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

Part 2: A Case Study: The prevention of body snatching In the New Burying Ground, Belfast.

Whilst Belfast did not see bodysnatching on the same scale as places such as Edinburgh or London, it was still a constant concern throughout the early 1800’s. Many of Belfast’s largest cemeteries such as Milltown and City had not yet been built. It was therefore older graveyards such as Friar’s Bush and the New Burying Ground that bore the brunt of the bodysnatching during this period. The New Burial Ground is an ideal case study to examine how bodysnatching affected the graveyard and the decisions made by those who ran it.  Whilst the relics of the era found in the Cemetery demonstrate that bodysnatching was a concern, the survival of Minute Books relating to the running of the cemetery in nearby Clifton House offer a unique insight in to how the cemetery was managed during these macabre times.

Opened in 1797, the New Burying Ground, now known as Clifton Street Cemetery was located on the outskirts of the developing town. Areas such as North Queen Street and Carrick Hill were informal boundaries between the bustling Georgian centre and clearer green-space. The location of the cemetery would have had a significant impact on its viability as a target by body snatchers. Burial grounds that were located close to residential areas would have proven riskier for body snatchers, due to the number of people living in the area and the higher risk of being seen. Whilst the New Burying Ground was on the outskirts, it was close to a number of well-developed streets, such as Frederick Street and Donegall Street, and with the Poor House in close proximity, there would have been a significant population within the immediate area. This observation is not to suggest that bodysnatching did not happen in certain cemeteries due to their location within a city. Rather it highlights that some cemeteries were ‘more suitable’ than others when it came to illicit activities conducted in the dead of night. Other cemeteries from that period such as the Shankhill Graveyard were even more isolated and removed from the city centre, making them easier targets.

There is limited reference to bodysnatching having occurred within the Belfast Charitable Society’s minute books. The most prominent reference was during a meeting in January 1824 when the coffin of a child had been exhumed within the cemetery. The minutes stated:

“Resolved that a reward of £50 be offered for the discovery [and] prosecution of the person who broke into the Burying Ground on the 12th and an advertisement be inserted in the newspaper.”

The subsequent advertisement was posted on the 20th January, 1824 in the Belfast Newsletter.

“A REWARD OF FIFTY POUNDS Is offered by the COMMITTEE of the BELFAST CHARITABLE SOCIETY, to any person who shall, within Six Weeks, give information to the STEWARD against, and prosecute to conviction, the Person or Persons guilty of the atrocious offence of entering the Burying ground behind the Poor-House on Monday Night, 12th inst. And raising an Infants Coffin, several years interred. It remained unopened on the ground.

                                                                                                Signed, by order.

                                                                                                WM. ST. JOHN SMYTH

                                                                                                CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEE”

This entry is the only case of bodysnatching occurring within the in the New Burying Ground that is record in the Belfast Charitable Society minute books. This is surprising given that the practice was widespread and widely documented as happening across Ireland, and, of course, in Scotland and England. A possible cause for its omission from the records is out of a sense of shame. The Burying Ground was established and managed by the Belfast Charitable Society, with some of the most expensive plots being sold for upwards of £12 (£1200 today), and it may have been a concern that any ongoing issues in the cemetery would reflect negatively upon the Society and impact people’s desire to be buried there. Whilst a valid point, it is important to note that these minute books were intended for internal use and not public circulation. Furthermore, their notice published in the newspaper demonstrated that they were keen to address the problem and set a tone of actively pursuing individuals who engaged in bodysnatching, rather than simply accepting it as an inevitability.

The rifle and gun license on display in Clifton House.

Several deterrents to body snatchers were also discovered in the Burying Ground in recent decades. These include the aforementioned coffin guard, as well as heavy stone slabs that were placed on top of graves. These are not recorded in the Belfast Charitable Society minute books. This suggests that it was very much a decision made by the deceased or their relatives, rather than at the behest of the Society. Given the wealth of some of the individuals buried in the cemetery, such preventative measures were financially accessible to some. The presence of these protection methods may have proved a further deterrent to body snatchers. Not only did the preventative measures make it harder to exhume the bodies, but the families also had the means to further pursue the body snatchers, either hiring someone to retrieve their dead relative or issuing a reward for information, as was the case in January 1824. These deterrents were only available to the wealthy families in the cemetery and did leave the less affluent who were buried alongside them, vulnerable and at risk. In the 1830’s, the Charitable Society took action to protect the cemetery through the recruitment of Armed Watchmen.[1]

On the 14th of January 1832, the decision was made to hire two watchmen to provide security to burial ground:

“Resolved that two… watchmen be engaged by the committee to guard the graveyard. Each watchmen to provide security in the grounds. Each person burying to pay ten shillings.

