Body Snatching In Lasswade Old Kirkyard, Midlothian, EH18

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Body Snatching In Lasswade Old Kirkyard, Midlothian, EH18

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Ah, Lasswade, set in the beautiful countryside of Midlothian, Scotland, once with a penchant for growing strawberries and an excellence at paper making and carpet manufacture. 

Who’d have thought the tranquility would come to a screeching halt in 1829. 

With a rising population and the ‘Old Kirk’ closing its doors to the congregation in 1793, it is perhaps with some surprise that the site here was ever targeted at all. 

But targeted it was, mainly due to the Miller woman who couldn’t keep her mouth shut and needed to make a penny or two to survive while her own grave robbing husband was serving time for snatching a cadaver back at Lanark. 

The tantalising snippets offered in Norman AdamsScottish Bodysnatchers’  and Geoff Holder’s ‘Scottish Bodysnatchers: A Gazetteer’ are but the tip of the iceberg, and so in true ‘DiggingUp’ fashion, I decided to dig a little deeper. 

A Brief History of Old Lasswade, Midlothian

Life in the rural village of Lasswade was ticking along relatively smoothly in the early 19th century and with its steadily increasing population – 3348 inhabitants in 1801, rising to 5022 forty years later – the graveyard was being suitably refreshed on a regular basis. 

The ‘Old Kirk’, once dedicated to St Edwin, had been slowly turning into a ruin since 1793, when, with a congregation of over 1000, a new church was needed elsewhere in the village. The three story high belltower, used as a watch tower against resurrection men, would not fall down until 1866 when repairs to make the structure safe backfired. 

To help you get a feel of the area, or just to take a peek at because it’s Scotland, here’s a 2 minute YouTube video from Tour Scotland covering Old Lasswade.  

 I think the Old Kirk can be seen in the image timestamped at 1:25 – it would be the graveyard on the extreme right, with the ruined church in the middle. 

Interments at the ‘Old Kirk’ still continued, as week after week the deceased of the parish would be laid to rest among the gravestones of earlier inhabitants.   

The Need For Liquor Or A Body Snatchers Informant

The fact that Helen Miller neé Begbie was married to a resurrection man would perhaps have put her on high alert when it came to burying the parish dead. It was her husband’s livelihood after all and well, it pays to keep these things in the family. 

But when her husband was imprisoned for stealing cadavers from the graveyard in Lanark, Helen’s living allowance suddenly dried up. The likes of Helen Miller didn’t get handouts from the surgeons like body snatchers wives did in London when their men were sent goal. No, she had to make her own way for the next few months and there was only one way in which she knew how. 

Urged on by the fact that she also needed to fund a liquor habit, Helen came up with a plan that was about to help probably all of the resurrection men working in and around the city of Edinburgh. 

Her plan was pretty straight forward, she’d tell them where and when a fresh cadaver was available and get paid for providing the information. Simple. And so it was that Helen Miller, neé Begbie turned informant. 

Her first target was known counterfeiter and thief, James Gow. The 25-year-old, by all accounts, sounded as though he’d turn his hand to anything. So when Helen gave him information as to where he could find a cadaver and a fresh one at that, he wasn’t going to miss the chance of earning a quick buck. 

The going rate for fresh subjects was £10, at least, that’s what Dr Knox was paying. 

And so, while Burke and Hare were still quietly knocking off unsuspecting folk from the city streets in Edinburgh, James Gow grabbed his painter friend and sidekick James Hewitt and made a beeline for Lasswade. 

Preparing For The Raid

It’s not every counterfeiter and painter that already has their own equipment for extracting cadavers as so, before leaving Edinburgh the pair paid a visit to anatomist John Lizars, offering him first refusal of the cadaver if he’d give them some money for a spade. 

The criminal fraternity aren’t really known for keeping their word and so it was perhaps of little surprise when Lizars refused to help on this occasion. He was however, still interested in purchasing the cadaver once they’d got it out of the ground. 

This was of little, in fact if any, help to the  two James’ and so off they went to try their luck with Thomas Aitken instead, surgeon and lecturer at Surgeon’s Square. 

Again they were rebuffed. There perhaps wasn’t an anatomist in the whole of Edinburgh who would be stupid enough to give a body snatcher money BEFORE seeing the corpse, but whether this was Gow’s first time at snatching or he was merely trying his luck, he was going to have to try to find his own spade. 

Too Much Interest or A Frenzy In Lasswade Kirkyard

Lasswade Old Kirk Memento Mori

The first cadaver that Helen let slip that had just been freshly buried was that of a female corpse. Highly prized amongst surgeons and guaranteed to bring a fair price. 

Two days later, Gow and Hewitt turned up with the cadaver of Joan Swan stuffed into a sack at the backdoor of Surgeon’s Square, corpse stripped andwith their hand out waiting to be paid. 

Things were finally going to plan. 

More news was coming from Miller that even more cadavers were ready for snatching at Lasswade, and so the pair returned, only to be met with a scene no one had quite anticipated. 

In her desperation, either for drink or some other commodious item, Miller had worked her way  around a number of resurrectionists in Edinburgh, one by one, telling them of the bounty available in Lasswade. 

When Gow and Hewitt returned to the site, they weren’t the only ones visiting the kirkyard.  

By the time Helen has finished spreading the news of the spoils to be had on the outskirts of town, a total of eleven body snatchers and surgeons were involved in the plot to strip Lasswade clean of its dead, and amongst them was notorious Edinburgh body snatcher Andrew Merrylees. 

