A Week In The Life Of A London Body Snatcher

 Life for a body snatcher was a whirlwind of activity, especially during the traditional dissecting months of October to May, more commonly known as the ‘dissecting season‘.

During the ‘season’, demand for cadavers was at its highest and if you were a good supplier, then you could guarantee you’d be kept busy.

London body snatchers were perhaps kept busier than most during the dissecting ‘season’, with cadavers frequently being shipped across the city to its anatomy schools in the dead of night. Large sums of money exchanged hands with city burial ground being heavily targeted. The ‘Diary’ gives us a glimpse into this underworld, albeit for a few short months between 1811-1812.

Diary of a Resurrectionist
Diary of a Resurrectionist | RCSENG

We know that large numbers of bodies were stolen throughout the course of the ‘season’ each year and that cadavers were delivered both locally and further afield.

But what if we could find out how many bodies were on the move each night. If we knew where they were destined and just how much money exchanged hands.

What if I said there was a diary, kept by a body snatcher himself that could give us a snapshot into their world for just the briefest of moments. You’d be interested, right?

Come with me, as we step back to 1812 and take a tour of the criminal underworld with the most famous body snatching gang in Britain. The Borough Gang.

Diary of a Resurrectionist

Between November 1811 and December 1812, one body snatcher in London sat himself down nearly every night and recorded the antics and transactions of London’s most notorious body snatching gang.

At only 16 pages in length, the author, who is believed to be gang member Joseph Naples, has given us not only a body count of the cadavers stolen during this period but also a rather vivid description of a gangs relationship with the anatomists.

The Diary, among other things, also includes:

  • Price of Cadavers – Eye-watering amounts are noted throughout the Diary
  • Doctors Names – They’re there, albeit just a few
  • Cadaver Destinations – Including reference to bodies packed for Edinburgh
  • Nights of Excessive Drinking – A frequent occurrence for most gang members
  • Names of Gang Members – Usually referred to by Christian name only

So fascinating are the contents that they give us an insight into a world that hasn’t been documented in such detail anywhere else.

I want to take a closer look at just one week from the Diary, chosen at random but one which represents a typical week for the gang.

Wednesday 8th January 1812

In the middle of the winter months, the body snatchers would have been at their busiest and for the week 8th – 15th January, the Borough Gang were no exception.

We join the gang in the early hours of Wednesday 8th January 1812.

Wednesday 8th 2AM*

got up, the Party went to Harps, got 4 adults and 1 small. Took 4 to St Thomas’s, Came home went to Mr Wilson [and] Brookes, Danl. got paid £8 8 0 from Mr Wilson I recd. 9 9 0 from Mr Brookes. came over to the borough, sold small for £1 10 0, Recd. £4 4 0 for adult, At home all night.

A busy night as you can see. But let us have a look at some of the abbreviations so that you may enjoy the week better.

Throughout the Diary, you’ll find the names of Naples’s associates. Their names are either given in full or, more often than not, abbreviated as we see above. I’ll introduce them to you as we meet them so you don’t forget names.

Daniel Butler

In this entry, we meet Danl. referring to Daniel. His name is written interchangeably throughout the Diary and you will see both Danl. and Daniel mentioned.

Butler was originally a porter in the dissecting rooms at St Thomas’s Hospital but was eventually arrested, not for stealing a dead body but for robbing the Edinburgh mail. He was sentenced to death but was pardoned after proving his worth as a skilled articulator of skeletons during his stay in prison.

The party to which Naples refers would have been the Borough Gang itself. A total of seven individuals at this point in 1812 and headed by a man named Ben Crouch.

Mr Wilson & Mr Brookes

As far as the anatomists mentioned on this day we have Mr Wilson and [Mr] Brookes. This was a Mr James Wilson (see image below) who could be found at the anatomy school on Great Windmill Street, established by William Hunter in 1746.

James Wilson anatomist at Great Windmill Street Hosptial via Wellcome Collection
James Wilson | Anatomist | Wellcome Collection

And [Mr] Brookes refers to Joshua Brookes, founder and anatomist of Blenheim Street Anatomy School, otherwise known as Great Marlborough Street.

‘Harps’ is not a well-known character to us and it is thought to refer to a man named Harpers, a keeper of a burial ground. Although which burial ground remains unclear.

