From Dressmaker to Body Snatcher

I am delighted to welcome the wonderful ladies from All Things Georgian as my first guest bloggers. When I heard that they had stumbled upon a body snatcher during their research, I was thrilled when they agreed to write a guest post.

So, without further ado, I give you ‘From Dressmaker to Body Snatcher’. 

A Country Burial courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
A Country Burial | Lewis Walpole Library

One of the things we have concluded about ourselves during our research over the years is that we have an incredible propensity for being dragged, kicking and screaming, off at tangents and this blog is a case in point.

How on earth is it possible to get from researching a court dressmaker in connection with our latest book to a bodysnatcher in a matter of a few steps? Well, with immense ease it appears.

On July 18, 1810, William Webb, a resurrection man who had been the grave digger for four years at the parish of St. George, Hanover Square, London was accused of stealing a dead body, that of a young lady named Elizabeth Lane.

She was described as being between eighteen and twenty years of age when she died of measles. Elizabeth’s body had been interred on the 21st June, at 8am.  

Mrs Bean said that they left after the service before the grave was filled up, but within half an hour of returning home a boy called at their house to say that the corpse which had just been buried had been stolen from the grave.

Parish Register burial entry for Elizabeth Lane 1810
Parish Register burial entry for Elizabeth Lane 1810

Mr and Mrs Bean immediately returned to the burying ground, accompanied by Mr Adams, the church warden, Mr McLaughlin, the sexton and Mr Cater, the watchman. They went straight to the grave and near it they saw the grave digger, Webb.  

He was instructed to open the grave but at first he hesitated, saying it was wasn’t right to do so.

Stepping back a few paces, Webb let the spade fall out of his hand and, again exclaiming that all was not right, he fainted and fell down near to a newly made grave. At first they thought he had died, but after a while he came to.

Once recovered, he was asked whether Elizabeth’s body was in the grave and he answered that it was.

So, again he was ordered to open it. About a foot and a half below the surface a sack was found which, on being examined, contained the body of Elizabeth, who had just been committed to the earth.

Resurrectionists 1847 by Hablot Knight Browne
Image | Wellcome Collection

Everyone recognized her but the body appeared to have been mangled in different parts in a shocking manner, as if it had been struck with a spade or some instrument whilst breaking open the coffin.

Her body had been tied at the neck and heels, with rope, as if to prevent it having the appearance of a corpse in the sack.

So, the body had not actually been stolen from the grave but it had been prepared ready for removal once it was dark. The shroud was lying in the bottom of the coffin, folded up.

At his trial, which took place at Westminster Sessions on July 13 1810, Webb, in his defense, presented a ‘frightful picture of ignorance and depravity’.

He told an incoherent story about a man whom he called Jack assisting him and that he supposed some person would come at night and take the body over the church wall.

He complained that his trial was hurried on sooner than he expected and persisted he was not guilty. The jury, however, unanimously agreed that he was indeed guilty and he was sentenced to three months imprisonment.

Body Snatching
Coloured drawing by T. Rowlandson | Wellcome Images


Kentish Gazette 17th July 1810
Perthshire Courier 19 July 1810
Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 22 July 1810    

Sarah Murden and Joanne Major are co-authors of the biography An Infamous Mistress, which tell the story of the eighteenth-century courtesan, Grace Dalrymple Elliott and her family and the soon to be published follow up to it A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History, both published by Pen and Sword Books. Both are also available at Amazon UKAmazon US and all good bookshops.        

If you are on twitter, you can follow Sarah at @sarahmurden and Joanne at @joannemajor3. For more information and to find out more about All Things Georgian visit the authors’ blog at All Things Georgian.

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