A Body Snatching Case in Essex | Little Leighs, 1823

After denying his involvement in the theft of 24-year-old Joanna Chinnery from St John’s churchyard in Little Leighs, it would be the smell emanating from this body snatchers cart that would eventually be his downfall.

On the night of 25th December 1823, body snatcher Samuel Clark(e) stole the body of Joanna Chinnery. One week previous, he had stolen the cadavers of Susannah Knight and Abraham Leader, all three had been taken from the churchyard of St John’s in Little Leighs, Essex. Clark(e) would be convicted on 23rd January 1824 on a charge of stealing graves clothes and was sentenced to seven years transportation. Only the body of Joanna Chinnery would ever be found.

In Little Leigh’s most notorious body snatching case, we meet one of only a handful of resurrection men to be transported to Van Dieman’s Land for being foolish enough for taking grave clothes.

But did Clark really make such a simple error or was it that the evidence against him was just too great.

It’s time to take a look at one of my favourite body snatchers, 30 years old Samuel Clark.

Meeting Body Snatcher Samuel Clarke

Samuel Clark, despite being called incompetent by some, was a seasoned body snatcher who knew the rules of the profession.

With his character already tarnished from dealing in ‘anything that could be bought and sold’, Clark had also been charged with annoying his neighbours on previous occasions after his work was described as ‘being carried on chiefly at night’.

Being thirty years of age at the time of his arrest, Clarke wasn’t young by any means, but, he was wiley enough to be able to exhume a cadaver or two on his own.

That said, his appearance reported in The Times as being ‘pallid and unhealthy’ during his trial makes one question his ability to do anything too strenuous.

With his pox marked face Clark stood a modest 5ft 8″ and when called before the magistrates had on a smart pair of new top boots.

It would seem body snatching had proved profitable for Clark.

His entry in the prison hulk registers confirm his age and for the court record, he gives, albeit probably fictitiously, his abode as Haggestone Bridge, Essex.

And so we move to the night of the snatching and that fateful discovery of a missing corpse or two, just prior to Christmas 1823.

One Thing Leads To Another: Discovering The Body of Joanna Chinnery

Eighteenth Centruy Funeral

Samual Clark has his eye on a cadaver and his target was the church of St John’s in Little Leighs, a place that he’d no doubt been scouting out in the weeks or even months prior to the snatchings.

In fact, he had his eye on a number of cadavers, but it wasn’t these that was to be his downfall.

To do history justice, however, and to complete the tale at Little Leighs, let’s just pause for a moment and consider the other snatchings from the graveyard in which Samuel Clark was operating.

At the trial, Clarke would be accused, and later found guilty, of stealing three cadavers in total, although two of the bodies would never be found. The bodies taken from their graves:

  • SUSANNAH KNIGHT: Aged 30yrs. Buried 14th December 1823. Snatched 17th December. Body never found
  • ABRAHAM LEADER: Aged 33 yrs. Buried 15th December 1823. Snatched 17th December. Body Never found
  • JOANNA CHINNERY: Aged 24 yrs. Buried 21st December 1823. Snatched 25th December 1823. Body found under a hedge

Susannah, it was reported in The Times, was ‘married … but an indifferent character and was known to be connected with many vices in this parish and thereby met a premature death’. It was also reported that Susannah was the half-sister of the ill-fated Joanna.

However, judging by the other errors reported inaccurately in this newspaper elsewhere in the case, I would cast doubt on this last assumption.

I have found little information for the other subject snatched, Abraham Leader, other than his age, recorded again in The Times inaccurately as 35. He was in fact 33*

Joanna Chinnery Is Found Partially Hidden

The only cadaver to be found from the snatchings at Little Leighs was that of Joanna Chinnery. She was to be found placed under a hedged, partially covered with soil on Boxing Day morning, 1823.

The discovery of her body started when Charles Rogers an inhabitant of nearby Fairsted, was passing by at 5am on a nearby footpath on his way home.

If Rogers hadn’t been curious about an abandoned horse and gig tied to a nearby tree, body snatcher Samuel Clark would probably have gotten away with snatching Joanna.

As it was, Rogers grew curious and after approaching the horse and crying out for a possible owner, he untied the beast and made his way down to the turnpike to hand the reigns over to a Mr John Redwood.

After a brief discussion as to the perplexity of it all, the two men decided to have a rifle in the back of the cart and produced the following items:

  • An Umbrella – Nothing suspicious about that you say
  • A dirty pair of pantaloons – hmm, soiled breaches at the knees are a dead giveaway
  • Food – Bread & Cheese and a few slices of fried bacon or pork according to the Morning Chronicle

Only half satisfied, the horse was led to the nearby St Anne’s Castle public house where again custody was passed over, this time to landlord Mr Crisp.

Act II: In Which A Body Snatcher Tentatively Asks For His Wares

Two hours would pass before Samual Clark had either figured out a story in which to get his horse back or had realised that it had even gone missing.

As he walked up to Landlord Crisp at about 8 am on the 26 December, he had his story all figured out in his head.

I have been asleep under a nearby hedge

said Clark to Crisp.

I was a little tipsy overnight after only drinking ale and eating toast…I tied my horse to a nearby tree and lay down to sleep it off.

