Vol 2 – No. 13 – March, 1888 – Body-Snatchers

Original caption: Picture shows body snatchers stealing a corpse from the grave. Undated engraving. BPA2# 1023. --- Image by © Corbis
Original caption: Picture shows body snatchers stealing a corpse from the grave. Undated engraving. BPA2# 1023. — Image by © Corbis

Half a century and more ago, people were being every now and then horrified by tales of bodies of the newly-buried dead having been stolen at night out of their graves stolen by vile miscreants whose object it was to make money by selling them to the doctors for anatomical purposes, and who were commonly known as Resurrectionists or Body-Snatchers. These fellows usually travelled about, it was said, in gigs, so that, in country places, every stranger using that mode of conveyance was looked upon with suspicion. It was not a new thing, indeed, but new to that generation. For, during the long French war, professors, schools, and students of anatomy had as plentiful a supply of subjects as they could well desire from the bloody continental battlefields. But, after the general peace, this supply was, of course, cut off, and they had to resort to body-snatching in default of legitimate purchase, the number of bodies obtainable by fair means being quite insufficient for the wants of science, and the strong prejudices of the time preventing the friends of deceased persons from even suffering post-mortem examinations to be made.

Parties of young students, therefore, were alleged to go forth to suburban graveyards on nocturnal expeditions, furnished with shovels, ropes, sacks, &c., having hired a gig, and probably preconcerted arrangements with the gravedigger. Lecturers on anatomy employed mercenary agents, who undertook to procure what they wanted at a certain price. Loose characters took up the trade on adventure, and carried such bodies as they were able to snatch to the nearest medical college, by which they often realised handsome sums. Neither, if all tales were true, did they confine their robberies to the dead, for they were sorely belied if they did not occasionally seize and carry off the living as well. Common report said they used to supply themselves with pitch plasters, which they would clap on the mouths of such unfortunate wretches as encountered them in lonely places, and either were taken unawares or could not defend themselves. There was at last scarcely a gravedigger in the kingdom who was not more or less generally suspected of being an accomplice with the violators of the tomb, if not himself an actual body-snatcher. And to the common terrors of death, which are to the majority of mankind great enough, was added the terrible dread of being dragged at midnight out of one’s coffin, thrust into a sack, thrown into the bottom of a gig, and sold to the doctors.

Never, perhaps, was the public mind more violently excited than it was from this cause. Every suspicious looking person observed near a churchyard was at once set down for a resurrectionist. In most parishes meetings were held to devise measures to stop outrages. The male parishioners, armed with guns, took watch by turns. Watch-houses were built for their accommodation. The walls of the cemeteries, like those of flower gardens and orchards, were raised to keep out robbers, and fenced at the top with broken glass, iron spikes, or sharp palisading. A heavy iron frame, box, or safe, made for the purpose, was laid on each grave, immediately after interment, so as to ensure the dead lying there undisturbed. But even this precaution was believed to be insufficient, as the rascals devised instruments wherewith they could still reach the coffin, lay hold of the corpse, and drag it out. And then, to prevent the robbery from being found out, they spread sheets on the ground, and laid the earth and sods upon them till they had effected their purpose, after which they re made the grave with more or less neatness.

A case of this kind which occurred in Sunderland made a great sensation at the time. On Monday, the 29th of December, 1823, Captain Hedley, of Burleigh Street, whose daughter, aged ten years, had been buried on Christmas Eve, wishing to remove her body to another part of the churchyard, found the coffin empty. Further examination being made, it was discovered that the body of an infant, two years old, which had been buried at the same time, near the same spot, had also been removed. Suspicion immediately attached to two strangers, whose frequent visits to the churchyard, particularly at funeral times, had been observed; and one of them was apprehended that afternoon. It was with difficulty he was got through the streets to the police court room, for the mob which gathered, eager to take the law into its own hands, would have stoned him to death; and it was not till he was threatened with being handed over to the infuriated populace for summary punishment that he would acknowledge where he lodged. On his at length doing so, the constables proceeded thither, and secured his accomplice too. Hedley’s daughter’s corpse was found in a corner of the room, covered with straw, but carefully packed up, and addressed to Mr. James Jamieson, Leith Street, Edinburgh. On another part of the package the address was Mr. Alex. Anderson, Leith Street, Edinburgh. A number of human teeth, and some memoranda of the men’s daily expenditure, were also found in the room. It appeared from these that they had been about a month in Sunderland, and had during that time paid for six boxes, several mats, and a quantity of oakum and twine; and as the body of Mrs. Corner, aged forty-two, was the only one missing from the churchyard, in addition to the two already mentioned, it was presumed that their nightly visitations had not been confined to Sunderland, but had been extended into the country round, particularly as one considerable item of their expenditure was cartage. On the Tuesday morning they were brought before the magistrates, and committed to Durham Gaol. One of them represented himself to be Thomas Thompson, of Dundee, and the other John Weatherley, of Renfrew both names, there was reason to believe, fictitious. Tried at the Durham Sessions in the ensuing week, they were sentenced to three months imprisonment, and ordered to pay a fine of sixpence each. The lenity of this punishment caused much surprise, and simply increased the popular alarm.

