From Dressmaker to Bodysnatcher

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 bodysnatchers during their research, I was thrilled when they agreed to write a guest post. So, without further ado, I give you ‘From Dressmaker to Bodysnatcher’. 

A Country Burial Courtesy of 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.
Our research was actually about the renowned milliner and court dress maker of 32 Albemarle Street, Mrs Charlotte Bean. She found fame as dress maker to ‘Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Kent and also the Princess Charlotte of Saxe Coburg by special appointment’. It didn’t take us long to unearth another story about one of her apprentices, a Miss Elizabeth Lane. 

Two dresses designed by Mrs Bean.  Courtesy of Ackermann’s Repository, June 1814.
On July 18th 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 21stJune, 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. 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.

Resurrection Men, 1792. Courtesy of the British Museum.
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.
Resurrection men disturb’d, or, A guilty conscience needs no accuser. 
Cruikshank, 1794. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library  

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 13th1810, Webb, in his defence, 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.

Sources:
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.

A Right Royal Scandal is out in the UK from 30th November 2016 and in the US and elsewhere from 5thMarch 2017, but can be pre-ordered now.
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.

3 thoughts on “From Dressmaker to Bodysnatcher

  • It is interesting to see that Elizabeth was 'snatched' in June. The dissecting season was over by then; anatomists not being able to keep cadavers fresh long enough to make full use of them. It is probable that Elizabeth was snatched for an anatomist to carry out a private dissection or for a private anatomy class to practice dissection outside of the usual term time. Great post!

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  • Suzie, I had no idea that there was a dissecting season back then. How interesting.

    I wonder if any of the people who dissected Elizabeth's body ended up catching the measles from her? That seems like it would have been a big risk back then because of how common diseases like that were.

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  • The season ran from October – May, bodies simply decomposed too quickly in the heat of the summer. I truly believe that surgeons etc. did catch disease from cadavers, although I would have expected the cadaver to have been ditched pretty sharpish once the disease was discovered! It would be an interesting study to see how many surgeons were inflicted with diseases from the bodies they cut open. You do read of tales where surgeon's died of sepsis after cutting a finger during a dissection so it was probably more common than you would expect.

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