The story of 19th century bodysnatchers, who stole corpses from graveyards to help surgeons further their understanding of anatomy, have been well documented in history books. Otherwise known as resurrectionists, those who chose to undertake such work were hired by surgeons, across the country, to steal bodies from graveyards. Fresh corpses and bodies of children fetched the highest prices.
Bodysnatchers in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk was a case in point. Like everywhere else, these ‘gentlemen’ would have had to work quickly to avoid being caught. Their methods would have been to hastily dig away the soil from the head of a grave, force open the coffin with a crowbar and drag out the corpse by the shoulders. The body then stripped and the clothes and shroud bundled back into the coffin before the earth was filled back in. Most of the time, the relatives would not even realise the body of their loved one had been taken.
The risks were enormous for if body snatchers were caught in the act they probably would have faced mob justice. Desecrating the dead was seen by many as a crime worse than murder and it is known that some of the unluckier bodysnatchers were beaten to death. But, for many, the risks were worth it for trade in dead bodies was brisk and many of the poorest in society were worth more dead than alive. Ironically, the industry that dealt in the dead was driven by the men most concerned with keeping people alive. The 19th century was the golden age of anatomy, where surgeons would uncover the wonders of the human body and perform operations never before considered possible.
There was, of course, one problem; there were seldom enough cadavers around as a direct result of how the law was framed. You see, it was only the bodies of hanged criminals that were allowed to be used by surgeons and anatomists for dissection and research; and it all hinged on the Judge directing such a procedure when a sentence was passed.
To be dissected in public after execution was considered a fate worse than death. Most people believed their body would be resurrected on the day of judgment; a difficult prospect if it has been cut up into little pieces, each pickled in jars and often spread around the country. As a result, even the most brutal judges were reluctant to hand all but the very worst criminals to the surgeon for, after the dissection of any body, the unwanted remains would not be permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. This meant that such sentences were relatively rare and so, there was this scarcity. As a result, desperate surgeons and ‘enterprising’ individuals inevitably came together to fill the gap.
Graveyards were raided across the country, but particularly in and around London and Edinburgh which were prominent centres of medical learning. Fresh graves were re-opened at night and the corpses stolen, with surgeons making little secret of the fact that they would pay good money for prime cadavers. The robbers were aided by the fact that to steal a corpse was not a felony – but rather a misdemeanour. Provided the robbers were careful not to also steal items of goods from the grave the worst that could happen was for them, if caught, to be given a fine or a short prison sentence.
Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841), surgeon to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, was quite open about his use of corpses obtained from body snatchers, because the practice helped him to develop the first procedure for tying of an abdominal aorta to cure aneurysm. He boasted,
“There is no person, whatever his position in life might be, whose body after death could not be obtained. The Law enhances the price and does not prevent exhumation”.
Sir Astley Cooper, born the son of the one-time Vicar of St Nicholas Minster in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, really did push the boundaries of medical science and became a household name – when he died in 1841, his funeral drew huge crowds. However, says Druin Burch, author of Cooper’s biography – ‘Digging Up The Dead’:
“Constrained by a limited number of corpses to study, surgeons had little choice but to get hold of them by other means. They paid the grave robbers to do their dirty work for them and asked few questions but some of the more adventurous students, including the young Cooper, probably did some of the body snatching themselves.”
Cooper would have found expeditions to the graveyards a mischievous thrill, for as a boy, he liked practical jokes; he once dressed himself as Satan and convinced the drunk wife of the sexton to sell her his soul. He later chose surgery as his career and, with the help of his uncle, William Cooper, secured an apprenticeship under Sir Henry Cline, a renowned surgeon at St Thomas’s hospital in London. At first, he was a lazy student but one day Cline, annoyed that Cooper was paying little attention to his work, smuggled a human arm home from the hospital and dumped it on the kitchen table in front of his apprentice, challenging him to dissect it:
“The skill and industry with which Astley dissected the arm astonished the apprentice and the teacher,” again says Burch. “Astley was transformed. For the first time in his life, he found himself taking an interest in his work.”
Cooper was also taught by John Hunter and in the winter of 1787 he visited the anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh. In 1789 he was appointed demonstrator in anatomy at St Thomas’ and in 1783 he gave lectures in anatomy for the Company of Surgeons. He didn’t look back and became obsessed with cutting up bodies, gaining a reputation as a brilliant surgeon. His teachers were some of the best in the world but they stressed the importance of hands-on experience and encouraged Cooper to investigate human anatomy first hand. It was a lesson he happily took to heart.
