Category Archives: grave robbing

Body snatchers

Hello all

It is Sergeant Mendick once more, with a suitably ghoulish subject for the approach of Halloween. Today I will talk about bodysnatching:
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Edinburgh was one of the leading medical centres of the world. The University medical school was famous for teaching and innovation, but human bodies were essential to teach anatomy and the legal supply had just about dried up. In an era when religion was still important, people believed that the dead should be left undefiled so when God called them on Judgement Day they were entire. That notion, however, only applied to God fearing folk, so there was some leeway for doctors of dissection. The law stated that babies who died before they were Christened and orphans who died before they signed articles for an apprenticeship could be dissected, although the parents of the former probably raised some objections. Nevertheless the most common corpses in 18th century anatomy labs had been hanged criminals.
Such a situation was fine and dandy as long as there was a healthy crop of condemned men, but the swinging old days of full gallows were past. By the 1820s there were few crimes for which hanging was prescribed, and unless Scotland was flooded with murderers and rapists, the noose would wait in vain for its victim and the anatomy table for its corpse.
To rectify this situation, medical students and strong-stomached entrepreneurs would scour the graveyards of the countryside, watching for funerals so they could unearth the grave, remove the recently interred body and carry it to an anatomist. The most unscrupulous would even murder to obtain a fresh body: Burke and Hare was not the first in this trade; that honour goes to a pair of women, Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie who murdered a young boy as early as 1751 and were duly hanged for their pains. The rewards for body snatching, with or without the accompanying murder, were good; a prime body could fetch as much as £10, which was a small fortune at a time when a working man was lucky to earn £1 a week.
There were defences against these Resurrectionists, of course. Many graveyards had a watchtower in which men stood watch over their silent charges, shivering as cold moonlight cast long shadows on the ranked memorials of the town. Others had a mort house or dead house in which the dead were securely placed until they decayed to a condition unlikely to interest even the most avid of anatomists.
There were other, more personal methods of ensuring the peace of the deceased. In July 1823 one Dundee father went further than most.
When his child’s coffin was lowered into the grave, the mourners noticed there were a number of cables visible on top, running from the corners to the interior of the wooden box. When they asked why, the father explained that the wires were connected to what he called ‘an explosive device.’ If the resurrection men should dig up the coffin and tried to prise open the lid, the whole thing would blow up. Perhaps there was a bomb in the coffin, or perhaps the bereaved father had merely tacked on cables in the hope of bluffing the body snatchers. Either way, the sexton was fearful as he looked down on the tiny coffin at the foot of the newly dug grave. Scratching nervously as the pile of earth that lay on top of the grass, he dropped the first shovelful and immediately jumped back, joined by some of the gathered mourners. It is hard to blame him; if the coffin was rigged to explode if a resurrection man grabbed it, might the same result not be expected by an assault by a spadeful of earth?
On a dark night in March 1825, two men were on watch in the Howff, Dundee’s central graveyard, guarding a recently buried woman. At that time the Howff was surrounded by a high stone wall, pierced with two tall doors. Between the night and the high walls, the interior was dark, with the serried ranks of the gravestones dimly seen in the moon-less night. With their swinging lanterns casting bouncing shadows on the ground and emphasising the darkness beyond, the watch distinctly heard the creak of the middle door. It was between eleven and twelve on a Saturday night, no time for anybody to have lawful business in the Howff. The watchmen moved forward; when they heard the muffled whisper of men through the rustling branches of the trees, one raised his lantern and shouted a challenge.
‘Who’s there?’
The whispering ended, but muted threats hissed through the dark, followed by a pregnant silence. The watchmen returned to their post at the grave, glancing into the sinister dark, wondering who was out there, how many there were, and if they had been scared away. The answer came about half an hour later, when there was a whistle from one edge of the Howff, with an instant reply from the other. Then came calls in what might have been a code but was certainly in words that the watchmen found incomprehensible. Then silence again, and the gravestones unconcerned in the stern darkness.
That night passed, slowly, but the watchmen had no more alarms. They returned to their post the next night, no doubt a little more apprehensive, but also more prepared. As well as their lanterns they carried pistols and were prepared to defend their position. Even so, the first part of the night passed peacefully, but about half an hour after midnight they saw movement among the gravestones and the yellow glow of a lantern.
‘Who’s there?’ The watchmen called again and added that they were armed and would shoot anybody that came near the grave they were guarding. There was no reply, but the scuffling continued, so the watchmen fired, one after the other, the orange muzzle flare bursting the dark and the roar of the shot tearing apart the silence of the night. The result was immediate: the hollow thump of retreating feet and the creak of a door as the body snatchers made a quick retreat. Once again the watchmen had guarded their charge well. They picked up a spade and sack the intruders left behind as sure proof of their intentions, but listened with some concern to the threats that were shouted from the other side of the boundary wall. However, the watchmen could be satisfied with their endeavours as the remainder of that night passed peacefully.
