I. Under Cover of Darkness: Body snatchers, the Newspapers and the Cadaver trade in 19th Century Belfast.

Part 1: Belfast’s Grisliest Export.

In this three part extended series where we tell the story of one of Britain’s most macabre illicit practices: Bodysnatching. Individuals would creep in to graveyards and cemeteries at night and dig up the recently deceased and sell them to medical professionals. This was due to a high demand for human cadavers to dissect, as anatomical dissection was necessary to train future medical professionals. The practice of body snatching was widespread in Britain and Ireland, and as such, it is a topic that can be applied with broad brush-strokes across most of the area’s burial grounds. However, due to the clandestine nature of bodysnatching, it is sometimes difficult to find specifics that relate to a certain graveyard. Throughout this series we will highlight why bodysnatching was such a problem, the methods that were employed to counteract the body snatchers and the impact of the media firestorm that surrounded their activities. We will also look in depth at how Clifton Street Cemetery, otherwise known as the New Burying Ground as a case study.

The 1800’s saw the growth of one of the most macabre trades in British and Irish history. The Georgian era (1714-1830) represented a period of great enlightenment, with significant advancements being made in many academic and social fields. An area that saw significant development was the understanding of human anatomy and medicine. An unforeseen consequence of this medical advancement was the rise in the practice of bodysnatching. Described by Evans as “The Execrable Trade”, bodysnatching involved the exhumation and sale of recently buried corpses, often to individuals in the medical field, for profit. Whilst more prevalent in Georgian Scotland and England, bodysnatching was a concern across Britain, and numerous methods were developed to deter these “resurrectionists” from desecrating the graves of the deceased. Belfast was not immune to the bodysnatching trade, with documented cases of bodies being removed from cemeteries across the city, and a number of preventative measures still survive in some of the city’s oldest graveyards.

Edinburgh, Glasgow and London saw widespread instances of bodysnatching, with groups gaining notoriety and enduring infamy in the macabre history of the British Isles for their work, (Burke and Hare may be familiar to many), yet Belfast did not see bodysnatching on that scale. Compared to other cities, Belfast was still relatively small, with a population of roughly 20,000 in 1800. This was just over ¼ of the population of Glasgow (77,000) and 1/5 that of Edinburgh (100,000). As a result of its smaller population size, the same services were not available in Belfast at the time: of particular relevance to this study is the absence of established medical schools in the city. This is important to note as there is a direct correlation between the number of medical schools, and the number of bodysnatching cases that occurred in the surrounding area. This was driven by the need for human bodies for medical students to dissect, coupled with a widespread shortage of bodies that had been made available for dissection. Belfast had only one medical school, the Collegiate Medical Department located on the grounds of Belfast Academical Institution (now RBAI) which opened in the 1830s. Before 1830, bodies were taken from cemeteries in Belfast and then shipped to places such as Glasgow or Liverpool, where they could be used for dissection, however, this took substantial time and effort compared to exhuming the bodies close to where demand was the highest.

There is evidence that cemeteries such as the New Burying Ground on Clifton Street, were prime targets for bodysnatchers and implemented many different ways of protecting the bodies of the recently deceased, all the while newspapers of the time fuelled public fear, with tales of body snatchers stalking the streets. Over the coming weeks, we will seek to separate fact from fiction, and show you how bodysnatching manifested in Belfast, along with what measures were implemented to protect the freshly interred, and ultimately how a fascination with the macabre led concern to reach its peak in the 19th century, and how it continues to be a topic of interest in the 21st century.

In the 21st century, we perhaps take for granted our understanding of the human body and its various processes. After all, it is now taught at its most basic level for GCSE and A-Level Biology; some of which I still remember from my school days revising for my exams. In the 19th century, this understanding was very limited, and medical treatments where rudimentary at best, with practices such as bloodletting still in use. The only way to gain further knowledge into human anatomy during this time was through dissection. During this period there was also a surge in demand for qualified surgeons. The Napoleonic War raging in Europe at the start of the 19th century had put significant demand on the medical profession, with the United Kingdom suffering around 300,000 casualties throughout the conflict. This increase in demand for surgeons on foreign soil led to a deficit in British cities, which were undergoing rapid expansion during the period. This demand resulted in an increasing number of prospective doctors and anatomists enrolling in medical schools, with a number of new medical schools being founded across the country to try and facilitate the rising number of students. This sharp increase in trainee medical students increased the demand for cadavers to dissect as dissection was seen as a rite of passage for them .  

A major problem facing medical schools during this time was the ‘type’ of bodies available. To this point in time, the only bodies available for dissection at this time were those of convicted murderers. This was as a result of an early act (Murder Act 1752). This proved problematic for a number of reasons. Those convicted of murder were often healthy and young or middle aged. Consequently, there was little variation and little insight offered on how disease or old age impacted the body. Another issue was that the demand for cadavers far outstripped the numbers required, as only the bodies of the convicted criminals could be dissected. As the number of medical schools grew, and the number of students surged, this became an increasing problem that was prohibiting the progression of new surgeons. More bodies were needed. In response, attention turned to the bodies of the recently deceased and freshly buried, as people retrieved them before selling them for profit to the infirmaries and medical schools. In the expanding cities of 19th century Britain, the recently deceased were plentiful, and with money to be made, some sought to make their living dealing in the dead.