Sunderland Churchyard was suitable hunting ground for the body-snatchers, because it was not overlooked by any dwelling-houses, and was close to the Town Moor. Besides, it was more than whispered that one of the parish officials was an active co-agent in such affairs. Further, one of the bellringers, a pipemaker to trade, but who kept a public-house, had the reputation of being a regular body-snatcher. Under such circumstances the plan began to be generally adopted of interring the dead in coffins secured by iron bars. It was likewise very common to fill up the grave with straw, weighted down with a long heavy plank, secured by strong wooden stakes. As additional security, the friends of buried persons used to watch all night with lanterns, both in Sunderland Churchyard and the Gill Cemetery, where they might have been seen from the road making their melancholy and weary round.

One Sunderland resurrectionist was caught in his own trap. He had got a body, said to be that of a young woman, put it into a sack, fastened a rope round the middle, and carried it to the churchyard wall, in order to drop it over. The wall was only about three feet high on the inside, but fully twice as high on the Moor side. So when the man had lifted the body on to the cope-stone, and was getting over the wall himself, the rope somehow slipped over his head, and he fell and hung suspended on the side towards the Moor, while his sack, unfortunately for him, fell back towards the churchyard. He was found thus by one of the watchers going his rounds. The body-snatcher was still alive when he was cut down, but soon afterwards died. His memory still survives among old Sunderland folks as “Half-Hanged Jack.”

Mr. James Thomson has told in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle a story he heard from the son of an old sexton at the Border village of Cornhill. One morning early in December, about 1830, Jamie Marchall, the sexton in question, was roused from sleep by a loud knocking at the cottage door, and a voice that he seemed to recognise called out “Get up, Jamie! For God’s sake, be quick, man !” When the blacksmith opened the door he saw the son of a well-known farmer lately deceased. The young man was at the time studying medicine in the University of Edinburgh. Before he uttered a word, Marchall noticed that his arm was through the bridle-rein of a horse, from whose side the steam rose in clouds, whilst the young man’s face was haggard and pale. The sexton’s impression was that the young man had lost his reason; and the visitor’s first word seemed to convey this idea, for he called out, “Get your spade and mattock, and come with me to the churchyard quickly.” The blacksmith took his tools in silence, and followed, not daring to remonstrate. On the way, the young man exclaimed, “I’ll be satisfied soon whether it is him or not. Think, Jamie, of having your ain father laid out on the dissecting board for you to cut up. I had the knife in my hand when I saw it was my father. But I’ll be satisfied before I sleep. I left the hall, and have lidden here, Jamie, to satisfy myself.” When his father’s grave was reached, he took a spade, and helped the bewildered sexton to open it. The coffin having been reached, he called, “Break the lid with your mattock, and put in your hand. “Marchall did as he was ordered, and put his hand inside. “Is he there, Jamie?” was the anxious inquiry. ” Aye, aye, he’s a’ right. Naebody’s fashed him, Robert; ye ha’e been mista’en,” was the sexton’s reassuring reply.

In the month of February, 1824, two resurrection men were apprehended in Manchester, with no fewer than six bodies, recently disinterred, in their possession. The prisoners, who were men of a tolerably respectable appearance and good address, were sentenced at the ensuing Quarter Sessions to a short term of imprisonment. The packages which contained the bodies were directed to different persons in London.

Many still recollect how dreadful a sensation was caused all over the kingdom by the foul atrocities of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, and by a wretch named Bishop in London. We mention them here solely in connection with our topic. But Burke, it was said, worked some time at Sunderland as a labourer while the piers were building. Hare, it was understood, made his way to Newcastle, where his identity was lost through his changing his name. A foolish surmise at the time of the Burnopfield murder revived sundry old myths about him, which died away when their baselessness was demonstrated.

