Bitter Salts and Pickled Herrings

Leeds Mercury, October 1826

Getting a body from the graveyard to the dissecting table often had its problems. Time really was of the essence, and many a bodysnatcher has met his downfall through delays in shipping. 

I’m not talking about the individual deliveries, the single bodies transported carefully concealed in a sack in the back of a gig or the method adopted by Sheffield body snatcher Alexander Lyons – throwing the corpse over your shoulder and ‘walking’ it round to the local anatomy school. No, I’m talking about the bodies that were packed up and shipped to other parts of Britain. All those ‘Pickled Herrings’ and ‘Bitter Salts’ barrels that, if left too long on the quay side, would start to omit that ever so stomach churning aroma of a decaying corpse.

York & General Advertiser, November 1830

Detection usually came about when dockworkers questioned the number of barrels delivered to the same individual or from the offensive smell that would waft into the face of the unsuspecting porter when finally getting an opportunity to move that barrel that had been waiting all weekend to be shipped. 

A misunderstanding over shipping arrangements at the Turf Hotel, Newcastle one September weekend in 1825, caused a box containing the dead body of a 19 year old woman to be detained longer than planned. Come Monday morning, it was not only the smell but also the liquid that was found to be oozing from the box that raised the alarm that all was not as it seemed.  

In 1826, soldiers loading barrels of  ‘Bitter Salts’ onto the fishing smack  Latona  at Georges Dock, Liverpool, caught a whiff of something offensive. The skipper, instead of removing the lid to find the cause of the stench, removed a plug in the side of the barrel and thrust his hand into the unknown! The soldiers had just stumbled upon the wholesale transportation of bodies which operated from the cellar of a house in Hope St, Liverpool. When found, twenty two bodies were awaiting transportation to Scotland, some already packed into cases and covered in brine. The three barrels that the bodysnatchers had already sent to the docks, and which led to their detection, had contained eleven bodies in total. 

Corpses would be pushed, squashed and wedged into hampers, tea chests or boxes and packed in sawdust, brine or dry salt. In 1831, a box measuring 2ft 3″ long and 18″ wide was removed from the Courier coach at Leeds. Inside the box was the body of  Robert Hudson, a young man measuring  5ft 3″ in height. Across town, at the Bull & Mouth coach office, a recently opened box measuring 2ft square and containing the body a 30 yr old woman and also that of an infant was being handed over to the authorities for further investigation.     
The cadavers themselves were not laid to rest once detected at the quayside or found sprawled on the floor next to the 7.30 coach to Carlisle. Their journey would continue – if putrification wasn’t too far advance – to the local alehouse or court-house in a hope that someone would perhaps be able to put a name to the individual who had tumbled out of box. If no-one came forward and identified the corpse, the coroner would close the inquest, and the death certificate completed  ‘found dead in a box’.