When I woke up, my horse and cart had gone.

Satisfied with Clark’s explanation of events, and that he was able to identify the belongings in the back, Mr Crisp handed over his horse and cart and Clark was on his way out of Little Leighs.

An Unsettled Feeling Descends Over The Parish

It was nothing for a body snatcher to forfeit a cadaver to ensure his escape before a possible lynch mob gathered and on that day in December 1823, Clark probably thought he was home and dry as he made his way along the road to Broomfield.

But, alas, every village has a busy body and in Little Leigh’s case, this was in the form of local blacksmith John Broomfield.

Something wasn’t sitting quite right with Broomfield after he’d heard about the event with the cart and he decided to investigate further.

Wandering down to where the horse was found, in a field called Lower Reedings, Broomfield made the most unusual discovery.

Quite surprisingly he found a shovel hanging in a tree, which was somehow missed when Charles Rogers stumbled upon the horse and cart earlier that morning – although to be fair to Mr Rogers, it would have been pretty dark on a December morning at 5 am.

The blacksmith continued his search. In a neighbouring field, he found a sack, tied at the neck with a cord and with red printing on the side saying ‘J.Harvey, Crayford Mill’.

On moving the sack, two pistols fell to the floor.

With thoughts of murder on his mind, he immediately conveyed the sack to the landowner, Hugh Simmons who also happened to be the churchwarden.

Further investigation by the pair led them to a ditch not too far from where the sack had been found and to the grim discovery of Joanna’s naked body, partially covered in earth.

Meeting Joanna | The Cadaver Under The Hedge

Joanna Chinnery, the wife of James, had been interred only four days earlier before she had been unearthed again at the hands of Samuel Clark.

When she knew her end was coming she expressed a wish to her husband that she wanted to be buried in ‘a shift, gown, nightcap and pair of white stockings’, the exact same things that Clark would be tried for in January.

At the time of her passing, Joanna not only left a husband of five months behind but also a daughter aged one and a half years old [1]

Bringing Samuel Clark to Justice

He may have thought he’d gotten away with things, having left the body of Joanna under a hedge and making his escape before the locals realised what was happening.

How wrong he was.

Suspicions against Clark were first raised on the 17th December, the night Abraham Leader and Susannah Knight were snatched, when Clark had been seen ‘parting with a good deal of money’ in St Anne’s Castle public house.

Having made his escape from the same public house a week later after collecting his horse and cart, Clarke headed in the direction of Broomfield where it wasn’t long before he was apprehended in the King’s Arms public house.

In The Court Room | Friday 23rd January 1824

Standing at the bar, the unhealthy looking Clark was all ready to defend himself.

He denied all knowledge of the burial clothes that had been found strewn across the churchyard of St John’s as the discovery of the theft was unfolding.

He also denied owning the pistols that had been found, which on later inspection were discovered to be loaded, but he couldn’t quite explain the smell emanating from the box under the cart.

Reports say that the box was large enough to:

…hold a couple of human bodies when rolled up, and on examining it, a most offensive odour proceeded from it, as if it had been recently used in the prisoner’s unhallowed occupation.

The court would not tolerate a man who entered their parish and violated the graves of the innocent in order to make a profit.

Although Joanna’s burial linen was found strewn across the graveyard, it could not be confirmed if Clark did take Joanna’s burial garments, and his defence referred to this numerous times during the trial. Despite this, Clark was indicted for stealing

  • A woman’s shift
  • A night cap
  • A bed gown
  • A pair of women’s stockings

The exact same items that Joanna wished to be buried in.

Sentencing was swift with the jury taking only a few minutes to find Clark guilty, sentencing him to seven years transportation. The charges against him for stealing the three cadavers were all returned Not Guilty.

A surprise Discovery

During my research, I came across good old Samuel Clark in The Bury and Norwich Post dated December 15th, 1830.

The short report started with the following words:

Samuel Clark alias Cooper, who was transported eight years ago, for stealing a body at Little Leighs, was again found guilty of a similar offence at Royden

Clark was charged at the Winter Special Assizes for the County of Essex in 1830 for stealing a cadaver.

I shall leave you with the words he spoke during his defence. Note the pleading tone.

I am a resurrection man, and am obliged to get my living by it. What would the surgeons do, my Lord, without me?

I have been a great sufferer through it, and I hope the Jury will be favourable to me’

They weren’t and sentenced Clark to six months hard labour.

Researching Body Snatching at Little Leighs

* Although we have to leave the snatchings of Abraham and Susanah for the time being, for I have found no further evidence to give about these events, they have not been forgotten and a search in the archives for further information continues.

[1] Events relating to Joanna’s life were found via the Essex Police Museum website in a post called The Little Leighs Body Snatchers’ History Notebook 51. You can access the article on their website here

Although Clark’s case does appear in the papers, it’s wasn’t widely covered and you will have to search for it. That said, even a simple search of Clark’s victim Joanna Chinnery will produce some quick results.

As with all my searches, I use the British Newspaper Archive (subscription required) and also Ancestry.co.uk (subscription required). On Ancestry, you will be able to see Clark’s entry in the criminal register (TNA Ref: HO27) for both convictions as well as his entry in the prison hulk registers and letter books (TNA Ref: HO9)

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