THE HISTORY OF GRAVE ROBBING
“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake, forbear
To dig the dirt enclosed here:
Alert he the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.”
-Inscription on the tomb of William Shakespeare
I personally became interested in the subject of grave robbing while I was Chairman of the Mortuary Science Department at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York. One afternoon I was strolling through the Maple Grove Cemetery in Hoosick Falls, New York (just north of Troy) and I accidentally stumbled upon this haunting epitaph:
DAUGHTER OF GIBSON AND ELIZABETH SPRAGUE
DIED JAN. 11, 1846
AGED 9 YEARS, 4 MONTHS AND 18 DAYS
SHE WAS STOLEN FROM THE GRAVE BY RODERICK R. CLOW AND DISSECTED AT DR. P.M. ARMSTRONG’S OFFICE IN HOOSICK, NEW YORK,
FROM WHICH HER MUTILATED REMAINS WERE OBTAINED AND DEPOSITED HERE.
HER BODY DISSECTED BY FIENDISH MEN,
HER BONES ANATOMIZED.
HER SOUL, WE TRUST, HAS RISEN TO GOD,
WHERE FEW PHYSICIANS RISE.
When and where the vocation of grave robbing (also known as resurrectionists) arose and the circumstances under which members of this extremely odd profession operated is not known. Throughout recorded history, however, grave robbing has occurred. Violations of mausoleums, graves, tombs, crypts and niches are not a new phenomenon. In fact when it was the custom to bury priceless gold and silver ornaments, precious gems, and even money with the dead, the practice of grave robbing was common.
It is an interesting point to note that this issue of grave robbing is still subject to perception and relativization. If a grave is pilfered shortly after death it is a state crime called grave robbing and the consequences can be a stiff jail term. It the grave is pilfered three thousand years after the death it is called archaeology and the archaeologist can win a prize from the National Geographic Society and might even end up on a program on The Learning Channel.
While pilfering graves to get supposed riches was certainly a factor in motivating grave robbing the real problem stemmed from an inconsistent societal expectation of both the medical and embalming professions. Here was the problem in a nutshell: The medical and embalming professions were expanding by leaps and bounds and hence the public expected the physicians and the embalmers to know precisely where all the anatomical structures were so surgeries would be successful and the dead beautified. However the public at the same time found dissection morally abhorrent and adding to this inconsistency of attitude was the position of the church: YOU CANNOT DISSECT A HUMAN BEING THE HUMAN BODY IS THE TEMPLE OF GOD.
Desperate for anatomical material and confronted with these contradictory conditions the medical and embalming professors turned to the ruffians and ghouls of the community who were willing to rob graves to secure the necessary anatomical research material. Thus vocation of the “resurrectionists” was born.
Make no mistake about this the subject of grave robbing was serious business. Throughout the centuries the religions of the world deplored dissection or what was known as evisceration. Oddly most Roman Catholic Pontiff’s were eviscerated at death. This was done in order to obtain saintly relics for use in religious ceremonies, and also as a primitive method of embalming. But the church as a whole was dead set against evisceration for the common ordinary person.
EVISCERATION: THE MIDDLE AGES
Decomposition creates problems as every embalmer on the face of the earth knows. Every imaginable problem and nightmare that any embalmer has is usually associated in some way with decomposition.
In the Middle Ages it was the same; however the big difference was that embalming techniques were so crude that many times a quick burial even for royalty who required homage and pageantry was necessary. For instance in July of 1189, when England’s Henry II died at Chinon, his rapidly decomposing royal corpse could be moved only ten miles before the stench forced a quick burial at the nearby Abbey of Fontevrault.
In the 13th century the process of evisceration came into vogue as a means of prolonging funeral rituals and for transporting the corpse of a war hero from a battlefield to his homeland.
Even so the Roman Catholic Church stilled vigorously opposed evisceration (except for the Popes) on the grounds that a body should be intact for its glorious resurrection. A corpse missing organs could not be brought into a house of worship. Eventually the popularity of evisceration became such a problem that in 1299 Pope Boniface VIII, who knew something about worship (he commissioned so many statues of himself that he was charged with reviving idolatry), formally prohibited evisceration with his Papal Bull DETESTANDE FERITATIS, but the Vatican’s ban proved moot after countless Papal dispensations were granted for Europe’s wealthy families to go ahead and eviscerate their dead.
