If you were going to snatch a corpse from its grave you had to do it quickly, quietly, and without leaving a trace.
With many theories circulating at the height of the body snatching era as to how cadavers were actually removed, it wasn’t until after the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 that the fear of body snatching had subsided, and the truth started to emerge.
Body snatchers took less than an hour to remove a corpse from a grave. They didn’t dig a tunnel, nor did they remove the whole coffin. Instead, they targeted the head end of the grave, digging until they reached the coffin lid. This would then be snapped across the shoulders, hooks attached to the corpse under the armpits and the cadaver pulled quickly and sharply out of the coffin.
But there were other things that needed to be considered too, it wasn’t simply just a case of digging a hole.
In this post, I want to take a look at the main myth bandied around in the mid 19th century and one which still surfaces occasionally on the internet today; the idea that the body snatchers used to tunnel their way to the coffin.
I’m taking a look specifically at getting a corpse out of the coffin this time, but you may also enjoy reading about the basics of body snatching alongside this post in a recent blog I wrote called ‘5 Rules Every Body Snatcher Should Follow’
Early Body Snatching Raids
The methods used to exhume cadavers before the professional resurrectionist came on the scene were very different from those that were developed as the professionals took over the trade.
The early body snatchers were the students and anatomists themselves, but they stole only the cadavers they needed to meet their learning needs, or if you were a student in Glasgow, to help pay for your tuition fees.
These early grave robbers thought nothing of exhuming the whole coffin, removing the corpse and then shockingly, leaving grave clothes and open coffins strewed about the churchyard once they had got what they wanted.
Body snatching was still relatively low key and had not really reached the ears of the populace and so time could be taken to dig up the whole coffin.
As time wore on, and the lax attitudes of the students and anatomists drew increased attention to the trade in buried corpses, it was obvious that things had to change and when the professional body snatcher entered the scene, they went about things in an entirely different manner.
Choosing a Suitable Grave
It’s tempting to launch straight into the grisly parts of pulling a dead body out of a coffin, but that would mean missing out a bunch of equally important information looking at how body snatchers found and got down inside the grave in the first place.
Finding a suitable grave to target, either from an earlier reconnaissance mission, from being a mourner at a funeral or happening upon it by chance, is the first part of any exhumation.
When choosing a suitable grave, all body snatchers would have been on the lookout for the same thing. A grave that had freshly turned soil on the top. The reason for this was two-fold. Easier to dig, but it would also mean that the corpse inside would be fresh.
To us, this may seem obvious, but in 1830 in Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, two novice body snatchers, William Patrick and William Whayley, targeted the wrong grave after being given some bad advice.
Their first experience of body snatching did not go well after their enthusiastic efforts resulted in them first digging up a putrid cadaver and then, on their second attempt a few days later, having to hide in the grave itself when random warning shots were fired across the graveyard by the watch.
The famous London body snatching gang, the Borough Gang also got things wrong on occasion and within the pages of a diary written by one of the gang members, Joseph Naples, we know that they came face to face with a putrid corpse on more than one occasion:
Friday 7th February 1812*
Met together me Butler went to Newington, thing bad. Jack Bill went to Goswell st. got 1. Came home and met again. Danl. Bill me went to St John’s got 2 adults. Benn and Jack went to Flemish got nothin, took 2 St. Thomas’s
Monday 19th October 1812
Went to Lambh. got 1 Adult M (opened another whole but bad with small pox). Took the above M to Barthm. came home…
I wonder how bad the ‘thing’ ( a body snatcher’s term for a cadaver) was. Joseph Naples, author of The Diary had a specialty of cutting off extremities, including the head, but nothing has been added to this entry to embellish it anyway.
Unfortunately, the entries in the Diary aren’t detailed any further, so we can’t be certain if the gang left the cadaver behind or if Joseph went to work with this knife.
The reburial of a putrid or diseased corpse happened quickly. The body would not have been wanted by the anatomists and to leave it exposed would spoil all chances of returning to the graveyard for further raids.