Helen Macdougal, Burke’s paramour and accomplice, had two almost equally infamous forerunners in Edinburgh. In the year 1751, Helen Torrence, residenter, and Jean Waldie, wife of a stabler’s servant, were tried at the instance of the King’s Advocate for stealing and murdering John Dallas, a boy of about eight or nine years of age, son of John Dallas, chairman. One of them decoyed Dallas’s wife into a neighbouring house to drink, while the second conspirator stole away the boy, who was ill, and murdered him by suffocation. The women received from some surgeon-apprentices two shillings and tenpence for their trouble. Found guilty and sentenced to death, they were hanged in the Grass Market of Edinburgh, on the 18th of March, 1752, “both acknowledging their sins, and mentioning uncleanness and drunkenness in particular.”

Twenty-four years after this, so necessary was the trade of body-snatching considered for the purpose of science, that it was carried out in London without the smallest attempt at concealment. The Gentleman’s Magazine in March, 1776, says: “The remains of more than twenty dead bodies were discovered in a shed in Tottenham Court Road, supposed to have been deposited there by teachers to the surgeons, of whom there is one, it is said, in the Borough, who makes an open profession of dealing in dead bodies, and is well-known by the name of “The Resurrectionist.”

Mr. John Gusthart, writing to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle in January, 1888, describes some of the means that were formerly adopted to protect the dead. We make the following extracts from his communication:  –

There are few persons living who can relate personal experience of the excitement caused by the discovery of the Burke and Hare tragedies; but many there are who can recall the fireside stories of a grandmother about living victims being seized for the dissecting room, or of churchyard burglars who pilfered the “narrow house” and dragged its tenant from the last resting-place to be sold to the faculty for gold.  Who can think of this without horror? One, indeed, may be disposed to ask, “Did such men live?” Truly, they lived and acted, and the police force of the time was unable to cope with them. The only means of defence against such deeds lay with the people themselves, who organized “Watch Clubs,” the conditions of membership being a pledge to do duty by watching in any churchyard where a member was buried, for one or more nights, as necessity required. I know that these organizations were not defunct forty-four years ago, for I was then appointed substitute for a member to watch, in Cornhill Churchyard, the bodies of two men, named Logan and Tindal, who were accidentally killed near Pallinsburn, on their return from Wooler fair.  So far as I remember, the watch-house, provided for concealment and shelter, was without comforts, except a fire-grate and coals. Two men were considered a staff, and each was provided with a blunderbuss, powder, and shot, kettle and frying-pan being common to both. My companion, Johnson by name, was much my senior, and, of course, my leader. We were instructed to visit the grave with a dark lantern at intervals during the night, and I can say we did our duty as two lovers at the trysting-place, punctual to the moment sworn. Nothing disturbed the tranquillity of the churchyard that night but the howling winds, upon which a blunderbuss has no effect; consequently our weapons were never used.  Tradition has furnished me with some strange facts in my own family history of these sad times, and on a recent visit to Lowick I had ocular demonstration of the truth of what I had been told in my childhood. My first duty on New Year’s Day, 1888, was to pay the last tribute of respect to a dear uncle, and on my way to the chamber of death I had to pass the church yard, where I felt sure the grave would be ready to receive him. Knowing that my ancestors for many generations slept there, I resolved to take notes of their respective ages and dates of death from the tombstones before the cortege arrived. I was surprised to find two men at work preparing the grave. On looking into the grave I perceived the sextons were guarding against a fall. Some soil had then fallen, and had laid bare about ten inches of an iron bar some three inches wide, which the sexton was striking with his spade, trying to disconnect it from a wooden spile which interfered with his progress. The spile was crumbling to dust, but the iron hoop on the top showed that it had been about three-and-a-half inches in diameter. Now the whole affair would have been a puzzle to me if I had never heard my grandmother’s stories about Burke and Hare. To defeat the intentions of midnight prowlers my father had laid iron bars around the top and along the sides of the coffin to prevent it being broken and the body drawn out. Besides, spiles were driven into the ground to the level of the coffin lid, and an iron bar laid over all was made fast to the spiles to prevent the coffin from being lifted entire. We must not doubt the necessity for these precautions. The sensible men of the time would certainly be the best judges, and such things go far to prove that the bonds of family affection were strong, even in death.

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