Dividing The Takings

For the next two nights, that is Thursday and Friday, the gang concentrated on getting paid with a total £8 8s being received for 2 adult corpses. On Friday, the money received from previous sales was shared out equally with each man receiving £12 12s.

Bodies were collected as and when the opportunity arose, often resulting in a ‘supply on hand’. These were stored in various outbuildings throughout the city, being distributed to the hospitals and private teaching schools as required.

At the beginning of our week, the gang had already made a sizeable amount of money and had three ‘things’, a slang word for cadavers, on hand.

Saturday 11th January 1812

Saturday 11th 4AM

got up went to the Hospital Crib, got 2 adults, met at Bartholw., packed up 2 for the Country, sold 1 at St Thomas’s: at home all night

Sunday 12th

At home all day, at 11 pm met the whole gang at Wygate, got 2 adults, 2 small, afterwards went to the Green, got 2 large 1 small, Took them to Bartholw.

That’s a total of ten cadavers in two nights.

The Hospital Crib is perhaps not all it is alluding to. This was a slang term used by the gang to refer to burial grounds and is referenced in the Diary a number of times.

Bartholw (also written in the Diary as Bartholm) and St Thomas’s perhaps need little or no introduction for these are the teaching hospitals of St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s in London.

The sizes of the cadavers referred to, adult and small, would have been priced differently.

The Size of A Cadaver

An adult corpse, be that male or female was priced according to size. Typically they had to be over three feet in length and, at the time of the Diary, would have fetched around £4 4s per ‘thing’.

‘Smalls’ were bodies shorter than this measurement. There were a further two classes of ‘small’ referred to within the Dairy and within the fraternity as a whole, these being ‘large small’ and ‘foetus’. These cadavers, not quite as large as an adult, would have been charged by the inch.

Burial Grounds

The Green, or Green Churchyard, was the name for the extension to the graveyard at St Giles’s in Cripplegate.

However, in his account of the Resurrectionists Diary, Bailey makes reference to a number of graveyards in London which are also known as ‘Green Churchyard’; one at St James’s, Picadilly, the other at St Bartholomew’s The Great and has quite rightly stated that it is impossible to know exactly which burial ground was targeted by the gang on this occasion.

Monday 13th

Took 2 of the above to Mr Brookes 1 large 1 small to Mr Bell, Foetus to Mr Carpue, small to Mr Framton, large small to Mr Cline. Met at 5, the party went to Newington, 2 adults, Took them to St Thomas’s

Stores should be well and truly depleted after that little escapade, which probably also mentions the majority of the anatomists who were buying cadavers from the gang. The most obvious omission here is Sir Astley Cooper, who a year after the Diary was written would be appointed Professor of comparative anatomy at The Royal College of Surgeons.

We’ve already met Mr Brookes at the start of the week but we’ve yet to meet the other anatomists embroiled in the trade.

Great Windmill Street Anatomy School

Let’s start with Mr Bell. Sir Charles Bell, of Great Windmill Street School (pictured below), was at this time a Principal lecturer at the school and was part owner of the anatomy school.

A year after the Diary was written, he would be appointed a member of the London College of Surgeons.

Great Windmill Street Anatomy School
Great Windmill St Anatomy School | Wellcome Collection

Elsewhere in town, Mr Carpue was awaiting the delivery of cadavers at his anatomy school on Dean Street, Soho.

His requirements for cadavers would have been numerous due to his popularity in teaching anatomy and Carpue’s delivery of fresh cadavers is regularly recorded throughout the Diary.

This leaves Mr Frampton and Mr Cline.

Based at the London Hospital from 1800 – 1841, Algernon Frampton Snr was a regular customer for the gang and his name appears often, acquiring a total of nine cadavers over the course of the period of the Diary.

Henry Cline was connected with both St Thomas’s Hospital and the College of Surgeons. By the time Naples’s Diary was being kept, he had resigned from his duties at St Thomas’s, focusing instead on his work as an examiner at the College of Surgeons.

Cline is recorded as having received twelve cadavers during the eleven months the Diary was being kept.

The Last Few Days

We’re nearing the end of this brief glimpse into the lives of the Borough Gang, and we see from the last two entries for Tuesday 14th and Wednesday the 15th that for both of these nights, the gang stated at home. That doesn’t mean however that they were resting on their laurels.

