Burial societies existed in United Kingdom in the 1800s. Unfortunately, sometimes burial fraud was committed in relation to these societies, which operated by voluntary subscriptions. They were established to pay for burial expenses or to give money to a member when the member’s spouse or child died.
One case of burial fraud happened in Dublin, Ireland, a city where American police inspector Thomas Byrnes was born and a city where Madame Tussaud‘s traveling wax museum exhibition could be seen by Irish visitors. The burial fraud case began in 1858 and involved Charles Higgins, a respectable man, and Henry William Devereux, a clerk to an attorney, conspired together to obtain money under false pretenses. It all began because Higgins had been “in possession of considerable property, which had slipped through his hands by improvidence.” This is likely what led him to join with Devereux to commit fraud against a burial society.
Higgins and Devereux’s burial fraud involved Higgins’ wife, Maria. That case was known as Foot v. Mc’Gregor and involved £500 being lodged in the Court of Chancery in favor of Maria. However, it was difficult to get the money and Higgins realized that it could only be obtained by someone who “had the power to dispose of it by will, provided she died without issue.” Therefore, Higgins and Devereux pretended that Maria, was dead.
Devereux then created a will and, eventually, through various unethical manipulations Higgins’s brother, John, became administrator of the £500. To ensure that they could obtain the money, they also had to have Higgins’ wife declared dead, which also meant purchasing a coffin, holding a wake, and having a funeral. The coffin was purchased from a Mr. Sweeney on Camden Street with a plate affixed to it describing all the particulars — name, age, and date of Maria’s demise. A wake was held on Bishop Street and the funeral included a hearse, mourning coaches, and other befitting accessories. Moreover, Higgins also played his part to the hilt. He wore “crape on his hat, and otherwise mourned in an exemplary manner.” The hearse also carried Maria Higgins’ mortal remains to her resting place at the Roman Catholic Cemetery Glasnevin, where they were interred.
Word of Higgins and Devereux’s deceit soon got out, and Maria’s death was said to be a hoax. On 7 May 1861 after rumors had circulated for some time that Maria was not dead, the grave was ordered to be opened and the coffin exhumed. What was discovered in the coffin was that “instead of the mouldering remnants [of Maria Higgins, there was] … simply a couple of bags filled with sand.”
A search was undertaken to find Maria. She was soon found to be alive well residing at Haddington Road Terrace in Dublin. Higgins and Devereux were then charged with burial fraud.
In court, Higgins claimed that he and his wife were so poor they were about to starve to death. Devereux also had an excuse. He maintained that although he wrote the will, he was not involved in any type of burial fraud. Devereux’s attorney also maintained that there was no evidence that he knew anything about whether Maria was alive or dead and no evidence to show he was aware Maria was alive. Devereux’s attorneys also said that it was solely Higgins who perpetrated the fraud. Moreover, they claimed that after having committed the burial fraud, Higgins drew Devereux into the crime and that ultimately Devereux received only a meager £14.
The judge did not care what Higgins’ or Devereux’s attorneys had to say. He also did not care why the fraud was committed, who was involved, or how the money was distributed. The jury didn’t care either because within a half hour after the case was presented to them, they found both Higgins and Devereux guilty. Moreover, the judge then had some harsh words for both men before he sentenced them:
“You, Charles Higgins are a person of rank … higher than that of the persons whom we are accustomed to find at the bar, and you, Henry Devereux, are a person of equal position in life…there can be no doubt whatever that both of … you were engaged in the perpetration of a wicked, outrageous, and unlawful conspiracy to defraud … it is not my intention to let you escape unpunished … the sentence of the court is that … each of you be imprisoned for the space of two years.”
The prisoners were then ordered removed. Maria Higgins, who some people claimed was also involved, attended the whole trial. She was also present on the day the judge sentenced her husband. When she heard his ruling, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported she burst “into tears, and was taken out in a fainting state.”
-  “The Mock Burial Case,” in Belfast Morning News, 20 June 1861, p. 3.
-  “Ireland,” in Kendal Mercury, 29 June 1861, p. 6.
-  “Ireland,” in Southern Reporter, 27 June 1861, p. 4.
-  “Ireland,” in Kendal Mercury, p. 6.
-  “The Fraudulent Burial Case,” in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 23 June 1861, p. 4.
-  Ibid.