                                                                                    A.C McCartney

Gun icense for two rifles from the 1840’s

The hiring of the watchmen is noted clearly in the minute books; however, it was to the surprise of our archivist that there was a more immediate reminder of this chapter in the cemetery’s past on proud display in Clifton House. In our archives, there rests a decommissioned rifle. Whilst there was a degree of uncertainty of the origin of the rifle, the recent rediscovery of a gun license in the Clifton House archives establishes this rifle as one of two that was purchased by the Charitable Society for the watchmen to use when they patrolled the cemetery.

The watchmen at the New Burying Ground continued their patrol of the graveyard until 15th September 1832, when it was announced that their role was ‘being discontinued’. This was because the watchmen were partially funded by the Belfast Charitable Society, and partially by the families of the recently buried. With the Anatomy Act 1832 being passed on August 1st, it is likely that some did not see the need to pay this fee any longer as legislation had been passed to protect the dead. As a result, the Society saw fit to relieve the watchmen of their duties. Whilst the dismissal of the watchmen in the immediate aftermath of the Anatomy Act suggests that some saw it as a decisive blow for the practice of bodysnatching, many academics such as Philp and Milligen argue that whilst the Anatomy Act made it easier to acquire bodies for medical purposes from an increased number of different sources, it would be nearly 100 years before there was enough cadavers readily available to render illicit methods fully obsolete.

These academics are supported by another entry in the Belfast Charitable Society minute books, as in January 1833 the watchmen were once again reinstated at the Burying Ground:

“In consequence of some circumstances that took place, when William Brace was Orderly, he proposed that the watching of the Burying Ground shall be resumed on the following terms. That there shall be four watchmen appointed by this committee, to watch the graves in the burying ground: these watchmen to be ready at any time when called upon, to be paid at the rate of 2/6 each per night, which shall be repayed by the person or persons applying for such watchmen, and that no others be permitted to watch in the ground.”

There is no elaboration on what the aforementioned ‘circumstance’ involved. Whilst it could have been another instance of bodysnatching, the descriptor sounds all too vague for an action that had been clearly referenced 9 years prior. Rather, I would argue it may have been the actions of those protecting the dead, instead of the actions of those intending to procure the dead. Whilst some citizens of the time would have seen the passing of the Anatomy Act as signifying the end of bodysnatching, it is unlikely this feeling was unanimous, and with the removal of watchmen in September 1832, some of the more fearful relatives of the freshly buried may have taken it upon themselves to watch over their deceased relatives, as they did before the watchmen were first installed a year previously. Furthermore the wave of anti-dissection riots carried out in the wake the Anatomy Act ensuring that the matter of the acquisition of the deceased did not stray far from public view. The amateur watchmen who may have felt obligated to occupy the cemetery were erratic and inconsistent as to the level of security provided, and it is possible that the long winter nights, along with any alcohol brought with them to pass the time may have resulted in disorderly conduct through boredom, inebriation or even a case of mistaken identity in the dark.

The now rehired watchmen were installed to reassure the general public that their loved ones were being looked after, whilst ensuring that the Charitable Society upheld a high standard regarding their property. Whilst well intentioned, this did not go to plan! In February 1833, two of the four men were dismissed. This is due to a complaint filed on the 25th February, stating that shots had been fired at the Barracks which sat next to the cemetery wall. The complaint stated that shots struck the walls of the barracks and “broke the windows of the room in which the soldiers were sleeping”. One soldier testified that the first shot was fired at 12:30, with ensuing shots repeated 2 am, 4 am and 6 am. The two watchmen on duty that night, James McFarlin and John McIlwain were dismissed, and the two remaining watchmen, Hugh Kilpatrick and Peter Rowan, were only given blank shot. Of course…any potential body snatchers would not know this, however it does demonstrate that maybe the watchmen held a symbolic role, as well as   a practical one. They remained watchmen at the New Burying Ground until March 1834, when it was agreed that the Society would hire a single individual from families desiring their loved ones be watched. This decreased the cost and ensured there was more accountability and structure compared to the ‘free-for-all’ which would have ensued previously without that enforced structure.

