Body Snatching Tales of the Early 1800s

Body snatchers were larger than life and body snatching tales were taller than the tallest tales and likely more scary than a visit to Madame Tussaud‘s “Chamber of Horrors.” Writers of the 1800s found body snatching an irresistible element of fictional intrigue and ghoulish interest and included such tale in many of their stories. Part of the reason for the interest in body snatchers and body snataching was that in real life body snatchers were willing to go to great lengths to obtain corpses. They scaled high walls, descended into the deepest vaults, and even searched among the living as “one of the besetting terrors of the black night was the silent and remorseless mercenary whose object was robbery, not from the person but of the person itself.”[1]

Body Snatchers

Body snatchers being overtaken by the Watch. Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Although most body snatchers did not seek out the living, they did frequently conduct macabre nighttime raids. These raids were often aided by the very people hired to protect the graves. Watchmen were positioned in watch-houses and expected to guard the grounds, but the watchmen, along with gravediggers and churchyard sextons, frequently participated in the removal of corpses so that they could share in the body snatcher’s ghoulish profits. At one point, body snatching was so prevalent an extraordinary proposition was suggested by a Mr. Sadler in the House of Commons when he suggested how to put an end to body snatching by England exchanging “manufactured good for dead bodies in France.”[2]

Body snatching - Watchman

“A Watchman in a Square” by John Augustus Atkinson, late 18th century. Courtesy of the British Museum.

One body snatching case that initially was thought to be a case of murder involved the discovery of seven bodies. They were found in a crate on a Welsh dock that was set to be shipped to Glasgow. Despite an investigation, police were unable to ascertain “the miscreants who had left it.”[3] However, the discovery put police on alert, and a few days later authorities discovered the person they thought might be engaged in the infamous trade:

“A man applied at one of the Scotch sailing vessels, opposite the North Wall, and offered a large parcel directed for Greeneck. He stated that the parcel was a set of books; but the foul smell proceeding from it excited suspicion, and it was opened by the mate of the vessel, who found that it contained a dead body rapped in oil-cloth, and … in a bag.”[4]

The body was that of a boy, apparently about thirteen years of age, very tightly corded and doubled up — the bones of the legs and arms were broken, and blood was flowing from his mouth and nose. The condition of the body gave “rise to a suspicion amongst a large crowd assembled, that the boy had met a violent death.”[5] The villain, who was named M’Dowell, was seized and taken into custody and the boy’s body sent to the coroner for an inquest.

The next body snatching story doesn’t involve the coroner but does involve the parcel post. In fact, there were several stories about body snatchers attempting to send corpses by mail. One of the more interesting stories occurred in 1829 when a husband and wife team were arrested for body stealing in Barnsley, England. Apparently, for several weeks an unknown man had been noticed by the Barnsley locals wandering around without any visible means of support. One day he took a box to the coach office, “addressed to Mary Jones, No. 1, Princes’s Street, Edinbro.”[6] This aroused suspicions, and the constable demanded the man open the box, but he refused. The constable then took the man and his wife into custody. When the box was opened, it appeared to be filled with hay but further investigation revealed the body of a flaxen-haired boy about 2 years old. The boy had died of natural causes and was “without a particle of linen [on].” [7] Moreover, it was reported:

“Its little legs had been contracted so as to prevent the body from moving about in the box …  but nothing transpired to shew the manner in which the body had been obtained. … [In addition,] a regular set of implements were found at the prisoner’s lodgings for opening graves and wrenching coffins.”[8]

According to The Scotsman, a poor man who lived alone in a garret in the Cowgate died one day. His neighbors laid and dressed his corpse that same day and that night they locked the door as usual. Unfortunately, that evening attempts were made to steal the body:

“One of the jackals of the dissecting rooms heard of the circumstance, came shortly after midnight, burst the door, put the body into a sack an carried it off.”[9]

Fortunately, as the body snatcher was hurrying through Cowgate, a watchman recognized him and stopped him. After making up some lie about what he was carrying in the sack the body snatcher suddenly threw the bag down and ran off. He was not caught.

body snatching

Image of body snatchers in the 1840s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another interesting body snatching tale happened in 1830 and involved an “ill-looking fellow” named John Booth who was charged with “exhuming and stealing” a body belonging to a middle-aged man. The story became known when Samuel Getteride, a Bow Street patrolman, was on duty at an early hour. He observed Booth driving a horse and cart and observed that the “horse was nearly knocked up from the distance and speed with which he was made to travel.”[10] Realizing that all was not right, Getteride stopped Booth and observed he was carrying a hamper in the cart. When he asked Booth about it, he claimed it contained wine, but Getteride was suspicious and upon closer examination found a dead body inside.