This, however, was not on the cards in the Edinburgh parish of Crichton in 1823, for the body on this occasion appears to have been stolen.
Reports don’t indicate if this next story was due to body snatchers or to a revenge attack but when parishioners went to church on the morning of Saturday 6th September, they were confronted with the most horrific sight.
After being buried in a grave 13ft deep, the body of a young man had been exhumed only a week later. For reasons unknown, after his body was taken his grave it was left open and when morning came:
…the coffin [was found] broken to pieces, the linen torn and strewn about, and instead of the body, a large swarm of black maggots/flies which the unwholesome air had attracted to the spot.
Checking for Body Snatching Prevention
As body snatching became more prevalent, and certainly by the mid-1810s, preventative measures were being introduced into churchyards.
High walls were built around graveyards and both watching and mortsafe societies were being established up and down the land.
These were hoped to provide some form of security over the graves of your loved ones during those perilous first weeks when cadavers would still have been useful to the surgeons.
But a mortsafe was an obvious deterrent to spot and if a body snatcher came across a grave with any of these in place, they would simply choose an easier quarry.
What they really had to look out for was the prevention put in place by the poorer members of the parish.
Body Snatching Prevention Used by the Poor
Body snatchers and anatomists cared nothing as to who made it to the dissecting table, only that someone did, and so all graves were targeted.
Without the funds to buy solid protection like a mortsafe or join a weekly club to help support ‘the watch’, then the poorer members of society looked at alternative, more simple methods of protecting their dead. Small piles of sticks or strategically placed stones or shells was a favoured method used by the poor in an attempt to detect if a grave had been targeted.
Unfortunately, such items were placed on graves in complete ignorance as you can read in my post specifically on these simpler prevention methods, for they not only highlighted that a recent burial had taken place, but they provided no protection at all.
Body snatchers were cunning folk and after making a note of their layout, would have made sure they were replaced in exactly the same way as when they found them. The grieving relative visiting the corpse the next day being none the wiser.
Bransdby Cooper, writing about the life of his Uncle, famed surgeon Sir Astley Paston Cooper, noted that female accomplices would be sent to the grave during the day to note any traps that may have been placed.
Speaking directly in relation to cemetery guns, Cooper noted how the location of the pegs that were used to support the trip wires would be recorded so that these could be removed and replaced in exactly the same way before leaving the site.
Accessing The Coffin
There was lots of confusion and speculation as to how a corpse was removed from a grave, and perhaps the most common theory suggested at the time was given by Thomas Wakely, founder of the medical journal The Lancet.
People couldn’t understand how a grave could be desecrated and no trace left by the body snatchers. Surely if you were to dig up a coffin, there’d be a bit of mess somewhere along the line?
The Tunnel Theory
Wakley’s theory centered around a sloping tunnel being dug some way off from the grave itself. The Lancet notes:
In the case of a neat or not quite so new grave, the ingenuity of the resurrectionists came into play. Several feet -fifteen or twenty- away from the head or foot of the grave he would remove a square of turf about eighteen or twenty inches in diameter.
This he would carefully put by, and then commence to mine… Taking a five-foot grave, the coffin lid would be about four feet from the surface. A rough slanting tunnel some five yards long would therefore have to be constructed as to impinge exactly on the coffin head.
…the coffin was lugged up by hooks to the surface, or, preferably, the end of the coffin was wrenched off with the hooks while still in the shelter of the tunnel and the scalp or the feet of the corpse secured through the open end and the body pulled out leaving the coffin almost intact and unmoved.
This theory was quickly dismissed and it’s easy to see why when you take a few things into consideration:
You can see the impracticalities that present themselves with this method and I have not come across any known evidence that any cadaver was stolen using this method.
So how did they do it? It was quite simple really.
How A Body Snatcher Reached The Coffin
There was no real secret in their method. Like author Brian Bailey says, they simply took good care to cover their tracks.