Tuesday 14th At 1AM

got up, Benn., Bill me went to St Luke’s, 2 adults; Jack, Danl. Big Gate, I large, 1 small, took them to Bartholw., Came home went to St Thomas’s. afterwards went to other end of town to get orders. At home all night.

Wednesday 15th

Went to St Thomas’s, Came back, pack’d up 2 large 1 small for Edinburgh. At home all night.

So much to dissect in these two short nights, but let’s begin with the names of those included here.

A few Members Of The Borough Gang

Benn, Bill, Jack, together with Dan[iel], who we’ve already met, were gang members. Recorded for prosperity on the pages of a now extremely fragile diary.

Let’s start with the leader, Ben Crouch. Crouch was probably one of the few body snatchers that didn’t turn to drink to cope with the profession; he had a tendency to turn brutish whenever he was under the influence. He was known to like fine clothes and jewellery and made sure he remained sober when dividing up the takings with the rest of the gang.

Bill Harnet and his nephew Jack appear to have been like chalk and cheese in character. Bill, a favourite with some of the anatomists was said to have a milder manner than his nephew Jack who had a temperament to match Crouch’s when drunk.

The other members of the gang are documented in other entries of the Diary and we will meet them later in future blog posts.

Bodies To Edinburgh

It will not have escaped your notice that a body was packed and bound for Edinburgh on the last day of our week with the gang.

The movement of cadavers out of the city and across the country was a common one, but not as frequent as it would become by the mid-1820s. In a previous post, called ‘Bitter Salts and Pickled Herrings ‘ (take a read and you’ll find out why) I’ve looked at the number of cadavers that were discovered ‘mid transit’ which show you the extent to which the trade had escalated.

You can read that post here, but note that the cases that I have included in that post, date much later than when the Diary was written.

This isn’t the only reference to corpses being transported out of London by the gang. Just after Christmas in 1811 for example, not long after the Diary starts, three corpses were packed and shipped off to Edinburgh. That’s in addition to four which had already been shipped off on 14th December.

The Week at A Glance

So the week is over and I hope I’ve given you a glimpse into this macabre and very bustling underworld of the body snatcher.

You will perhaps notice one thing from the Diary. The act of body snatching was certainly treated as a business, with stock reports, shipments/deliveries and even detailed receipts of the customer’s purchases.

The accounts kept by Naples during this period are meticulous. Was the Diary started because Naples didn’t trust Crouch when dividing up the takings? Or was it more that the gang needed to know where and when supplies were being issued so as not to make a wasted journey to an anatomist who was perhaps in mid dissection of a cadaver he’d received only a day or two before.

Whatever the reason, I am eternally grateful for this resource. To be able to read such detail into the lives of these characters and dissect their ‘business records’ is just too good to put into words and makes the phenomenon of body snatching all the more real.

But before we leave our trip back to 1812, let’s take a look at some of the totals from the week to round things off a bit. I’ll then leave you to explore the dark world of body snatching with the Borough Gang via the online link that I’ve included for the full Diary below.

Weekly Stats

  • Amount of Money Made – £31 19s 0d
  • No. of Cadavers Mentioned* – 44
  • No. of Nights Off – 5
  • No. Cadavers to Bartholomew’s – 5
  • No. Cadavers to St Thomas’s – 9
  • No. Cadavers to Mr Brookes – 2
  • No. Cadavers to Mr Carpue – 1
  • No. Cadavers to Mr Frampton – 1
  • No. Cadavers to Mr Cline – 1
  • No. Cadavers to Mr Bell – 1

* This No. inc. cadavers snatched/sold/shipped & ‘on hand’

Researching A Week In The Life Of

*I have kept the spelling and grammar the same as depicted in James Blake Bailey’s account of the Diary as this is the closest to the original script.

Some may wonder why I started the working week on a Wednesday rather than Monday. The reason is simple. The first recorded entries for January 1812 begin on a Wednesday, as this was the 1st of the month in 1812. I chose the second week of this month as I thought it gave a good overview of the workings of the gang at this time; a good choice of locations and anatomists were mentioned, as well as a good body count.

I could have chosen different weeks/months but some do read very plainly and I wanted to give you a flavour of the work carried out by the gang.

Although this is just a snapshot, if you enjoyed this then you’ll be interested to note that the ‘Diary’ is available to view online for free. This link will take you to the Project Gutenberg site where you can read James Blake Bailey’s book in full.

I highly recommend it especially if you want to see the scale of body snatching in London at this time.

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