“Neither filth nor stench nor risk now deterred Astley,” says Burch. “He would dissect until the strain of hunching over a stinking corpse made him physically sick.”
Now it was the same Sir Astley Cooper who accepted the body snatching services of Thomas Vaughan, a former stonemason from London who was renting a house in Row Six of the town’s renowned Rows. It is not known how, when and where the two men came into contact, if indeed they ever did? Maybe, because of the delicate nature of such an arrangement, there was an ‘intermediary’ instead; and indeed, was Vaughan despatched from London to undertake Sir Astley’s request? What is known is that, in 1827, Vaughan and probably two other suspected accomplices (said to be William and Robert Baker from Beccles) stole 10 bodies from Yarmouth’s Minster churchyard. Vaughan, it was said, had planned to steal these bodies over a period of 19 days; the complete consignment included two children, one young woman and a 67-year-old man.
Each body was put in a sack, then carried to houses in Row 6 where he lived and concealed behind locked doors. Row 6 became known as ‘Snatchbody Row’; the bodysnatchers themselves nicknamed ‘sack-em-up men’. Within a short time, these bodies were then packaged into crates which, it was claimed, were labelled “Glass: Handle with Care”, then stacked on carts and transported to London, via Norwich. Their destination was reported to be a room close to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, from where surgeons would choose a corpse and pay Vaughan 10 to 12 guineas for each body. Other reports suggested that, in total, more than 20 bodies were stolen from the St Nicholas Minster in 1827, which would indicate that probably others, apart from Thomas Vaughan and his accomplices, were also operating in the area.
The Papers, then and since, made much from this ‘scoop’, relying on the details extracted from police briefings, plus interviews with those personally affected be the crimes. They reported, for instance, that the scene in St Nicholas’s churchyard after the robberies was grim, and that coffins were “splintered like kindling and rotting corpses strewn on the grass”. The Norfolk Chronicle newspaper of the time reported that the actions of the resurrectionists caused “great excitement” in the town, while the churchyard at St Nicholas was seen to resemble “a ploughed field.” Another report in the Norfolk Chronicle stated:
“……. wives were seen searching for the remains of their deceased husbands; husbands for those of their wives; and parents for their children. Bodies of the number of 20 or more were found to have been removed and the grief of those whose search was in vain can better be imagined than described.”
Later reports elaborated further on the facts – and probably speculated much! Like an more recent article that suggested that:
“George Beck was the first to realise that something was awry. He had lost his beloved wife, Elizabeth, on Halloween of 1827 and she had been laid to rest on 4th November, clothed in a shroud and a gown. Grief-stricken, George went to visit his wife’s grave a few days later, only to discover that the grave had been quite obviously disturbed. He called the police and he and local constable, Peter Coble, laboriously exhumed the coffin, only to find to their horror that it was empty – all that was left was Elizabeth’s shroud.
During the bitterly cold weeks of November and December, Constable Coble kept watch over the cemetery in the vain hope that the bodysnatchers……. would return once again with their gruesome shopping list. Townspeople became aware of the grim vigil and fear turned to fury. Enraged relatives flooded to the graveyard and the graves of the most recently deceased were disinterred – there was an outcry when more empty coffins were discovered and it became apparent that the bodysnatchers had struck again.”
Vaughan was caught quite quickly and sent for trial. He was sentenced to six months in prison for his crime, but no mention was made of his accomplices. His costs were said to have been paid by the surgeons, and his wife cared for while he was behind bars. Inevitably perhaps, Vaughan never learned his lesson for he returned to bodysnatching, was caught and eventually transported to Australia – his mistake being that on this occasion he stole the victim’s clothes as well as the corpse. As for Sir Astley Cooper well, he finally ended up having his statue erected in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
In 2011, a blue plaque was commissioned by the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society to highlight the 19th century crimes in Great Yarmouth where men were paid to steal bodies for surgeons to further their understanding of anatomy. It was unveiled on the gates of St Nicholas Church, Church Plain, Yarmouth, from where more than 20 bodies were snatched in 1827.
At the unveiling of the Blue Plaque, the St Nicolas’ church curate Reverend James Stewart, said that it was important that despite the grisly crimes that were committed, the past activities in the churchyard should be marked for their historical importance.
“Necessary evil is a very dangerous thing to be talking about, but these things providentially took place because science moved on as a result……….But we also have to think of those that were disturbed from their immortal sleep, that had not expected they would be taken at cover of night and to be experimented on.”