III. Under Cover of Darkness: Bodysnatchers, the Newspapers and the Cadaver trade in 19th Century Belfast.

Part 3: Murders, Media and Medicine

This is the third and final piece of research looking at bodysnatching in the 19th century. So far we have examined why bodysnatching occurred and ways people tried to prevent it, and used Clifton Street Cemetery as a Case Study. In this final piece, we will look at the impact of the newspapers on bodysnatching and the impact stories of bodysnatching had on the people in the surrounding areas, such as those in Belfast.

The catalyst for this research into bodysnatching in Belfast was an anecdotal tale retold on a tour of Clifton Street Cemetery as part of my introduction to my role, about one such body being stolen and shipped to England: the body of a John Fairclough who had died in 1828. The story goes that Fairclough had allegedly been buried at Clifton Cemetery on the Friday and had been discovered in Warrington on Sunday in barrels marked as “Salted Pork”. This story has been linked with the cemetery for decades,  however, it likely originates from the Northern Whig Newspaper, which printed a number of accounts of bodysnatching during the 1820’s and 30’s. This story contained important details: we are provided a year of death as well as a name and a place of burial, however, any attempts to corroborate these details came up empty. This is not unsurprising as often, such details are lost over time. What is conspicuous in this instance is the total absence of any information relating to a John Fairclough from this period of Belfast. After consultation with the burial registries housed in the Clifton House archives, no such individual was buried at the New Burying Ground, or attributed to any of the plots that had been purchased in the early 19th century. Perhaps more importantly, there is no death certificate existing for a John Fairclough in Belfast in 1828, and there is no mention of any bodysnatching case in the Belfast Charitable Society minute books for 1828. There is also no acknowledgment of the newspaper coverage or a prepared statement from the Society in reference to a publicised act of Bodysnatching. Given that a reward was offered in 1824 for information after someone broke into the graveyard and dug up a child’s coffin, such a detailed case which was raised in the newspapers would likely have been recorded as an action or detail that required the Society’s attention, or, necessitated some form of response from the Charitable Society prior to the hiring of watchmen 4 years later in 1832.

Whilst the lack of evidence casts a degree of doubt over the existence of a John Fairclough, the body of a Jane Fairclough was making newspaper headlines in 1828. The body had been found in a hamper at the home of a Dr Moss, who, coincidentally was a doctor in Warrington. This discovery was at the centre of a court case, Rex v Davis, which was ongoing at the time. All conspirators were found liable and were fined. Whilst this case is now largely forgotten, it marked a significant shift wherein Doctors were also criminally charged. With a similar forename and identical surname and location, it is likely that the case of Jane Fairclough was the inspiration for this tale. This, in conjunction with the absence of evidence surrounding John Fairclough may suggest that this story was a fabrication, looking to capitalise on public appetite for stories about bodysnatching, connecting Belfast to this relatively high-profile legal case. The addition of descriptive ‘titbits’ like the body being allegedly found in a barrel marked “spiced pork”, alongside the bodies found in barrels marked “bacon” appear oddly specific and descriptive for a newspaper report, as if they were intended to primarily entertain and enthral rather than inform. Such details appear as a method to elicit an emotional reaction from the public. In the past, this may well have manifested in the form of fear and frenzy, making the story the talk of the town. Today, not much has changed. When the tour group I first took part in was told the story of John Fairclough and his posthumous journey to Warrington, those in attendance were in equal parts enthralled and appalled by the story: a grisly tale of centuries past, punctuated by a touch of irony and dark humour, eliciting the appropriate shocked expressions accompanied by wry chuckles from the gathered crowd. It’s purpose not necessarily to inform, rather, to entertain and enrapture.

The media had an important role to play in how cases of bodysnatching were relayed to the public. Often, newspapers were peoples only reliable source of information; something that we forget in the internet era. For emotionally charged news such as the bodies of loved ones being stolen and ‘butchered’, they also had the potential to whip the public into frenzy.  Whilst the Rex v Davis case with the body of Jane Fairclough took place in 1828, it was somewhat overshadowed by the Burke and Hare murders, and their subsequent trial and conviction took place. Whilst the Burke and Hare murders are synonymous with the Scottish Capital, their actions demonstrate how much this practice had escalated since the beginning of the 19th century.