Protectors or Problem?

This change in policy represented a scaling back of expenses allocated to the security of the graveyard. This could suggest a de-escalation in the years after the implementation of the Anatomy Act, and how the fear of bodysnatching, particularly in Belfast, had begun to outweigh the number of acts which occurred. Whilst conducting this research, the embellished stories, complete with grisly and gruesome details betrays a latent fascination with the macabre which our Georgian and Victorian ancestors openly revelled in. It manifests today by a love of Horror films and macabre based ‘dark’ tourism spots such as The Edinburgh Dungeon, or even The Titanic Experience. However, as is often the case, the facts are less dramatic than the fiction. Evidence from Clifton House, such as the coffin guard, minute book records and the public appeal for information in the Newsletter suggests that bodysnatching was still an issue in Belfast, despite its comparatively limited need for cadavers. However, it also suggests that the appointment of the watchmen was not only to deter potential resurrectionists, but also to minimise the risks posed by relatives of the deceased and were an effort to prevent the graveyard becoming a place of drinking and anti-social behaviour in the wake of public fear and fervour.

Whilst the archival material pertaining to the New Burying Ground does not give any indication as to how many bodies were taken during the early 1800’s, it suggests that bodysnatching was a concern, but not a crisis on the same level as in Scotland or England. Measures were implemented, such as the watchtower at the Shankhill, or the watchmen employed in the cemetery, however, archival sources suggest this was as much an effort to placate the public as it was to protect the graveyards. The difficulty in managing the members of the public who took it upon themselves to watch over the graveyard can be seen in a report from the Northern Whig in February 1832:

“In consequence of those persons lately interred in the Poor-House Burying Ground, having been in the habit of firing guns, charged with slugs and bullets, which sometimes alarmed the neighbours and passengers, and also injured the tombs and head-stones… the Poor-House Committee lately came to a resolution, that they would employ two responsible persons… They will be well armed; and will have watch-dogs constantly with them” Northern Whig: 6th February 1832.

The emphasis on “responsible persons” further reinforces the sense that the watchmen were an attempt to remove members of the public who proved to be a liability, whilst also that those who previously watched over the graveyard were as capable of causing damage as the body snatchers they sought to deter. The dates within which the watchmen were hired take on further significance, when one considers the need to manage the general public in addition to responding to the need for protection against resurrectionists. The watchmen were initially hired in January and were employed until September 1832. The Anatomy Act did not immediately solve the bodysnatching issue, however, it did represent a shift in approach to a more documented and structured application of preventative methods in the 1830’s. For example, the mort house constructed in Rashee in Ballyclare was erected shortly before the Anatomy Act, marked Anno 1831, and the watchtower in Shankill graveyard was constructed in 1834; two years after the Anatomy Act was passed. 

The impact of local media cannot be overlooked. In the era of 24 hour news cycles, it is perhaps easy to dismiss the impact of news on Victorian society, however, there is also clear correlation between significant news stories and an increase in activity surrounding the cemeteries and graveyards. This was seen in the aforementioned newspaper coverage of John/Jane Fairclough, as well as in more infamous trials, such as the ‘London Burker Gang’ or the ‘Bethnal Green Gang’. The news broke on December 5th 1831, that two of the Bethnal Green Gang had been publicly hanged. This was national news that a gang who had terrorised the streets of London for over a decade and who had confessed to stealing between 500-1000 bodies had finally been brought to heel. Their execution would have brought bodysnatching firmly back into public consciousness again: a reminder which may have prompted an uptake of individuals seeing it as a necessary civic duty to stay in the graveyard at night, prompting the Charitable Society to take action shortly thereafter on 5th January 1832. Indeed, the trial of Burke and Hare in 1828 is referenced outside the gates of Clifton Cemetery today, as “[bringing] panic and armed watchmen”.

Extract from a tourist board outside Clifton Street Cemetery

[1] On 10th March 1832, an order was placed for two muskets and two bayonets. It is probable that these were for the use of the watchmen. One is on display in Clifton House.

This is Part 2 of a 3 part special that looks at body snatching in 19th Century Belfast. Part 1 highlights why bodysnatching occurred in a broader context, whilst Part 3 highlights the role of the media in stoking fear in the local communities.

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

Members Involved

YEAR: 1797

Location: Clifton Street