Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Carry him off in a patent coffin: body snatching in the eighteenth century

Occasionally Dan turned the pages of his newspaper. Someone was advertising a new design of coffin, secure enough to keep out body snatchers. Good luck with that, he thought.

The Butcher’s Block: A Dan Foster Mystery

I recently spent an afternoon in Frenchay, near Bristol, visiting the Frenchay Unitarian Chapel. The Chapel dates from the seventeenth century and has several interesting features. These include a door said to have been specially designed to allow women wearing crinolines under their skirts to enter the building, and a weathervane which is thought to commemorate the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1759.  

Frenchay Unitarian Chapel
I’d gone in search of something more prosaic: the Body Snatchers' Stone. In the forthcoming Dan Foster Mystery, The Butcher’s Block, Dan is drawn into the grisly world of body snatching, which quickly leads him into a much bigger and more dangerous criminal conspiracy. Body snatching was a common crime in the eighteenth century, as the demand for human bodies for medical training increased. Teaching hospitals and private medical schools were prepared to pay for cadavers for dissection by their students, and no questions asked about where the bodies came from.

The bodies were disinterred from graveyards, especially the graves of poor people who could not afford good-quality coffins and might in addition be buried in shallow mass graves. These were often left open until they were full, making them easy for grave robbers to access. Workhouses were another source of corpses. There were even cases where body snatchers broke into houses and took a body before it had been buried. Grave-robbing gangs might have an elaborate system of spies who kept their ears open for news of a recent death, or hung around graveyards to watch funerals. They might bribe sextons and night watchmen to gain access to the graves. The corpses of poor patients who died in hospital might also end up on the dissection slab, whether or not they had willed it or their relatives consented to it.

The Graveyard, Frenchay Unitarian Chapel
Body snatching was a crime that filled most people with horror. In Bristol in 1761 a collier’s son was dissected in the Infirmary. When his father opened the coffin and discovered that his son’s head was missing he went to the surgeon’s home and threatened him until the head was restored. In Carlisle friends of a man who had been hanged and dissected shot one of the doctors involved. In Cambridge in 1830 two arrested body snatchers were attacked by a furious mob while being escorted to prison.

Those who could afford it took steps to protect their corpses. Patent coffins, such as the ones Dan reads about, were available to those who had the money. They might be lined with lead and boast a system of locks and bars designed to baffle the would-be grave robber, or have no external hinges or screws. Some were wrapped in chains or iron bands, or consisted of double or triple shells around a lead interior.

Cheaper ploys included covering the body in quick lime to hasten decay and render it unusable. Many graveyards hired night watchmen to guard the burial grounds. In The Butcher’s Block Dan sees such a watchman dozing in his sentry box at a church in Southwark.

The mort safe was a Scottish invention. It consisted of an iron cage which was placed around the freshly occupied grave and left for several weeks. By then the corpse would have decayed beyond the point at which it was useful to the surgeons, and the cage would be removed and hired out to another grave. Another popular method in Scotland was to lock corpses in stone burial vaults and bury them after some weeks had passed. Elsewhere, cruder methods included placing mantraps in graveyards. One man even put a mine in his daughter’s grave.

Is this the Body Snatchers' Stone?
 Another deterrent was a body snatcher’s stone, a great stone slab which was winched into place on top of a fresh grave and left for several weeks. The Body Snatchers' Stone in Frenchay is such a device. I had read a description of it: a pennant stone slab with no markings, so I went to see if could find it. I did find a stone slab marked only with lines that did not look as if they had ever been lettering. Is this the Body Snatchers’ Stone? If not, where is it? If anyone can tell me, I’d love to hear from you! 

Close up of the stone
Incidentally, the title of this piece is taken from Southey’s poem The Surgeon’s Warning. A surgeon who has dissected many stolen cadavers begs his friends to make sure that when he is buried, grave robbers cannot steal his corpse for the same treatment. He directs that he is to be interred in a patent coffin lined with lead and soldered shut, and he leaves money to pay for night watchmen who will be paid an extra reward if they shoot a “resurrection man”, as grave robbers were known. Read the poem to find out if his elaborate precautions save him from the poetic justice he so richly deserves!

The next Dan Foster Mystery, The Butcher’s Block, will be published in June (paperback and ebook).

And look out for the Dan Foster ebook novella, The Fatal Coin, which will be published in May. 

Source: British Library Free Images on Flickr