The Burke and Hare case caused public fear around bodysnatching to reach a fever pitch.Whilst stealing a body was not technically illegal it required a lot of physical labour in the depths of night. Some individuals sought to skip the strenuous work carried out in the darkest hours of the night, by simply murdering their victims and selling the body to infirmaries and medical schools: Suddenly, it wasn’t just the dead at risk of being ‘snatched’. Burke and Hare had grown up in different parts of Northern Ireland, with Burke born in Co. Tyrone, and Hare reportedly born in Newry. After a lodger in Hare’s residence passed away whilst owing roughly £4, the men decided to sell his body in an effort to recoup the lost money; the body being sold to Edinburgh University anatomist and lecturer, Robert Knox. After 16 murders, they were arrested and tried.  Burke was sentenced to death by hanging, followed by public dissection. His skeleton is preserved and on public display in the Edinburgh Medical School, while items such as his death mask and objects such as a carrying card case and a journal made of his tanned skin are preserved elsewhere, such as the Surgeon’s Hall Museum. A testament to the fixation of Victorian (and Modern) Britain with the macabre.

After the crimes of Burke and Hare came to light, the act of murdering someone with the intent of selling the body subsequently became known as ‘burking’. It is difficult to ascertain how common instances of burking were, with Evans stating that it was a weekly occurrence in London. Even Ulster was not safe:

“A case of burking in Ulster took place in Ballylesson, Co Down, in January 1831. Charles and Agnes Clarke of Drumbo were tried for the murder of an ‘unknown person’ and Daniel M’Connell, whom they had entrapped with ‘the pretence of hospitality’. Agnes Clarke then tried to sell M’Connell’s body to a surgeon at Antrim Infirmary who raised the alarm. Quite how she proposed to market a body with multiple hatchet wounds to the head is unclear, but she claimed that the death was the result of ‘a stone quarry falling’…as directed by the judge, their bodies were dissected. In April 1836…[the] casts of their skulls [were donated] to  the Belfast Natural History Society.”

The full case is laid out on the front page of the Belfast News-Letter, along with full details of the proceedings, lines of enquiry and questioning.

With both living and dead now a target, public outrage grew, and pressure was mounted on Parliament for change. The act to put a stop to the resurrectionists was the 1832 Anatomy Act, however it had been revised multiple times since it had originally failed to and pass through the House of Lords in 1829, just one year after the conviction of Burke and Hare and the culmination of the Rex v Davis case. The 1832 Act required anyone wishing to practice anatomy to have a license, whilst also ensuring a greater supply of legally available bodies beyond those tried for murder, for example, unclaimed deceased from workhouses, hospitals and prisons, as well as donations to science. This increased the legal supply of bodies available for dissection, thus rendering the ‘market’ for freshly excavated cadavers somewhat less lucrative. In theory, this meant that the price anatomists were willing to pay for bodies was therefore dramatically reduced which in turn eliminated the exorbitant pay which tempted individuals to venture into the graveyards in the twilight.


Due to the clandestine and macabre nature of bodysnatching, it continues to enrapture tour groups today. The mystique of this bygone era in British and Irish history taps in to a morbid curiosity that still appeals to many. Bodysnatching affected many of the major cities in Britain and Ireland, however the practice did not affect them all equally, with the major influencing factor over the demand of cadavers for dissection being the number of medical schools, and hence, the number of (practicing) medical students in the city. Belfast had comparatively few cases of bodysnatching in contrast with Dublin, Edinburgh or London, as they had comparatively fewer established medical schools. Whilst instances of bodysnatching, and indeed burking did occur, these were more sporadic and isolated cases, with bodies more commonly exported to Scotland or transported to Dublin rather than dissected in Belfast. The preventative measures suggest that bodysnatching was a constant concern, however, archival evidence in reference to the New Burying Ground off Clifton Street shows limited records for bodysnatching when compared to the preventative measures employed at this cemetery. Instead, the Belfast Charitable Society seemed more concerned about actions of the public than the resurrectionists, with evidence of weapons being fired, headstones being damaged and excessive amounts drink being consumed. These individuals could have been inspired to take action based on reports in newspapers of the executions of murderers and body snatchers such as Burke and Hare or the London Burker Gang, or local stories that have become ingrained and anchored to a site, such as that of John Fairclough. Whilst bodysnatching did occur and was a pressing concern for the graveyards and cemeteries of Belfast, these stories may have prompted an overreaction from the general public compared to the scale of the problem, particularly concerning the New Burying Ground. Further problems then arose when the fear and outrage at the thought of a loved one’s remains being stolen and dissected gave way to boredom at the lack of activity during the long nights, as demonstrated by the drinking and discharging of weapons, even by hired watchmen.

This is the third and final part of this 3 part special that looked at bodysnatching in Belfast during the 1800’s. Part 1 gave a general overview of why the bodysnatching trade occurred, and Part 2 was a Case Study on Clifton Street Cemetery (The New Burying Ground) and all the methods that were employed to thwart the body snatchers.

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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YEAR: 1797

Location: Clifton Street