After identifying a recent burial, digging would commence at the head end of the coffin. the soil would be mounted onto the opposite end and if it was thought any would spill onto the grass, then a sack would be placed alongside the grave to catch the loose soil.
Using a wooden shovel, a hole would be dug until the coffin lid was reached. A crowbar was used to snap the coffin lid across the chest area, the soil acting as a canter-lever assisted in the break. The cadaver would then be extracted either by placing hooks under the armpits or tying a rope around its neck.
In Salcombe Regis, Devon, a slightly alternative method was used to break the lid of the coffin. Instead of a crowbar, an iron ‘corkscrew’ was screwed through the lid and pulled on until the coffin broke.
If you’re ever in the vicinity, nip down to the parish church of St Mary’s and St Peter’s and take a closer look at the lych gate there – the ‘corkscrew’ has been put to good use as the bolt for the gate.
Once the coffin was open, and you’d checked the corpse for freshness; maybe even the presence of a coffin collar (another preventative measure, that you’d be miffed at finding at this stage), it’s time to extract the corpse.
Removing a Corpse From a Grave
So this is the part you’ve all been waiting for. How did they get the corpse out of the coffin? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it really is quite simple and boring.
The more grotesque stuff comes when they’re carrying the cadavers away in the next section, so stick with me for a few moments longer.
There was no real skill in removing a corpse. Strength and a little bit of technique perhaps but that was all, although it is said that short sharp tugs proved effective in getting the cadaver out quickly.
Many body snatchers had iron hooks made so that these could be slipped under the armpits of the cadaver and hooked into place through the burial shroud and pierced into the skin.
We know of cases where body snatching equipment was discovered in Paisley, Scotland that consist of shovels and a rope with a hook at the end, the discovery subsequently leading to riots in the town.
A little further south, two body snatchers, John Simpson and William Thompson were apprehended in the Newcastle in the North East of England and were found to have a shovel, short crook (hook) and a blood-stained sack on them.
Proof then that this method of extraction certainly was being used.
The hooks probably would also have left a puncture mark in the skin but I have read of no complaints from anatomists because of this and it seemed a preferred method.
I recently learnt that with body snatching cases in America, the cadaver was dragged out of the grave with the hook placed under the chin.
I would have thought this would have been less secured and marked the cadaver more; a greater chance of damaging the jaw perhaps, but if the surgeons didn’t complain, then I can see no reason as to why the body snatcher would have altered their method if they didn’t need to.
Pulling Out A Cadaver With A Rope
Another favoured method was to tie a rope around the cadaver’s neck and we know that in 1828 body snatcher John McQuillan was arrested in Edinburgh and found to have a sack, shovel and rope on his person.
From the body snatching cases where the tools of the trade are given, these are more often than not listed as hooks and sacks rather than ropes.
Personally, I would have chosen to extract the corpse using the hooks under the armpits as at least you didn’t have to get quite so close to the corpse’s face.
Removing the Cadavers From the Graveside
This is perhaps the most interesting part of the whole process and one which for me, presents the most questions.
Once the cadaver was safely out of the coffin, it would immediately be stripped of its burial clothes.
In English law a body didn’t belong to anyone, so stealing it was classed as a misdemeanour.
If caught, the body snatcher could perhaps see a prison sentence of a few weeks or 6 months at the most, depending on the severity of the crime, as in the case of the Hope Street Body Snatching Scandle in 1826, but they would soon be out ready to re-offend.
If anything else was taken from the grave then this escalated the crime to a felony and this altered thing quite dramatically.
A prison sentence could quite easily be changed to something more serious such as transportation, and although rare, there are a handful of cases where this actually happened.
The most notorious amongst them was Thomas Goslin alias Vaughan, a member of the notorious Borough Gang based in London.
Extracting The Cadavers Teeth
All body snatchers knew the value in a set of teeth. Georgian high society had a thing for replacing their blackened stumps with real teeth and little did they know that these derived from the mouth of cadavers.
