Having already discussed the perils of Premature Burial and provided some hints on how not to get buried alive in an earlier post, I thought I would turn my attentions to body-snatchers and provide some hints and tips on how to stay buried when you are dead…enjoy
- Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis disposing of a body (1)
1825: the year in which porters at the Turf Hotel started to get a little nervous…..
In late Georgian Britain Newcastle was not only a burgeoning industrial and commercial centre but, before the advent of the railway, it was also one of the main staging posts for the London to Edinburgh coach.
The Turf Hotel was one of Newcastle’s most famous coaching inns. It once stood on Collingwood Street and it was one of the main drop off/pick up points for both people and goods travelling north and south. It also gained a certain infamy as the transport hub of the ghoulish trade in corpses destined for the anatomy schools in Scotland and London.
As with any busy transport hub, sometimes both people and parcels missed their connection. This was a particular problem at the weekend as coaches did not run on Sundays, so anybody missing the last coach on Saturday would have to wait until Monday to continue their journey.
On an ordinary Saturday in September 1825 a man deposited a large wooden chest at the booking office of the Turf, but for whatever reason, the chest missed the last coach and had to be stored at the booking office over the weekend. By Monday the porters were becoming anxious because of the foul smell and strange ooze emanating from the container. Police and a magistrate were called and the box opened. Inside was the body of a teenage girl, apparently dead of natural causes, and destined, it would seem, for the anatomists table in Edinburgh.
There were several other similar occurrences over the next few years, making the job of porter at the Turf Hotel one filled with unwelcome surprises. In 1828 a Mr James Aitcheson of Edinburgh was arrested for depositing a chest at the Turf that contained a body. He was later acquitted of any crime after claiming he had been an innocent dupe with no knowledge of the content of the box (this later proved to be a lie as a shop keeper recognised him as having bought wood from him to build the box in the first place!) however by that time, Mr A had absconded.
Eventually the porters became so fed up with having to investigate vile-smelling boxes containing nasty surprises that when a suspect package bound for Edinburgh arrived from York in November 1828, the porters simply refused to unpack it and sent it straight back to York. Unfortunately at York, the equally suspicious and squeamish porters also refused to unpack it and sent it trundling back up to Newcastle! The boxes peregrinations were eventually ended when, as local legend has it, the porters at the Turf solved the matter to their own satisfaction by throwing it into the River Tyne (lets hope it wasn’t just a student sending their dirty laundry home!).
Supply and Demand
So why the brisk trade in bodies? Well, in the early nineteenth century anatomy schools, which were at that time unlicensed, were springing up at an increasing rate: with famous schools in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and London. Advances in medical science required more and more subjects for the dissection tables but demand far outstripped supply.
In 1752 legislation stipulated that, as an additional ‘post mortem’ punishment, the bodies of hanged murderers could be handed over to the anatomists. By the early nineteenth century as few as 55 or so bodies per year became available to anatomy schools by this legitimate method . In addition to this, because refrigeration had yet to be invented, schools had now way of storing corpses so were in constant need of fresh ones.
Bodysnatchers, resurrectionists, Sack ’em up men or Burkers sought to fill this gap and line their pockets (the going rate appears to have been about 4 guineas for an adult, and by length for children: 6 shillings for the first foot then 9 pence for every inch thereafter ). Although medical students were not averse to occasionally sourcing their own material, more often it was the criminal class, working hand in glove with the elite medical men of the day, who supplied the corpses that would used to train up the future eminent doctors and surgeons of the nineteenth century.
Body Snatching in Theory and Practice
So how did they go about their trade? Well there were a number of methods and preparation seems to have been paramount.
Resurrectionists or their wives would attend funerals in order to scout out the position of the corpse and any potential threats. They might even take up the spade and masquerade as grave diggers themselves.
Once a likely corpse had been identified the resurrectionist would return to the cemetery at night, having suitably bribed any low paid cemetery attendants to leave the gates open. If they had horses they would be shod in leather to deaden the hoofbeats, and they opened graves using wooden shovels to minimise noise.
Methods of extracting corpses could differ. One popular way was for the grave-digger/resurrectionist whilst out of sight at the bottom of the grave, to sack up the occupant, and as the grave filled with soil the coffin would remain 6ft under, whilst the bagged up corpse slowly rose towards the surface where it could be retrieved with minimum effort later.
By far the most common method appears to have been to dig straight down to the approximate position of the head of the corpse, cover the coffin end with cloth to deaden the noise, wrench it off, and sling a rope around the cadavers head and haul it to the surface.
One commonly quoted method, devious in the extreme, was for a patch of turf to be cut many feet from the target grave, a tunnel would then be dug to the coffin and a child or small adult would then open the end of the coffin and dragg the corpse back along the shaft where the turf would be replaced. The family would be none the wiser because the grave itself would be undisturbed. Ingenious as this method appears, Wilkins in his Fireside Book of Death, doubts its practical application: it would have been hard to correctly guess the level of the coffin and shore up the tunnel to avoid collapse.
Once the corpse was extracted the next thing to do was to remove any possessions such as jewelry, shroud etc in order to avoid being charged with a felony if caught. Oddly enough, corpses were not considered property so punishment was often only a fine or prison, whereas theft could lead to the gallows or transportation.
Then it was a simple matter to dress the corpse in an old coat, and stagger off into the night pretending they were ‘dead’ drunk, or pack them up into your gig for delivery to the nearest anatomy school in the morning. In fact, the presence of strangers at funerals in rural parishes, especially if they had a gig, was enough to lead to riots on occasion as gigs were inextricable linked to resurrectionists in the public imagination .