INES DE CASTRO
The story gets stranger. Evisceration made possible one of the most macabre and weird funerals in history, that accorded to Ines de Castro, the mistress of Portugal’s Pedro I prior to his ascension as King. By all accounts Ines was absolutely beautiful, but was murdered in 1355 in her royal apartment. Pedro was inconsolable and had Ines magnificently entombed in the abbey church at Alcobaca. Upon his father’s death Pedro assumed the crown and wishing his deceased mistress to receive the honor of a queen he had her exhumed. She had been dead more than two years, but had been eviscerated and embalmed crudely and now Pedro had her dead body propped up on a lavish throne, securely tied, and attired in robes befitting her new station, in life? or in death? or whatever.
Portugal’s clergy, nobility, and commoners paid homage to Ines corpse. Many kissed the bones of her hands. A skeleton of her former self (pardon the pun) Ines held a scepter in one hand, and her dry, yellowed hair was draped like a shroud about her ghostly form. She sat stiffly through a dinner feast and after dark a chariot drawn by six black mules and lighted with five hundred candles as the propped up monarch led a funeral procession extending for several miles from the site of her joyous coronation back to the dreariness of her tomb. None of this would have been possible without evisceration.
Eventually eviscerations lead to independent heart/bone burial. Interestingly the relics of a knight, saint, king, queen or pope were seen as possessing miraculous qualities. Upon the death of such a person the bones were boiled and the flesh removed. This way the bones could be deposited in appropriate vaults and shrines. This practice made sense for it allowed the fragments of a saint or martyr to be preserved and saved as holy relics. The practice allowed a part of the deceased person to be buried in a church or shrine. Knights were often dismembered and pieces of the body were buried in appropriate places of significance.
The pious Canute, the Dane who ruled England in the early years of the eleventh century encouraged this type of “resurrection” on earth by purchasing in Rome the arm of St. Augustine!
Corpses were even used as objects of punishment for a crime even years after the perpetrator of the criminal deed had died. Take for instance the fate of Oliver Cromwell.
Oliver Cromwell had been an extremely powerful man during his lifetime, however less than scant courtesy was given to him after his death. One of the most disgraceful scenes in English history was staged on January 30, 1661. One observer recorded:
“This day (O the stupendous and inscrutable judgments of God!) were the carcasses of those arch-rebels, Cromwell, Bradshaw (the judge who condemned his Majesty), and Ireton (son-in-law to the usurper), dragged out of the superb tombs in Westminster among the kings, to Tyburn, and hanged on the gallows there from nine in the morning till six at night, and then buried under that fatal and ignominious monument in a deep pit.”
Poor Oliver he had only been dead a year when justice was had! His head was stuck on a spike at Westminster Hall. Some twenty-five years afterwards on a stormy night it was blown down and legend has it that it was carried home by a sentry on guard.
Reverence for the dead is indeed an ethical standard which has had a shaky history. Take for instance Louis de Buade, Count de Frontenac (1620-1698) French Governor of Canada. Pathetic indeed is the history of his heart. In his youth Frontenac married a lovely and vivacious girl; but their love soon passed into hatred. Both frequented the French Court where their unhappiness was apparent to all. In fact Frontenac’s first appointment as Governor of Canada was arranged to prevent complications by getting him out of France. The proud ruler of New France however always retained a part of his affection for his lady for when he was about to die he requested that his heart be removed from his body and be proffered to his wife as a last tribute. This was done and the heart that had throbbed with so many emotions was enclosed in a leaden box and was taken across the sea to her. She immediately spurned the gift and declared she did not want a dead heart which when beating did not belong to her! The pitiful relic was returned to Canada and was deposited in Frontenac’s coffin in the historic chapel of Recollets in Quebec.
OK enough history about opening up dead people! The object of this work is not to detail the strange fate of the remains of distinguished people; but is to record the activities of some of the oddest and weird happenings in the history of death care – the activities of the “resurrectionists” whose lives were spent in securing material for anatomical and embalming instruction.