Teeth would have been bashed out extremely violently with a brawdle and popped into the body snatchers pocket to sell the dentists later. A decent set would fetch a tidy profit so it was a nice side-line to be in.
In the case of the Italian Boy Murderers, during May’s prosecution, it came to light that teeth they supplied to dentist Thomas Mills still had at one point ‘portions of gums and jawbone’ attached to them, showing how violently these things were removed.
There was also another reason for extracting the teeth.
If you were caught leaving the graveyard with a cadaver and had to ditch this over a nearby hedge, then your labours for the evening would not have been fruitless for if you did escape, then you at least still had something to show for your evenings work.
Getting Your Corpse Into A Sack
There were a number of ways that body snatchers removed the cadavers from the churchyard and the most common of these was in a sack.
Folding, or rather snapping the cadaver in half in order for them to fit, one can only begin to imagine the horrors that this task presented.
To ‘snap’ the cadaver you would have had to have been in extremely close contact and would also have had to have touched its cold grey skin.
Depending on the length of the time the cadaver had been dead, this may have taken more effort. Chris Woodyard of Haunted Ohio Books recently discussed body snatching cases in America with me and mentioned that the body snatchers there jumped on the back of the corpse in order to crack their backs.
An extremely effective method and one which I imagine was adopted here, even if it did ruin the knees of your britches.
Cadavers were also slung over a body snatchers shoulder and thrown in the back of a gig or, if it was an inner-city churchyard that had been targeted, the cadaver may have been placed on a cart or directly into a hamper.
Whatever method was used, the body snatcher and the cadaver had to get into close contact with each other at some point.
Times When A Coffin Needed to be Exhumed
Although I have spent this blog telling you that the coffin remained in the ground when a body was stolen this wasn’t always the case.
Pauper graves or burial pits were a firm favourite with the body snatchers for they could target many bodies at once and reap the rewards of a quick evening’s work.
Graves tended to be quite shallow and in some instances, the soil may only have been a few inches thick on top of the final coffins and so these burials presented themselves as easy targets.
The coffins would be removed one by one and the bodies extracted. Multiple cadavers could be removed and nobody would be any the wiser come the morning.
There is one parish, and the name escapes me, where they were so fed up of body snatchers stealing cadavers from their pauper burial pit that they fashioned some doors over the top and secured these with a padlock.
A fruitless effort for the body snatchers simply made a replica and replaced this for the original, giving them ready access.
One evening, as they were working in the burial pit, they became aware of a presence in the graveyard with them. With the pit door open, their only escape was to hide for a moment among the corpses till the threat of discovery had passed.
Unfortunately, they had been spotted jumping into the pit and closing the doors above their heads.
A quick-thinking member of the parish watch secured the blot and padlock over them and kept the body snatchers captive until the constables were called for.
The smell and distress of being trapped in a pauper burial pit is something that’ll I’ll leave for another time, although I expect you can imagine the horrors that they went through being locked in the darkness for a few hours.
Researching Removing A Cadaver From the Grave
*So that you may be able to put this into context better with the abbreviations used within these entries of the diary let me tell you what they mean. it should be noted that the sentence given in brackets in the last entry is noted as being crossed out in the actual diary for reasons unknown)
Danl. – This is gang member Daniel Butler
Barthm. – This is Bartholomew’s Hosptal, London
An Adult M. – This was the corpse of an adult male
Lambh. – This is Lambeth Burial Ground
If you’d like to read more about the ‘Diary of a Resurrectionists’ and the events recorded in the diary for one random week in February, you’ll definitely enjoy my post ‘A Week in the Life of a London Body Snatcher’
Most books relating to body snatching include some mention of the extraction process but if I were to recommend only one, it would be Ruth Richardson’s ‘Death Dissection and the Destitute’. Her chapter on the corpse as a commodity will give you an excellent introduction to the subject.