They were back the next night, but so were the Resurrectionists. It was shortly after ten o’clock, dark and crisply cold when the watchmen turned up for duty. As they stepped into the night, one gave a cry and vanished foot-first into a gaping hole where the grave should be. The body snatchers had come early and had already dug half way down to the coffin. As the watchman struggled to escape from the grave, two shadowy figures emerged from the night, but rather than threats, the men offered bribes, saying if the watchmen looked the other way they would be rewarded.
True to his salt, the watchmen refused, which was a brave thing to do when he was up to his knees in a freshly dug grave. The nearest body snatcher reacted instantly, swinging his spade at the second watchman. The blow missed; the watchmen drew his pistol, moved forward to take hasty aim but stumbled over a grave and the priming of the firing pan fell out.
He would be cursing as he reloaded, but by then the Resurrectionists were retreating through the ranked gravestones. The watchman fired anyway, the shot going nowhere as the intruders scurried over the wall and vanished. Chasing them through the dark graveyard, the watchman tripped over something, looked down and realised it was a sack containing then freshly dug-up body of an elderly lady named Jean Anderson.
Naturally, with Dundee already on edge with the threat to their deceased, the sound of gunshots and shouting brought crowds, all asking questions, all looking for scapegoats. Two visitors from Edinburgh, probably entirely innocent of any attempt to unearth a Dundonian corpse, became targets for the misdirected fear and anger of the mob. As the crowd turned angry, the visitors insisted their innocence and pleaded for police protection. After a night in the cold cells of the Town House they may have wished they had chanced the mob, but they managed to persuade the police they were not grave robbers.
Early on Tuesday morning, huge numbers of women, sprinkled with a few dozen men, squeezed into the Howff. There was no reason for being there, no resurrectionists to chase and nothing to do but ask each other what was happening, voice their anger and search for somebody, anybody, on whom to fix the blame. Around seven in the morning a gravedigger named Begg appeared, the frightened mob turned their anger on him.
Surging forward, the mob threw both Begg and his wife into an open grave and crowded around, chanting: “Bury them alive, bury them alive!” Despite the threats, both the Beggs scrambled clear of the grave and fled ducking and dodging as teh mob pelted them with stones and turf. Reaching their home, they cowered there until noon when Begg was summoned to fill up an open grave.
Strangely, the crowd were quiet while he worked, but once the coffin was covered and the turf levelled, they again began their attacks, hurling abuse and missiles at the unfortunate gravedigger. Once again Begg had to run home and the crowd remained where it was, packing the burial ground and overfilling outside the gates. It was late afternoon before the Dundee magistrates ordered the Howff cleared, but the people were reluctant to go. They protested, but eventually obeyed, amidst much grumbling and muttered threats against any resurrectionist they should happen to catch.
With many of the crowd still watching suspiciously from the walls and the slight eminence to the south, Jean Anderson was returned to her rightful place under the turf. The authorities questioned Mr Begg, the watchmen and Mrs Duncan, a nearby resident who claimed to have seen some men acting suspiciously among the graves. However, nothing was learned that helped catch the body snatchers.
Not surprisingly, feelings in Dundee were high. Immediately after the weekend skirmishes, the Town Council recruited two watchmen to mount a nightly guard over the burial ground, and ordered one of the town officers to help whenever he could, but the Howff was large, the nights were still dark and the resurrectionists were cunning and could be violent. More security was needed. There was an idea to knock down the tall surrounding walls and instead build a low parapet topped by iron railings, so passersby could look into the graveyard and grave robbers could not hide in dark shadows. However good the idea, the tall walls remained in place and people continued to fear for the peace of their departed. There was another suggestion to build a house at the entrance and install a guard with a pack of mastiffs.
As the ideas rolled in, the paranoia continued. When one of the town scavengers died in the infirmary, many of his friends and family came down from the Highlands for the funeral. When Dr Dick ordered the coffin carried to the burial ground, the Highlanders refused to move and obstructed everything and everybody, turning what should have been a dignified procession to the graveside into something of a riot. As usual in Dundee, a crowd gathered to watch the fun and soon the rumour spread: somebody had stolen the body and sold it to an anatomist. When the protests grew unbearable even Dr Dick agreed to check. The coffin was placed on the ground, the lid unscrewed and the Highlanders crowded round to see the dead body of the scavenger. Once they were satisfied, the procession continued and the coffin was decently interred. It was a minor story, but one that reveals the impact resurrectionists had on Dundee.
In February 1827 the grave robbers tried again. A party of three or four entered the Howff from the south side, where the wall was lowest and the entrance easiest. One man slipped inside and eased himself into the midst of the gravestones, but the watchmen were alert and moved toward him, with their lanterns casting yellow pools of light among the gravestones. The grave robber ran, clutched a rope his companions had thrown down the wall for him, but the watch were faster. One of the watch lunged forward and thrust his makeshift weapon, a bayonet tied to the end of a pole, hard into the intruder’s bottom. With a yell of ‘murder’ the man dropped on the far side of the wall and in spite of a hot pursuit by the watchmen, neither he nor his companions were seen again. That was the last known attempt by the resurrection men at the Burial Ground in Dundee.
The watchmen remained for a few years, but after the murders of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh the law was changed, making it easier for anatomists to legally get their hands on corpses; the need for that grisly trade had ended. All the same, there was one last flurry of excitement in early 1829 when the Captain of the Watch suspected his watchmen of being body snatchers on the side, but after that peace descended on the Howff.