Here is an odd fact. In the whole history of Anglo-Saxon law probably it would be impossible to find a condition more pathetic and unbelievable than that which the faculty members of the medical and embalming colleges found themselves in during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On the one hand the law demanded that the surgeon and embalmer should possess the proper skill and knowledge concerning anatomy and the law subjected these professionals to financial loss in the civil courts at the whim or complaint of a dissatisfied patient or bereaved family. On the other hand the only way of acquiring this anatomical education was by the dissection of actual dead human bodies which had to be stolen. And stealing dead bodies were punishable by fine and imprisonment. As Plato so eloquently said, “there are times when the law is an ass.”
THE RESURRECTIONISTS TO HAYWIRE IN SCOTLAND
“The Strange Case of Burke and Hare and the Eminent Dr. Robert Knox of the University of Edinburgh School of Surgery”
In the 1820’s the School of Surgery at the University of Edinburgh was in a particularly flourishing condition and was held throughout the land in very high repute.
The School was being kept abundantly supplied with dead bodies for dissection although no one asked where the cadavers were coming from. No one asked because they were probably intimidated by the famous Dr. Robert Knox, professor of anatomy and surgery. It seemed that Dr. Knox always had a cadaver. Around this time Dr. Knox was engaged in a great anatomical work, the publication of which would cause a sensation in the world of anatomy and lead to a spin off of one anatomical textbook after another such as Gray’s Anatomy.
Behind the scenes in this world of elite medical academics lurked two extremely unsavory characters that Dr. Knox was in cahoots and he depended upon almost exclusively for his constant supply of corpses – they were a boot-maker named William Burke and his confederate named William John Hare.
The contrast between the worlds of Burke and Hare and the University School of Surgery and Dr. Knox could not have been more different. Burke and Hare lived with their wives in Tanner’s Close, one of the most miserable quarters in Edinburgh which was really just a dark filthy alley. Hare’s dwelling was a single room in the basement of a wretched hovel reached only by a long dangerous passage. Burke faired no better. He lived on the sixth floor of an old house tumbling into ruins.
The morbid career of Burke and Hare, as purveyors of dead body material seems to have begun in November of 1827. An old man by the name of Donald died in Tanner’s Close and he died in debt to William Hare in the amount of four pounds. Hare decided to sell Donald’s body to Dr. Knox and he found a more than willing accomplice in William Burke. During the middle of the night Burke and Hare entered the room where Donald’s body was laid out and took the remains and replaced the body with a bag filled with rocks, and in the morning the funeral was duly held, with evidently no one being suspicious. Late in the night after Donald’s fake funeral Burke and Hare made their way to the University and engaged a student of Dr. Knox’s in the quadrangle. The student who was a loyal member of Dr. Knox’s anatomical class advised them to go to No. 10 Surgeon’s Square where Dr. Knox lived. There by darkness of night Donald’s body was sold for eight pounds. William Hare was thrilled he had not only gotten his four pounds back but had doubled his money. This was a sweet deal!
At the beginning of 1828 mysterious disappearances began to occur in Edinburgh. No one paid much attention because the vanishings were mostly confined to members of the poorer classes, especially drunkards, beggars and prostitutes.
Then something happened which raised real suspicions. A young boy and girl who were widely known on the street vanished. The girl was famous for her great beauty and the boy who was a beggar was noted for his eccentricities, bright disposition and simple goodness.
The girl vanished first, then the boy. The people who lived in these squalid conditions tried to attract the attention of the police, but nothing came of the efforts. Quickly strange rumors began to circulate about secret societies in Edinburgh who lived on human flesh and who carried people off in the dark of night to devour them
There were no secret societies save for the exclusive Burke and Hare club.
In a short time Burke and Hare invented a new method of obtaining corpses for Dr. Knox. It appears that the two scoundrels tired quickly of the hard labor of digging up graves at night. Messy, dirty business and sometimes in was raining which made the work extremely distasteful. So enter the Burke-Hare method. The method was always the same. On a suitable foggy evening Burke and Hare would roam about the low quarters of the city and for some suitable victim – hopefully the person, man or woman would be a drunkard. They would get into a friendly conversation with the hapless person and would tell the person that they had a full bottle of whiskey and some glasses on a table at home. When everybody would be settled in drinking Burke, who had a fine voice would begin to sing, and as soon as their guest was drunk enough Hare would pass behind and suffocate the person by shutting their mouth and nostrils with his hands while good ole Burke sat on the victim’s chest. Nasty business to be sure but it really worked very well!
Rifling about graves had been bad enough, but now murder! The neighborhood was in terror. It furnished food for wild exaggerations and gave to families collecting their members long before sundown. Doors were locked and barricaded with the utmost care. Even the beggars and prostitutes disappeared. People were fearful that suddenly as well as unwillingly they just might disappear.
It was only a matter of time before Burke and Hare were pinched. The last murder the team did was of a poor old lady named Docherty. She was reported missing and a search was instituted. Interestingly the first place the police looked was the dissecting room of Dr. Knox. The body of the lady Docherty was there.
Both Burke and Hare were arrested and Hare immediately turned Queen’s evidence against Burke and confessed to everything – so much for loyal friends. Here was Hare’s story. They had begun their work by selling the body of old man Donald. They had taken it to Dr. Knox who had paid them generously for the material. Hare confessed that they both had been mighty encouraged by their success and that they had perfected and simplified their system which they had practiced ever since. Instead of going to cemeteries to disinter dead bodies with so much mess and difficulty they had simply taken to “manufacturing” the corpses. “So much easier to do,” commented Hare.
In the end Burke and Hare remembered sixteen murders. They also had killed a mother and her daughter and another old woman and her grandson.
Dr. Robert Knox, the great, strong, outstanding and valiant teacher, the most eloquent, the most versatile and most respected professor of anatomy at the university had his life wrecked, ruined, and embittered by the unfortunate circumstances which caused Burke and Hare to cross his path.
In the end the legal authorities in Edinburgh could not find anything to link Dr. Knox precisely with Burke and Hare, but the public knew better and they demanded retribution which they got. The public demanded its prey and with the encouragement by some of the clergy and by a hostile press and by rivals in the medical profession itself Dr. Robert Knox’s name descended into ignominity.
THE EXECUTION OF WILLIAM BURKE
Loyal friends, HUH! William Burke would be executed and William Hare was let go for turning evidence.
On the morning of Tuesday, January 27, 1829 at four o’clock Burke was taken and removed in a coach from the jail on Calton Hill to the lock up house, a prison immediately adjacent to the place of execution. The unusual hour was chosen to avoid annoyance from any possible riotous crowd.
All day Tuesday and far into the night workers were engaged in building the scaffold. A huge storm raged but many people watched the entire construction and some even passed the night in adjacent closets or stairs so they would not miss seeing the execution. Burke had to listen to most of the construction work and when the last beam was placed in proper position the crowd expressed its abhorrence of what Burke and Hare had done by giving three tremendous cheers.
Shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, January 28, 1829 William Burke was hanged in the presence of a crowd estimated at 37,000 people. They all showed delight and glee when the hangman pulled the trap door.
When Burke arrived on the platform of the scaffold his composure left him amid and jeers, the curses, and the taunts of the assembled crowd. “Hang Hare too!” “Where is Hare?” and “Hang Knox!” were mingled with curses against Burke.
In accordance with the sentence of the Court at one o’clock on Thursday afternoon in the anatomical theatre at the University of Edinburgh the body of William Burke was publicly dissected as a continuation of his punishment. It was perhaps the most exciting, riotous and strange anatomical dissection recorded in Scotland’s history.
William Hare escaped hanging but ended up blind and a beggar on the streets on London.
Grave robbing for a time was called “Burking”.
THE RESURRECTIONISTS TOOK THE WRONG BODY!
THE HARRISON HORROR – 1878
In the United States the most famous and fascinating story of body snatching involved a certain John Scott Harrison. Who? John Scott who? John Scott Harrison is significant because he is the only man in U.S. history whose father and son both became U.S. Presidents. William Henry Harrison was his father and was the 9th President, and his son, Benjamin Harrison became the 23rd President of the United States.
John Scott Harrison died in 1878 and was buried in the Congress Green Cemetery in North Bend, Ohio, just 16 miles west of Cincinnati.
