’s medical students were unable to complete their surgery class. Therefore, those medical students would walk around Reykjavík, gawking at passersby like a group of hungry vultures circling above, waiting for someone to die, already. Finally, news got out that a lady had passed away in the neighbouring town of Hafnarfjörður. The students rushed over to her house and bought the “fresh” corpse from the grieving widower, paying a high price for the lady, despite their assessment that she was a bit “flawed.”
The most notorious of the many corpse shortage-related stories on record occurred in the 1890s. Old Þórður Árnason was a well-known drunk in Reykjavík, as most drunks usually were (to this day, local hobos tend to attain a minor celebrity status in Iceland). Þórður was described thusly by his contemporaries: The arms were thick and his hands big. The appearance was generally strong and wholesome. The face was pale and smooth, with few wrinkles, but quite swollen because of excessive drinking. His hair was gray and thin, with extremely untidy and messy curls hanging below the cheeks. Þórður would drink in a bar on the corner of Austurstræti and Aðalstræti, at the heart of what’s now the centre of Reykjavík. This bar was very filthy, attracting the least elegant of Reykjavík’s denizens. It was known as “Svínastían” (“The Pig Sty”).
One time when Þórður was completely broke and fixin’ for a drink, he recalled the town’s desperate medical students and their constant quest for fresh corpses. A glowing lightbulb fixed over his head, Þórður strode down to the medical school and offered to sell them his own corpse, to be collected once he no longer needed it. In turn, he asked for a rather meagre fee that the school was to pay in advance, but of course. The medical school’s management accepted the old lush’s offer and remunerated him as per his requests. Þórður of course took the money directly to The Pig Sty, where he managed to spend it all that same day.
From that moment on, Reykjavík’s medical students went around literally wishing Þórður dead. They really wanted to go ahead and study his anatomy already, and thus fostered sincere hopes that he would drink himself to death, sooner than later. After a couple of years of frantic waiting, news finally spread all over town that old Þórður had finally kicked the bucket.
A teacher from the medical school went to a small shop that allowed unemployed workers and drifters to sit and pass the time, to ask whether anyone would assist in moving Þórður’s body to the school’s operating room. The doctor approached a man who was sleeping on a table and tapped him on the shoulder. Would he take this job? The man turned around. Disappointingly, it turned out to be Þórður himself, alive and kicking. There would be no anatomy studies that day.
Another time, Þórður was found lying on the floor of The Pig Sty. The medical school was once again alerted, but the old man turned out to be no more dead than the first time, merely passed out after a bout of heaving drinking.
In 1897, Þórður finally died for real. The medical students scooped up his corpse almost immediately and commenced to tear him up. They were surprised to find all his organs nearly intact, despite all the years of heavy drinking—learning that his body had been in a very healthy state right up until his death.
Huge crowds showed up at Þórður’s funeral, where the priest gave an emotional speech over an almost empty coffin, holding what remained of the old man after the medical students had undertaken their anatomy lessons.
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