In 1802, at the Sessions House in Clerkenwell, Joseph Naples, stood quietly at the bar and listened to the case that had been brought against him.
The Caledonian Mercury left nothing to the imagination when the story was printed in its Monday edition on May 10.
‘Joseph Naples, [you are indicted] for stealing dead bodies from Spa Fields Burial ground…and also for stealing caps, pillows, shrouds, nails, screws and coffin plates belonging thereto, and the coffins wherein they had been buried.’
Using his privileged position, Naples, a future member of London’s Borough Gang and writer of the infamous ‘Diary of a Resurrectionist’, provided a steady supply of cadavers to nearby teaching hospitals after they’d supplied him with baskets in which to carry them.
Having been employed as a gravedigger for the previous two years at the non-conformist burial ground at Spa Fields; one of four burial grounds attached to St James’s Church, Clerkenwell, Naples would have been more than aware that the burial ground was overcrowded and that his actions would most likely have gone unnoticed.
Working throughout the ‘dissecting season’, he’d certainly been busy; removing cadavers at a rate of two to three PER DAY, something that for one individual to do was quite unheard of.
So how did he do it?
Raising The Dead
According to the testimony of his sister in law, 14 yr old Harriet Collins, Naples would generally dig up the cadavers during the daytime, occasionally storing some of these in HIS HOUSE before taking them to the relevant hospitals.
Given his position as gravedigger, his time spent at the graveside wouldn’t have caused any concern so he could work at his task more methodically than most.
The bodies would be removed from the coffin and placed on top while still in the grave and as the soil was being backfilled, he would slowly raise the body to the top until finally covering it with a thin layer of soil so that should anyone look at the grave, nothing would seem untoward.
He would later, when night had fallen and usually around the hour of 6pm, go around collecting up the cavadvers, making great use of the baskets provided by the hospitals.
During her statement, Harriet provided a further insight to the events that often played out at the side of the grave.
This poor girl of 14 years of age would often hold the basket open for Naples as he squashed and rammed the cadavers inside, presumably without a care in the world.
If she wasn’t on ‘basket duty’, Harriet would be keeping watch over the graveyard, ready to raise the alarm if any of the Bow Street patrol were in the area.
Quite shockingly, Harriet:
‘…once saw him cut off the head of a young woman, which he took to the hospital immediately, and many times after … saw him with the heads of persons he said had died of particular disorders’
Cutting Off Extremities
If you are familiar with Naples, you’ll know that he had a particular fondness for removing cadavers’ extremities; that is the arms and legs, fingers or toes, heads. Especially if a corpse had perhaps gone past its best.
If we dip into the diary that he kept between November 1811 and December 1812, we can see that a number of entries mention the removal of extremities.
Thursday 27 February 1812
Went to St. Thomas’s, sold the extremities. At night Tom, Bill got drunk at the Rockingham Arms, at Home all night’.
Wednesday 12 August 1812
Went to look out, at night went to Bartholm. crib [Bartholomew’s Hospital]. Cut off the extremities took to Bartholm. – Recd. £1. 0s. 0d
Teeth were also another favourite item to remove. With the increased consumption of sugar and the rapid blackening of teeth, members of the upper classes were keen to have their own teeth replaced with false ones.
Teeth were therefore a valuable commodity and after Naples had removed these with pincers, he could receive ‘a Guinea, sometimes more’ for each set.
For about the past two years, between 1800 and 1802, Naples had quite happily been exhuming cadavers and their extremities until he was seen by W. Bacon of the Bow Street Patrol.
While carrying out his rounds on the night of the 26th November 1801, Bacon spotted ‘ a man’ carrying a basket over his shoulder.
When he asked the man to step into the nearby public house so he could ‘have a word’ the man dropped his basket and fled.
The bodies found within the basket were that of the recently buried Mrs Windsor, wife of George and also the body of their son both of whom had recently been buried in Spa Fields.
After being conveyed to Bow Street, the bodies were then taken to the vault beneath the church of St James’s, Clerkenwell to await reinterment.
It later turned out that the man who had fled the scene was not Naples at all but rather the man who would be responsible for getting mild mannered Naples into body snatching in the first place, Joseph White.
A Body Snatchers Error
As the resurrection trade grew and the public became more aware of their perilous situation, body snatchers became quite particular in following certain rules.
The most important of these, and one which was religiously followed, by most anyway, was the complete removal of the burial clothes and any personal effects.
Nobody owned a dead body so the theft of one was more of a moral concern rather than a crime. Getting caught resulted in a short prison sentence at most, much of the time easily endured by the body snatcher.
Steal any property along with the corpse, that is the burial shroud or any burial adornments, then you have committed a theft and you will be tried for a felony.
A Bundle Of Corpse Clothes
You’ll remember at the beginning of this post that Naples was indicted for stealing the burial shrouds as well as other items.
Turns out that Naples would do a number of different things with these items. His favourite and most trusted method was to throw them into the privy at his home within the grounds of Spa Fields.
Infact, when the lid was removed and a rod was stirred around the bottom of the cesspit which measured ‘five or six feet wide and many feet deep’ it was found to be clogged with the burial shrouds.
Naples also burnt some of the clothing, offered Harriet a ribbon or two that had been tied round the corpse for her hair and quite remarkably, also tried to do a deal with the local undertaker George Atkins to see if he wanted to buy some ‘nearly new’ burial clothes.
It seems like Mr Naples was aspiring to be a real life Fagin.
But unfortunately for Naples, as gravedigger to the burial ground where the cadavers had been snatched, he was the one to take the blame.
Despite there being some apprehension as to the truth of Harriet’s statement, with some believing that she was perhaps speaking through mallis due to her poor treatment from Naples, he was still found guilty and sentenced.
His two year sentence in Coldbath Fields Prison, however, would soon prove to be a bit of an adventure.
A Body Snatcher Breaks Out Of Prison
Less than two months later he was planning his escape with another inmate, George Jones.
The pair made their escape by picking the locks in their cell and making over the prison wall with a rope ladder. After being put to picking oakum in the prison, it was thought that the ladder had been slowly crafted while working diligently at this unforgiving task.
Two days later, and I hope to God this report in the Bury & Norwich Post is true, a basket arrived at the prison addressed to Governor Aris.
Inside were two prison uniforms and a letter from the escapees saying that they had no further use for them!
Freedom was short lived however, for rival body snatcher Ben Crouch, leader of the Borough Gang, told authorities of his whereabouts and he was recaptured and sent back to serve the rest of his sentence.
Upon his release, no-one wanted to employ Naples and so there was only one avenue left to turn. Join forces with Ben Crouch and the powerful Borough Gang and start thinking about writing a diary in ten years time.
Taking It Further
You can still visit Spa Fields Burial ground today, although there’s no longer anything there. The gravestones were removed long ago and it’s now a park, visited by office workers and locals taking time out from their day, you may know it as Spa Fields Park and is not too far from the London Metropolitan Archives.
The arrest of Naples is well covered in contemporary newspapers, all of which are available on the British Newspaper Archive Website (£) You can buy a monthly subscription if you wish, which at the time of writing is £12.95 per month, although I find it hard to stop researching once I’m on there!
If you’re interested in reading Naples’s Diary, it is available free online via the Project Gutenberg website or, if like me you prefer to work with a hard copy then you can pick copies up quite easily via AbeBooks.co.uk