One thing marred the burial. As the funeral party walked to John Scott’s grave it was noticed that the resting place of Augustus Devin a relative of the Harrison’s who had died only the Saturday before had been disturbed. Indications were that young Devin’s grave had been robbed by body snatchers. Others thought that only hogs had been at work uprooting the earth. A close examination, however, revealed the theft of the body. This discovery made two precautions necessary:
First was to hide the fact from the widowed mother until the body could be recovered, and the other was to take additional safety measures for safeguarding John Scott Harrison’s remains. Benjamin Harrison and his younger brother John together supervised the actual lowering of their father’s casket into an eight foot long grave that was both wide and deep. At the bottom as a secure receptacle for the metallic casket was a brick vault with thick walls and a stone bottom. Three flat stones, eight or more inches think, were procured for a cover and finally with great difficulty the stones were lowered over the casket, the largest at the upper end and the two smaller slabs crosswise at the foot. All three stones were then carefully cemented together. For several hours the grave was left open so that the cement might dry. Finally a great quantity of dirt was shoveled over the stones. So great was the Harrison’s family fear that some ghoul might attempt to steal their father’s body that Benjamin Harrison paid a terribly young watchman thirty dollars in advance to guard over the grave for thirty nights.
That was all the Harrison’s knew to do. Later that day Benjamin Harrison and his wife took a train back to their home in Indianapolis. Harrison was busy finishing his address which would open up the Indiana Republican State Convention on Wednesday, June 5th. The grief stricken Harrison’s saw their Indianapolis bound relatives to the depot in Cincinnati. After the train left they all returned to North Bend except for the younger brother John. He stayed in Cincinnati in order that the next day he might start his mission of mercy in searching for Augustus Devin. John was now accompanied by his cousin George Eaton and armed with a search warrant from Squire Wright’s office and assisted by Cincinnati Constable Lacey and Detective Snelbaker, and one other police officer the search got underway. The first medical school they entered was the Ohio Medical School on Sixth Street between Vine and Race. Apart from the general fear that the resurrectionists might have been in collusion with the medical authorities their only actual clue was a terribly weak one. At three a.m. that morning, they were informed, a wagon had passed through the alley on the south side of the college building. Further, it had stopped at the door in the hall where cadavers were rumored to be dumped off. Before the wagon had rattled on something or somebody had been taken out. This was pretty flimsy information and it did not necessarily suggest that young Devin’s body was there, for both John Harrison and George Eaton, now in the new role of amateur detectives, already supposed that their young cousin’s body had been sold much earlier in the same week.
At the suggestion of the older officers of the law a close search of the college was begun. A problem arose when an obnoxious and protesting janitor, A.Q. Marshall showed them various rooms in the college while all the time maintaining that no bodies would be found. With the help of a lantern the darkness of an elevator chute was dispelled and the hole below was search without any trace of any body.
At last when the school building had been thoroughly ransacked John and George were ready to look elsewhere. This is the time when Constable Lacey noticed a taut rope attached to a windlass in another chute. Immediately he ordered Detective Snelbaker to haul whatever was attached to the rope up. It was no easy task for as the windlass was pulled it was soon evident that there was a heavy weight at the end of the rope. At last there emerged into the light a dead body. A cloth covered only the head and shoulders of what appeared to be the body of a very old man.
John Harrison said, “That’s an old man; we’re after a young man.” Constable Lacey replied, “Never mind, we’ll see what it is.” Then he ordered the extremely nervous janitor to assist them in placing the body on the floor. Lacey, with a stick, then cast aside the cloth. As he did so, Harrison caught sight of the face stepped back with a cry of horror and exclaimed, “My God, that’s my father.”
Harrison’s eyes bulged from their sockets. The awful spectacle sickened him physically and tortured him emotionally. In the spirit of charity he came looking for a widow’s son who was a relative and instead found the corpse of his own father which had been entombed less than twenty-four hours before. The scene he witnessed was almost beyond belief; John Scott Harrison’s body, caught by a rope around its neck hidden in a black hole in a chute at the Ohio Medical College.
The resurrectionists were swift and quick in robbing the Harrison grave. In fact they were actually aided although innocently by the young watchman who had been given thirty dollars to make sure the Harrison grave was not disturbed. Youth has its risk, and when the sun went down and darkness descended over the graveyard the courage of the watchman vanished and he ran home to his mother. No one was guarding the Harrison grave. In fact it is probable that the resurrectionist may well have attended the funeral because who ever robbed the Harrison grave knew precisely where it was and the lay of the cemetery grounds.
