‘The Irish Times’ 19th century guide to digging up a dead body
While Burke and Hare made headlines in the UK, a graverobbing trade boomed in Ireland
Cemeteries were hunting grounds for bodysnatchers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Photograph: Barry Lewis/Getty Images
Digging up a body was a dirty, complex and very profitable exercise in the 18th and 19th century. A booming interest in human anatomy, paired with a lack of regulated cadavers - only executed criminals’ bodies were up for grabs - meant instructors at medical schools had to look elsewhere for appropriate samples to dissect, or be faced with students walking away.
This situation gave rise to the phenomenon of grave-robbers, men who stocked the medical schools by pillaging graveyards of freshly-buried corpses. And for good money, too.
But how did these body snatchers, or resurrectionists, do their work? A short piece in The Irish Times in 1885, taken from The Life of Sir Robert Christison, went about clearing that up.
Step one: wait until evening:
That much seems obvious: “The time chosen in the dark winter nights was, for the town churchyards, from six to eight o’clock, at which late hour the churchyard watch was set, and the city police also commenced their night rounds.”
Step two: prepare equipment:
A sheet was spread on the ground around the grave to clean up any dirt afterwards. Also, leave that shovel at home, because it’s no good for the job: “Digging was done with short, flat, dagger-shaped implements of wood, to avoid the clicking noise of iron striking stones.”
Step three: get digging:
A small hole was dug down, just to where the head lay: “On reaching the coffin, two broad iron hooks under the lid, pulled forcibly up with the rope, broke off a sufficient portion of the lid to allow the body to be dragged out. The body was stripped of the grave clothes, which were scrupulously buried again.”
Step four: the getaway:
The body was secured in a sack and the ground was left as the robbers found it. “Transference over the churchyard wall was easy in a dark evening and once in the street drew no attention at so early an hour”. The whole process took about an hour, “because the soil was loose and the digging was done impetuously by frequent relays of active men.”
William Burke and William Hare, or simply Burke and Hare, are the names most quickly associated with this grim practice. In Edinburgh in 1828, the two Irish immigrants became the most “famous” of the “sack-em-up men” when they turned to performing a string of murders to keep their stock up for sale to well-known anatomist Dr Robert Knox. Meanwhile, back in Ireland, our own trade was ticking over.
St Andrew’s Church on Suffolk Street in Dublin’s city centre was one of the grave robbers’ favourite haunts
Part of the deal often had to do with paying off the church caretaker. According to a historical piece in The Irish Times in February 1954, there were a number of spots around the capital notorious for the practice.
“Dublin, too, had its corps of these ‘put-em-in-a-sack men’,” says the author, named as G’OS. “Judging from the number of convictions registered against its sextons for aiding and abetting, St Andrew’s in Suffolk street was one of their favourite haunts. Other happy hunting grounds were Kilgobbin church yard and Bully’s Acre near Kilmainham. ”
As those who have visited Glasnevin Cemetery may know, the watchtowers on site once served a purpose; the article mentions one newspaper report of an incident in January 1830 in which over sixty gunshots were exchanged between mourners and a group of resurrectionists.
In an earlier encounter in Donnybrook in 1750, the father of a recently deceased child caught a group of “young surgeons” in the act of stealing the body.
“Last Friday evening some young surgeons went in a coach to Donnybrook to take up the corpse of a child who had been buried in that churchyard the night before,” reads a Dublin Gazette report quoted in The Irish Times in 1959.
“While they were digging open the grave , the father of the child got information of it, and assembling some of his neighbours, came to the place by the time they had got the body up, when they fell on them, took the corpse back again, and severely chastised the voting gentlemen for their pains.”
The same piece does no favours for the reputation of medical students in the capital, who apparently went to great lengths to secure a fresh corpse to practice on.
One method involved dressing in “shabby clothes” and filling a coffin with stones. According to the article, the students would then gather in a mob and traipse to the burial ground at The Cabbage Garden off Kevin Street, weighted casket in hand, and mingle with legitimate mourners. They would get talking to the crowd, “plying them liberally with whiskey well-laced with opium”.
“When the latter were helpless the students would swap coffins or contents and head for home.
“Not infrequently the body was dragged from the coffin, hastily dressed in clothes brought for the purpose, and carried along in the guise of a drunk staggering home between two friends.”
The job was lucrative - one report says a former graverobber claimed his group made £1,400 in exchange for about 300 bodies in a single season. “A thriving export trade” also developed; bodies headed for London medical schools were often wrapped in canvass and labelled “cheese”.
Bodysnatchers were not paid by the bag, either. They had an advance payment and regular “refreshers”, and a tip was expected at the end of the season. Plus, if a snatcher was caught, “his patron was obliged to support his wife and family and compensate him upon release”.
Eventually, following the uncovering of Burke and Hare’s methods and public outcry, the Anatomy Act was published in 1832, which stipulated rules around the donation of bodies, regulated dissection licences and provided for inspections of dissection rooms.
For the resurrectionist, it was the nail in the coffin.
This story is part of the ‘Lost Leads’ series - a re-visiting of lesser-known stories that have made the pages of The Irish Times since 1859. What can you find? Let us know @irishtimes. For more information on subscribing to the archive, see here: www.irishtimes.com/archive