At this point it is important to define the differences between ‘body snatchers’ and other acts which resulted in the desecration of the recently deceased, such as ‘graverobbing’. Whilst both involved exhuming of the recently buried coffin (and the body within), there is a key difference between the two. Grave robbers sought to steal the effects, possession and other things of value from the deceased, whereas the body snatchers were interested in the retrieval of the body itself.  In 1800, only one of these actions was illegal. According to British Law during this period, the human body held no monetary value after death and therefore was not protected under law, whereas it was illegal to remove anything of value from the grave as this was an act of theft. To remove so much as the funeral shroud from the coffin was considered a crime against the dead’s heirs and was subject to punishment, as they were taking something that was deemed to have monetary worth. This resulted in some individuals caught stalking the cemeteries to state that they were body snatchers in order to escape more serious charges that would have been levied against graverobbers.

Whilst such actions were not illegal in the eyes of the law, they were still deemed reprehensible and were at odds with prevailing sensitivities at the time, with some concern that it was ‘blasphemous.’ It therefore fell to the relatives of the recently deceased to protect the bodies of their loved ones and guard the graves of their friends and family, armed with watchdogs, weapons and often, whiskey. The long nights, in conjunction with the emotional toll of watching over the grave of a loved one often proved too much for impromptu watchmen:

“…watchers in ‘the amphibious village of Irishtown’ who fortified themselves with whiskey often woke up in the morning to find the body of their friend and loved one, and the whiskey, gone.”

(Referenced in Evans, 2010. Cited: Fingal 1882 ‘A curious episode of fifty-four years ago: a truthful Dublin reminiscence’.

With the effectiveness of amateur watchmen proving unreliable at deterring the ‘sack-em-up men’, (another term used for bodysnatchers), relatives turned to different deterrent methods, which put less of a physical and emotional toll on the relatives. Such methods came in different forms. Some of the more permanent measures resulted in structures called a ‘corpse house’ or ‘Mort House’ being erected. These structures could be described as communal mausoleums. The coffin was locked inside this structure for a period of weeks, until the decay of the body had set in, thus rendering it unsuitable for dissection, and therefore worthless to prospective body snatchers. Once this period had passed, the body would then be buried, and the corpse house would become available for the next person. Another tool to deter body snatchers was the construction of watchtowers and gatehouses. Such structures still required a human presence; however, it ensured the cemeteries could be monitored regularly, whilst keeping the watchmen out of the elements. The ruins of many of these structures can still be seen in graveyards, such as in Shankhill cemetery, (where the ruins of the watchtower can still be seen), and Clifton Street Cemetery, which at one time included a gatehouse in place of the south gate. Other measures involved altering the coffin itself. Some family members resorted to booby-trapping the coffin with a tripwire and a spring gun, whilst others installed more conventional methods, such as a ‘mort collar’. The mort collar was an iron loop that was placed around the neck of the deceased and bolted to the underside of the coffin. This made it much more difficult to remove the body. Another option was to place a metal guard around the outside of the coffin or grave itself. This ‘Coffin Guard’ was comprised of an iron frame which encompassed the coffin and was then buried. This added a significant amount of weight to the coffin, making it much more difficult to remove from the grave, and also held the lid of coffin shut ensuring that the body could not be removed. This would have been a major deterrent, however, it was a costly piece of equipment that many could not afford. One such coffin guard was recovered from Clifton Cemetery and is now held by the National Museum of Northern Ireland, whilst others are still displayed in graveyards across Scotland, such as those pictured from Logierait, Perthshire.

Coffin Guard found in Clifton Street Cemetery
Examples from Logierait, Scotland

Once the bodies had been removed from the grave they were then transported to medical schools for dissection, with a good body fetching between £16-£22 in 1820, or £2000-£2500 today. These medical schools were the driving force behind bodysnatching. It is one of the reasons why the practice is synonymous with places like Edinburgh and London; cities which had numerous medical schools. These cities were ideal for any prospective resurrectionists as it meant the demand for a corpse was high and the body could be sold quickly. In the early 1800’s, Belfast was in a different position. The graveyards of the city were targeted by body snatchers, as was recorded at Clifton Cemetery and Friars Bush on the Stranmillis Road, however, there was not the same need for cadavers due to the limited number of medical schools, with the aforementioned Collegiate Department at Inst being the first. Instead, bodies from Belfast were exhumed and exported to Scotland or London before the week was out, with some allegedly shipped in barrels labelled as food products, such as ‘Bacon’.

This is part 1 of a 3 part special research project that is looking at bodysnatching in Belfast. Part 2 is a Case Study on Clifton Street Cemetery, while part 3 concludes with an examination of the impact of Media and the Newspapers.

About the archivist:

James Cromey is the Archive Coordinator for the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. He has a background in Victorian, Industrial and Medical History and has received degrees from the University of Glasgow and Queens University Belfast. All research has been conducted to a high academic standard and has been fully referenced. If you would like to know more about a story or piece of research, or if you wish to tell us about your own story, email us at: archiveproject@nbheritagecluster.org

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