The Body Snatcher

Stevenson, Robert Louis

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Moore, Pamela
  • Date of entry: Dec-19-1996


Four men sit drinking in a British tavern. There is a sick man in the house and a famous London doctor has been summoned to treat him. When one of the men, Fettes, hears the doctor’s name, Wolfe Macfarlane, he wakes suddenly from his drunken stupor and rushes to see the doctor’s face. He recognizes and threatens the doctor, who flees. Doctor Macfarlane and his accoster, Fettes, had studied medicine together under a famous--but unorthodox--anatomist.

They were in charge of obtaining bodies for dissection. Fettes regularly received and paid for corpses late at night from the men who robbed graves for them. One night, the body of a woman he knew was brought to his door; he was certain that she had been murdered but he said nothing. One day he met Macfarlane at a tavern. He was being strangely heckled by a man named Gray. The next night, Macfarlane showed up with Gray’s body and demanded payment for it. He had evidently murdered the man. Fettes was shaken but acquiesced. Soon the body was dissected, so the evidence of murder was gone.

Later, Fettes and Macfarlane were sent to a country church yard to exhume a recently buried woman. They sat their package between them as they traveled back. Suddenly, they perceived a change in the body. Unnerved, they got out a light and uncovered the face of the corpse. It was Gray.


This gothic story appeared, oddly enough, in the Christmas edition of the Pall Mall Gazette. It was inspired by the confession of William Burke, a murderer and procurer of corpses. Stevenson shows the suspicious, immoral background of the highly esteemed Dr. Macfarlane. His adventure did not deter him, as it did Fettes, from his career. He is both a murderer and a doctor. Death and violence are imagined as the twin of medicine.


First published: 1881

Primary Source

The Complete Short Stories, Vol. 1



Place Published





Ian Bell