“In consequence of this discovery he took the prisoner into custody, and removed the body to the Red Lion public-house. – Mr. Samuel Richardson, the acting overseer of the parish, said, that on being informed of the discovery, he procured the attendance of a surgeon, who, after examining the body, stated it to be his opinion that the man had died a natural death about a month since, and that his corpse was exhumed for anatomical purposes.”[11]

Booth, however, told a “most incredible tale.” According to him, he had been working for two men at the Mile End Turnpike. They brought out the hamper, told him it was wine, and put it in his cart. They also told him they would meet him at the new Post Office in London. To check out his story, the Essex Herald reported, “The prisoner was remanded, in order to give the officers time to look after his companions.”[12]

Another story of body snatching involves three dissection students, along with a “tatterdemalion” named Kearney who decided to wrench open a coffin to obtain the body of a large, heavy coalheaver. The coalheaver had died suddenly from what the coroner termed a “visitation of God.” After the body was bagged the body snatchers learned their exit was blocked by three men standing a gate. They also soon discovered they only other way out was through a a manure yard. As that seemed unpleasant, one body snatcher went to determine the intentions of three men waiting at the gate. In the meantime, the body snatchers decided to see if they could leave through the manure yard and instead found themselves and their corpse chest deep in manure. As that didn’t work, they decided they would have to pass the three men at the gate. The body snatchers devised a plan to strike the men as they passed by, which is exactly what happened. But the three men recovered quicker than expected and raised the alarm. Pandemonium ensued as “dogs, men, women, pigs, ducks, and children in primitive nudity … commenced in … hot pursuit.”[13] Fortunately, the night was dark and the body snatchers escaped and safely deposited their stolen corpse in the dissecting room.

body snatchers - Image of two body snatchers, Messrs Cruncher and son, from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities."

Image of two body snatchers, Messrs Cruncher and son, from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Not all body snatchers were as lucky. For instance, in Lambeth, a district in central London, the depositories of the dead had been so frequently invaded, the sexton, a Mr. John Seager, hired two men to guard the graveyard. But despite the guards, the robberies continued, and, so, one night, Seager decided to watch with his son and another boy named John Sharp. They three concealed themselves and soon discovered the two men who had been hired to protect the graves, were the body snatchers. Seager wounded one body snatcher and Sharp drew his sabre and wounded the other. But these body snatchers were lucky because although they were wounded, they lived.

Sometimes body snatchers were killed. One tactic frequently reported on related to body snatching tales involved safeguarding graves with spring guns. These were set in various configurations around churchyards ready to explode at the slightest movement. In one graveyard a spring gun had been set on a grave. Unfortunately, for the body snatcher that was the grave he picked and that was where he met his end, as he was shot dead, in the act of raising the body. But another incident proved more ghastly. In a northern England town, one body snatcher obtained a female corpse and put it in a sack. He then attempted to hoist it over the graveyard wall. Somehow his foot slipped:

“He fell with the end of the rope, noose-like, round his neck, and hung counterpoised by his ghastly quarry. The wretched creature, when found by a watcher going his rounds, was still alive, but died on being released.”[14]

References:

  • [1] Haswell, G.H., The Maister, 1895, p. 11.
  • [2] Burking, in Chester Courant, 20 December 1881, p. 3.
  • [3] “Exportation of Dead Bodies,” in Morning Chronicle, 19 February 1829, p. 3.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] “Body Stealing at Barnsley,” in Sheffield Independent, 7 Feb 1829, p. 3.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] “Body Stealing,” in The Scotsman, 21 January 1829, p. 5.
  • [10] “Body Stealing,” in Essex Herald, 7 December 1830, p. 3.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] “Scene in the Life of a Resurrectionist,” in The Odd Fellow, 4 May 1839, p. 3.
  • [14] Haswell, G.H., p. 10.

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