Trial and Imprisonment for Lasswade’s Graveyard Thieves 

Andrew Merrylees alias Lees, was a regular on the ‘anatomists circuit’ and at the time had dealings with Dr Knox, the anatomist who was also getting a steady supply of cadavers from murderers Burke and Hare.  It was to be another nine months before their last victim Mary Docherty was to be discovered, and quite frankly, the consequences of their actions had yet to be considered.

Originally from the country, Lees was the head of a small band of resurrection men who often descended on Edinburgh’s kirkyards for its dead. 

‘Merry Andrew’ as he was also know, appears a few time throughout my blog, but his main story can be read here in the post ‘Body Snatching In Edinburgh: The Notorious Merry Andrew’ 

The men, and women, let’s not forget Helen Miller in this tale, were charged with violating the sepulchre of two graves in Lasswade. 

Accounts mention three cadavers being sold to the anatomists that January in 1829. After a little research, I believe these to be John Braid, Joan Swan, mentioned above, and the body of an unknown  child. I’ve not yet been able to find information about this last cadaver, but no doubt something may turn up as my research continues. 

When the trial was finally held in July, three of those accused were immediately outlawed for not appearing, one of these included Andrew Lees. 

Although there were three people who were outlawed, and the instigator of the whole affair Helen Miller wasn’t prosecuted, that still left a number of individuals still to deal with. 

The anatomists involved weren’t prosecuted and the only men punished for their part in the Lasswade raids were three body snatchers by the names of Kerr, Barclay and Cameron.

John Kerr, a known resurrectionist on the streets of Edinburgh, was sentenced to nine months imprisonment with Hard Labour in the Bridewell on Calton Hill. He was to be joined for six of those months by James Barclay and George Cameron.  

The Fate of James Gow – Counterfeiter, Thief & One Time Body Snatcher 

Old Assembly Close, Royal Mile Edinburgh

Having had a lucky escape at the trial in July, Gow had learnt nothing from his recent brush with the law. 

One year later he was once again being accused of stealing a cadaver but this time things were about to take a slightly different turn. 

Having previously made a deal  to acquire a cadaver for lodgings in Old Assembly Close, tucked tight off the Royal Mile in the heart of Edinburgh City, on arrival the door was found to be locked. 

Instead of returning at a later date, James Gow, together with accomplice Daniel Grant, broke down the door escalating their crime from misdemeanour. 

I have read that James was transported for this crime but I don’t believe this to be true. Instead I believe he was sentenced, along with Daniel to nine month imprisonment in the Bridwell on Calton Hill. 

The Aftermath of The Body Snatchers

Caged lair Lasswade Old Kirk Midlothian

Take a trip to Lasswade today and you’ll find remnants of its body snatching past.

Fear of a visit from these ‘ungodly men’  had brought a genuine fear into the lives of the inhabitants of Lasswade and this can be seen throughout the ‘Old Kirkyard’ today. 

As you walk into the site, look up and then over to the left. The caged lair you see is in the Calderwood Enclosure, lying in the Claderwood of Polton aisle of the Old Kirk. 

Its iron barred roof would have created a barrier between the body snatcher and the anatomists table. If you’re lucky, the door to the lair may be unlocked, I find these places incredibly eerie when walking inside. 

Laying on the grass near what is known as the Eldin Aisle is a large lump of rock, properly referred to as a mortstone. This would have been shared amongst the parish and placed over the top of the coffin until the corpse inside was no longer useful to the anatomists. 

To get a better understanding of mortstones, why not take a look at my other post ‘Mortstones: Protecting Yourself From The Resurrection Men’   

The final type of body snatching prevention is sadly no longer here for it collapsed in 1866. In the former bell tower to the original kirk was a watch house, taking up the lower floor of this three-story high structure. 

It would have been there in 1829 when the site was being raided by Gow and his fellow body snatchers and it remains a mystery why no watch was on duty that January in 1829. Even Helen Miller mentioned that the coast would be clear for ‘there was no watch’ – a grave mistake indeed. 

Taking Things Further 

[1] I have already referred to two books which also mention this case, Norman AdamsScottish Bodysnatchers’  and Geoff Holder’s ‘Scottish Bodysnatchers: A Gazetteer’, both of which are excellent.

I have built on this case but my research is by no means complete. Tracing a body snatcher is a little like tracing your own family history, sometimes the information is forthcoming, other times it’s like pulling teeth trying to piece the information together. I hope to build on this someday. 

[2] Canmore, the Historic Environment website has some terrific images of the tower at Lasswade Kirk dating to 1839, a view well known to the resurrection men targeting the site. One drawing, showing the south view of the church along with the tower titled ‘South view of Old Church at Lasswade, sketched from nature by Alex. Archer. 1839’  is a great example of what the site would have been like. 

[3[ Lasswade District Civic Society website helped with references to events and statistics in order to piece together an image of Lasswade when body snatchers would have been working the area and shipping cadavers back to Edinburgh nine miles away. 

[4] According to the information sign as you enter the kirkyard, provided by the Lasswade District Civic Society (see above), restoration work carried out within the enclosure (date unknown) unearthed a number of 16th century bones that had been trepanned. 

I've been researching the macabre world of body snatching since 2005 when I looked at the topic in depth for my Under Grad dissertation. Since then, I've been absolutely fascinated by this often forgotten side of Britain's history.