In his daze the young Harrison engaged the Estep & Meyer Undertakers in Cincinnati to care for his father’s remains until he could consult with his older brothers and other family members. John Scott Harrison’s body was privately placed in the John Strader Mausoleum at the Spring Grove Cemetery to await a second burial. Also the Harrison family wanted this entire event be kept secret.
Secrecy, though highly desirable, was fruitless. There was a fire station right next to the medical school and the boys at the firehouse told a newspaper man in Cincinnati the startling facts. The reporter tracked down all the main participants but no one would talk. Nobody talked, and the undertakers who had been sworn to silence would not even admit that they had ever heard of John Scott Harrison. Before long, however, the news broke, not from Cincinnati but from North Bend. Three Harrison relatives had visited John Scotts grave early in the morning and learned for themselves the distressing news. They found that the two smaller stones originally placed across the foot of the outer casket had been lifted on end. Then the ghouls had evidently drilled a series of holes in the outer casket in exactly the same fashion as when young Devin’s body was stolen. Finally the lid of the inner casket was pried up, the glass seal broken, and the body drawn out feet first. This was contrary to the usual practice of body snatching which was to take the body out head first giving further credence to the possibility that one of the perpetrators had been present at the burial and had noticed that the smaller stones had been placed over the foot of the vault.
One of the Harrison relatives was sent immediately to Cincinnati to apprize John and George, the searchers for Devin’s body, that they now faced a far holier task in seeking to recover the stolen body of John Scott Harrison.
It was an odd meeting when all the Harrison relatives met in Cincinnati and compared stories. Within minutes the news that John Scott Harrison’s body had been stolen and then found made for a family meeting of profound grief mingled with stern satisfaction.
Benjamin Harrison was on his way from Indianapolis and the Cincinnati Police were investigating but with little headway. The guilty men continued to elude justice and the few suspects that were taken into custody were released. Public indignation remained at a fever pitch and families throughout the area were standing guard at their own relative’s graves in order to insure that their loved ones would not be “resurrected”.
Just before Benjamin Harrison arrived from Indianapolis his older brother Carter decided to make a quick visit to the Ohio Medical College and examine the spot where his father’s body had been discovered. Here Carter encountered Dr. W. W. Seely, professor of Clinical Ophthalmology and Otology, who also served as Secretary of the College. It was an unfortunate meeting. The eminent eye doctor, deeply incensed by the newspapers criticism leveled against the college and faculty had the indelicacy of remarking to the grief-filled Carter Harrison that the entire “affair matters little, since it would all be the same on the day of resurrection.” Neither the public nor the Harrison family would forget or forgive that remark.
Unfortunately the end of the legal outcome of the Harrison Horror is lost forever for all the records concerning the case were destroyed when the Hamilton County Court House was burned during the Riot of 1886 in Cincinnati. Also Benjamin Harrison and his family never publicly spoke in the incident again. One thing was for sure; when the body snatchers took the body of a Harrison they had picked the wrong family!
From this incident action was demanded and four significant things happened which changed the world of funeral service very much.
First the State of Ohio soon passed legislation which made grave robbing a serious crime with both fines and imprisonment as a consequent. Second Andrew Van Bibber invented what he called the “mort-safe” which was a steel cage which the casket was placed in and pad locked. It was patented in 1878. In 1879, George W. Boyd of Springfield, Ohio patented the first metal grave vault to use the air bell principle of sealing and which locked from within. The purpose of both these vaults was not to preserve the corpse but was instead to retard and eliminate the incidences of grave robbing and over time these devices all but eliminated grave robbing. Finally the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act was enacted which totally eliminated the services of the “resurrectionists” forever.
It is a fact that the embalming professors of old were compelled to deal with grave robbers for a time, as were the medical professors. Unfortunately for everyone it was the only way to get the required practice on a real cadaver. It was a curious relationship, the union of two respected profession – medicine and embalming – with that of probably the lowest form of human vocation imaginable – the body snatchers!
The famous cynic and pessimist Ambrose Bierce in his “Devil’s Dictionary” gives a wonderful, although somewhat jaded, definition of the body snatcher:
BODY SNATCHER, N.; A robber of graves. One who supplies the young physician with that which the old physician has supplied the old undertaker.
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