How to stay buried when you are dead
Now you might think that the resurrectionists had it all their own way, plundering graveyards, with minimal legal consequences and making a packet into the bargain. But fear of having your loved one’s grave desecrated by sack ’em up men lead to the general public taking some serious precautions to avoid ending up on the dissecting table. And if they caught a resurrectionist they would meet out their own kind of justice on him.
The very poor might only have recourse to arranging stones or shells on a grave in order to tell if it had been disturbed, but there were other more complex methods available (for a price). These methods are very often found in graveyards that are in close proximity to anatomy schools – I wonder why? Here are some of the most notable found in England, Scotland and the USA :
1. Watch-clubs and Watchtowers
The most basic precautions were railings around cemeteries and posting a guard on graves. Often loved ones would camp out for two or three weeks to guard a fresh burial. Once putrefaction had time to set in the corpse was no longer a viable commodity.
Watch-clubs were also formed, Glasgow watching society had 2000 members. To make things more comfortable for watchers, especially in winter, watch houses or watch towers were built. Some were quite impressive like the one at Dalkeith Cemetery, dating from 1827, near Edinburgh.
2.Mortstones and Mortsafes
The next sensible thing to do was to make it as difficult as possible for resurrectionists to get to your coffin. In Scotland stones and branches were added to grave fill to make digging harder, and mortstones were used. Mortstones were huge heavy slabs of stone placed over the grave to prevent disturbance. They could be rented out and reused.
The only drawback with mortstones was that resurrectionists soon learned to simply dig at the head of the stone to find the end of the coffin and thereby extract the corpse!
Mortsafes were a more sophisticated version of mortstones, heavy stone slabs with a complex wire cage structure about them. Placed over the coffin they effectively barred the way to resurrectionists. They too, could be rented out and reused again and again (so the body-snatchers were not the only ones making a profit here).
3. Coffin Collars
In between mortstones and mortsafes come coffin collars. These simple but effective devices were a response to the fact that resurrectionists could easily pull corpses out of the end of a coffin despite the mort stone atop the grave. The metal collar was fixed around the neck of the corpse and then nailed to the bottom of the coffin.
4. Mort houses
The rich have always had the edge on avoiding body-snatchers, they can afford burial inside churches, vaults, mausolea. Not so the poor, not until mort houses were conceived. Often set up by public subscription bodies could remain in the locked and secure mort house until they decayed and then be buried in the grave yard.
Udny Green mort house in Aberdeenshire is a circular fortress of decay uniquely designed with a turntable. A body was added, the turntable moved, and another was added, by the time the original body was at the opening again it was sufficiently decayed to be taken out for burial in the graveyard. Unfortunately, Udny Green was built in 1832 the year the Anatomy Act came into force so it was almost immediately obsolete.
5. Cemetery Guns and Coffin Torpedoes
Cemetery Guns have a long history and were used in Britain until they were finally outlawed in 1827. Mr Clementshaw designed a bell mouthed flintlock complete with trip wires that could defend a cemetery at night, and be unloaded and made safe when the sexton returned in the morning. Needless to say there were accidental fatalities usually involving drunken revellers wandering through graveyards at night.
Not to be outdone, the American’s developed coffin torpedoes. After the Civil War there was a rise in the number of anatomy schools in the US and this brought with it an increase in grave robbing. In 1878 Mr P Clover of Columbus Ohio developed a shortened gun to fit under the coffin lid which would be primed to fire in the face of anyone foolish enough to desecrate the grave. Just curious, but I wonder how many of these are still lurking in US cemeteries to this day…best to tread carefully I would say!
The Anatomy Act 1832 – how the poor paid the price
Burke and Hare were by far the most notorious resurrectionists, the Edinburgh based duo decided that all that digging was far to much like hard work and instead they murdered their victims (Hare was allegedly in Newcastle in 1828 and may just have had a hand in setting up the cross-country cadaver network uncovered at the Turf Hotel). Their trial in 1828 created such outrage that a Parliamentary Select Committee was set up to look into legally increasing the supply of corpses to anatomy schools.
After a few amendments the new Anatomy Act 1832 was passed and the problem appeared to be resolved, resurrectionists were officially out of a job and anatomy schools had to be licenced. Section 7 changed the law to allow that anyone lawfully in possession of a corpse could permit it to undergo anatomical examination providing no relatives objected; while section 16 abolished the requirement for bodies of criminals to be dissected. All good and well you might think, but the Act was open to abuse.
What the changes to the law meant in practice was that unscrupulous work house owners and even hospitals could make a ‘killing’ out of their inmates (and they had ways of ensuring that circumstances did not allow for any relatives to raise objections). Some medical schools went as far as too hang around outside workhouses like vultures if they even had a whiff that an inmate was feeling a bit peaky and there were cases of hosptials burying patients then buying their bodies back for dissection. I think that Ruth Richardson neatly sums up the impact of the Act on the poor in her book ‘Death, Dissection and the Destitute’
“What had for generations been a feared and hated punishment for murder became one for poverty.” 
The Act paved the way for anatomy schools to make significant advances in medicine however it should not be forgotten that the heaviest price for these advances was ultimately paid, as always, by the poorest in society.
1. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in Burke and Hare, 2010, Dir John Landis; 2. Regina Jeffers; 3. Robert Wilkins; 4. Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legends;
5. Pamela Armstrong;6. Quoted in Robert Wilkins p83
Armstrong, Pamela, 1990, Dark Tales of Old Newcastle, Bridge Studios
Wilkins, Robert, 1990, The Fireside Book of Death, Hale
Unattributed, 1990, The Body in the Bank: Famous Northern Murders, Coquet Editions
https://archive.org/stream/monthlychronicl02unkngoog#page/n342/mode/2up/search/Turf+Hotel Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend
Udny green = Martyn Gorman [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia