Protecting the Poor: ‘Homemade’ Bodysnatching Prevention

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Cromdale, Highlands. Authors own photo.

Bodysnatchers or ‘Sack’em up men’ didn’t care who they snatched. Rich or poor – a cadaver was a cadaver as far as they were concerned. ¬†Authorities were doing little to help in the fight against the resurrection men so parishes were left to find their own protection and some parishioners came up with some rather nifty solutions.¬† The rich protected themselves with mortsafes and caged lairs but the poor, well, that was a very different story.

The easiest and perhaps the most well known of these ‘home-made’ preventions is the simple and quite ineffective pile of sticks or stones placed on the recently deceased’s grave. Unsuspecting relatives believed that by placing sticks in a seemingly random pile, they would be able to see if the grave had been tampered with. Although this simple method would have given peace of mind to the grieving relatives, to the bodysnatchers themselves it was like a beacon shining in the graveyard indicating that a fresh cadaver was available.

Bodysnatchers would take note of the layout of these tokens before digging the grave. Any carefully laid sticks or pile of stones was sketched or scrutinized so that it could be replaced in exactly the same place after the snatching had taken place.

Another seemingly obvious solution was to dig deeper graves. This however did have its drawbacks as the gravedigger in Anderston, Glasgow as to discover in 1822.

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser - Thursday 19 December 1822
Public Ledger & Daily Advertiser – 19 December 1822

A slightly more extreme deterrent was put in place by an anxious sexton in 1817 in St Martin in the Field. His ‘contraption’¬† consisted of a ‘number of gun barrels so as to form a magazine, that they might be discharged together’. Having probably been inspired by the use of cemetery guns, this piece of apparatus went one step further. A series of trip wires were attached to a piece of wood which was then buried in the grave. When the bodysnatcher unearthed the wood while exhuming the corpse, he naturally would have to move it out of the way to carry on digging, releasing the trigger and a volley of bullets in the process.

The sextons device seems to have worked for The Times reported on 30 December a ‘tremendous report’ that was heard in the graveyard and on inspection ‘spades, shovels, picks and other resurrection paraphernalia’ was found. A bodysnatcher’s hat was also found with a single bullet hole in the side – no exit hole being obvious.

The method of rigging trip wires to guns was taken one step further by a father who was burying his child in 1823 in a churchyard in Dundee. Placing a small box containing gunpowder in the bottom of the child’s coffin, he then rigged trip wires so that any tampering with the grave would result in the bodysnatcher being blown up.

Morning Chronicle - Thursday 31 July 1823
Morning Chronicle – Thursday 31 July 1823

Ingenious methods were abound in 1823 when Ann, the daughter of Mr. Milsome, died at just 19 years of age. Ann’s coffin was chained to a stone which had been placed in the grave prior to the coffin being interred. If this wasn’t enough, a series of spring bolts fastened the two together.

It was not unknown for parishioners to keep their loved ones above ground until decay had ensured that the resurrection men would no longer be interested in the body. Some individuals, like Mr Cuckson who was guard of the Express coach from Hull to London, buried their loved ones in their garden. Discovery of Mr Cuckson’s fear of the bodysnatchers came some ten years later in 1841 when the current owner of the premises was digging up the garden and came across the coffin.

Freeman's Journal - Friday 12 February 1841
Freeman’s Journal – Friday 12 February 1841

There were other forms of deterrent that I’ve not mentioned here. Adding straw or stones to the soil when it was being back filled into the grave was another simple way to put the bodysnatchers off but as Thomas Heeson found out in 1828, this was not always as effective as one might hope.

Nor have I mentioned quick lime or the adding of sulphuric acid to the coffin prior to burial as one article in a York paper mentioned. I will no doubt add to these sad tales as my research continues, but for now, I leave you with these few desperate attempts by family members to keep their loved ones safe during what has been termed the ‘Resurrection Times’.