The Hope Street Body Snatching Scandal, Liverpool

When an acrid smell wafted into the nostrils of the hardened dock workers of George’s Dock, Liverpool on the morning of the 10th October 1826, they did the only thing available to them, they called their boss to take a look.

Unbeknown to them, they had just stumbled upon the biggest wholesale transportation of cadavers that was to be discovered throughout the whole body snatching era.

A total of thirty-three bodies were discovered in October 1826 in Liverpool all at different stages of being packed into barrels ready for shipment to Leith, Scotland. Up to five men were involved in the body snatching gang, based at 8 Hope St, Liverpool. At the time of the arrests, only three would eventually be brought to justice, with one being discharged and the gang leader disappearing before the trial even started.

The discovery of corpses at the dockside, and then later at 8 Hope Street, where up to three to four bodies were found forced into single barrels was about to make even the most hardened of men nauseous.

It’s time to share with you the story of Liverpool’s most shocking body snatching scandal, where we look at the details from the dockside to the courtroom

Dead Bodies at George’s Dock, Liverpool

St George's Dock, Liverpool where eleven cadavers were discovered in barrels in 1826 in connection to the Hope Street Body Snatching Affair
George’s Dock | Liverpool, 1897 | Wikicommons

On the evening of 9th October 1826, three barrels were hastily stored between decks on the smack Latona in Liverpool’s George Dock.

The boat was heading to the Leith Docks near Edinburgh, Scotland and was a regular service provided by the Carron Company of Redcross Street, who owned a fleet of vessels.

On the morning of 10th October, as the barrels, all labelled ‘Bitter Salts’, were moved to a more secure location, a sickly smell of death passed under the noses of the dock workers. When Captain Walker, Master of the vessel was called to investigate, he would discover the biggest transportation network of cadavers ever carried out by resurrection men.

On the side of one barrel was a straw bung, filling a hole just big enough for a man to squeeze a few fingers through. With this swiftly removed, Captain Walker plunged his fingers (some account’s say his whole hand) into the unknown.

Counting The Bodies: The ‘Dead House’ Chapel St, Liverpool

The three barrels, addressed to a Mr G.H. Ironson, Edinburgh were labelled up as ‘Bitter Salts’, that’s Epsom Salts to you and me.

Not only would this have acted as a preservative, in effect pickling the bodies, but it would also have soaked up any fluid that may have leaked from the corpse, helped pack the bodies tighter into the barrels and stopped them rubbing against the sides.

After Captian Walker had removed his hand, and a conclusion about the contents made, all three barrels were quickly removed to the Dead House on Chapel Street, where the party were met by Constable Socket.

The lids were prised off and the contents finally exposed.

Packet into each barrel was a large number of adult corpses. All naked and all having the signs of having died within the space of a few days.

A body count got underway. The barrels, it is said, contained:

  •   Barrel 1: 1 x Adult Male, 2 x Adult Females
  •   Barrel 2: 2 x Adult Males, 1 x Adult Female
  •   Barrel 3: 3 x Adult Males, 1 x Adult Female

What Size Barrel Would Hold A Cadaver?

I’ve seen differing accounts giving the names/types of barrel that would have been used by the Liverpool body snatchers. One states a Newfoundland Oil Cask was used, which, as far as I can decipher, would have held 42 gallons of liquid.

I am no barrel expert but this appears to be the same size as a type of barrel called Tierce.

We do know that when the cellar at Hope Street was searched, a Tierce (see diagram) was discovered filled with brine. When the brine was drained, inside were found the bodies of a number of babies.

Another account says that a Hogshead barrel was used, which is capable of storing 63 gallons of liquid.

Whichever sized container was used, judging from the images in the graphic below, they don’t appear to be very big to the untrained eye. Plus, imagine all that weight; three or four adult corpses inside a dense wooden barrel would not have been light.

English wine cask units 1
Adapted from an image via By Grolltech | Wikicommons

Transporting cadavers across the country disguised as various foodstuffs or items of a particular fragile nature was a common occurrence during the body snatching era with boxes regularly being discovered at Coaching Inns up and down the country.

You can read further about the trials and tribulations of transporting a cadaver to the medical schools of England and Scotland in another of my posts ‘Bitter Salts and Picked Herrings’ here.

Hunting Down The Hope St Body Snatchers

Once it was realised the extent of the discovery, a manhunt was put into place for the body snatchers.

Having nothing to go on other than the identification of the carter who delivered the barrels, Constable Robert Boughey, a member of the Dock Police and the man now in charge of the investigation, set about trying to pin down their only lead on the case.

Finding The Carter John/George Leach

The carter, John or George Leech regularly delivered items to the docks and had been hired by gang member, John Donaldson, to take the three barrels from the premises in Hope Street to George’s Dock.

No. 8 Hope Street belonged to a Rev. James MacGowan who, since about 1822 had been running a boys’ school on the premises.

Beneath the school was a cellar which he had recently rented out to the head of the gang, Scotsman, John Henderson, who claimed he was a cooper by trade but was now dealing in fish oil.

The cellar had been charged at £15 per annum and the last instalment of rent, which would have seen the lease run until the end of January, had only recently been paid in full a few days before the discovery.

Entering The Cellar at No. 8 Hope Street

There had been complaints amongst neighbours and Rev. MacGowan’s pupils that a noxious smell kept wafting up from the cellar at certain times of the day. This was explained away as being fish oil and although not 100% convinced, it seemed to pacify their curiosity for the time being.

Forcing the door of the cellar open, and probably being engulfed by the most dreadful smell, Constable Boughey was perhaps not prepared for what he’d find next.

Lined around the cellar were sacks and barrels in various stages of being filled, as well as clothing belonging to the body snatchers hanging on the walls and on the floor. Newspapers at the time reported that a brass syringe was also found on the premises where it was believed that a ‘preservative liquid’ may have been injected into the cadavers before packing and shipping.

In total twenty-two, further bodies were discovered in the cellar that day, including one woman who still had thread tied around her toe when her feet would have been fastened together before she was placed in the coffin.

All reports give a total body count of thirty-three cadavers. That is eleven found in the barrels at the dockside and a further twenty-two in the cellar.

Try as I might I cannot get the breakdown of cadavers found in the barrels at the dockside to add up to eleven.

A full breakdown of the cadavers found can be read in the Hampshire Chronicle, 16th October 1826: 15 men, 10 women, 5 boys, 3 girls.

A total of thirty-three.

The Trial of the Liverpool Body Snatchers

Kirkdale Prison Liverpool where the Hope Street body Snatchers were imprisoned
Kirkdale Prison | Liverpool | Liverpool Picture Book

It’s understood that five men in total made up the gang of body snatchers responsible for raiding St Mary’s Churchyard, the burial ground used by the workhouse not too far from Hope Street.

At the time of the discovery, four men from the gang were described as still being active in the Liverpool area. Their names were James Donaldson, William Gillespie, Peter MacGregor and John Ross.

It was known that all these men took lodgings together in Caroline Court, off Watkinson Street and as soon as the discovery of their export business was made, they dispersed throughout the city.

During the trial, it was believed that William Gillespie was unaware of the trade of his fellow lodgers and was eventually dismissed from court.

The gang leader, Scotsman John Henderson had absconded long before the authorities were on the scene. But what happened to the other three?

Name of Gang MemberCharacter/AppearanceWhere LivedOutcome
John Henderson
(Gang Leader)
Scotsman, from Greenock, a
cooper by trade, now dealing in fish oil
James DonaldsonScotsman, slender make, about 30 yrs of ageLodger at Caroline Court, Watkinson Street12 months Kirkdale Prison and fined £50
William GillespieScotsman, by trade a blacksmith. A remarkably athletic man.Lodger at Caroline Court, Watkinson StreetDismissed
Peter MacGregorSometimes went by the name of
Rob Roy McGregor but generally by the name of John Brown
Lodger at Caroline Court, Watkinson Street12 months imprisonment with a fine of £25
John Ross
Also known as John Mack or ‘Mack’,
Lodger at Caroline Court, Watkinson Street12 months imprisonment with a fine of £25
Body snatchers involved in the Hope Street Scandal

James Donaldson: The Main Body Snatcher In The Liverpool Gang

James Donaldson was unfortunately seen in the city by a neighbour and was later arrested and tried at the October Sessions for Liverpool, not too long after the discovery itself.

He was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment at Kirkdale Prison and fined £50, being ordered to remain in prison until his fine was paid.

Shockingly, MacGregor and Ross carried on their body snatching antics even when they knew that they were being pursued.

Peter MacGregor

After trying twice to send bodies to Edinburgh at the beginning of November, the net was finally closing in on the pair. Macgregor was arrested after a second attempt to load a box on the Edinburgh coach leaving Dale Street failed.

What gave the contents of the box away was the smell. Suspicions were aroused at the White Horse Coach Office after the first box Macgregor tried to send was stopped and found to contain the body of a female. The box was and sent to the police offices and kept for further examination.

A second box, of similar appearance, was taken to the Golden Lion Inn a few days later and the game was up for MacGregor. He was spotted loitering around, waiting to see if the box was actually put onto the Edinburgh bound coach.

When challenged he tried to make his escape but was swiftly caught. the second box was said to contain the body of recently deceased Margaret Kelly who had recently died of a fever and had been buried only the day before.

John Ross: The Final Liverpool Body Snatcher To Be Caught

Ross on the other hand was spotted walking down Pool Street by the carter who had taken the original three caskets from Hope Street to George Docks, George Leech.

On being recognised he made a run for it and was finally apprehended in a privy in Chapel Street where he was immediately taken to Bridewell.

The sentencing of both Ross and MacGregor took place at the January Sessions for Liverpool in 1827. The men were tried of ‘stealing bodies from a churchyard’ and both were sentenced to 12 months imprisonment with a fine of £25.

The Aftermath Of The Liverpool Body Snatching Scandal

The discoveries on the dockside and at Hope street that October shock the city to its core. This was the first time body snatching had been discovered on such a scale and I imagine it must have sent everyone into a panic.

On 14th November 1826, barley a month after the discoveries and convictions were made, St Mary’s was ordered to raise the height of the churchyard wall and to install railings to deter the body snatchers.

This case played out in the years before Burke and Hare and the Italian Boy murderers, and the second wave of body snatching was yet to reach its peak. Such discoveries, although not entirely unexpected, would certainly have caused alarm due to the sheer scale of things alone.

From this discovery however things were tightened up at St Mary’s where it was supposed the cadavers were stolen.

It had certainly put the wind up the parishioners and one can only imagine the utmost terror the discovery had brought to the inmates of the workhouse who knew that they would die a lonely death and be subject to a paupers burial.

Researching The Hope Street Body Snatching Affair

This is a very famous case for both Liverpool and within body snatching history so it was widely written about in newspapers of the day.

You may enjoy following the story through the newspapers and the editions I used can all be found via the British Newspaper Archive website, although you do need a subscription to view the articles themselves. They do a short monthly subscription which is useful if you just want to look at this particular case.

A study of the Liverpool body snatchers called ‘School for Scandal?’ was carried out by Marie McQuade (2006) and included in the Liverpool History Society Journal, No. 5. I have not read this article but if you are interested in reading McQuade’s account, you can contact the Society via their website here to find out if the publication is still available.

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