The Darker Side of Life in Old Ireland II

Battling the Resurrectionists

To have a relative, no matter how distant, exhumed from their place of rest and taken away after death to be cut into pieces was as repugnant then as it would be today. Anyone who designated themselves to be Christian had a strong belief that the complete body of a person was needed to be reunited with the divine soul on the Final Day of Judgement and, as a result of this strong fundamental religious view, there was great popular opposition toward the dissection of human corpses because of the fear that victims will not be able to enjoy resurrection in the afterlife. This opposition was said to be particularly strong among the Irish population and elaborate steps were, therefore, taken to prevent the continued trade of the resurrectionists.

Mort Safe
Mort Safes

In many places lamp-standards, watch-houses, and corpse-houses were established as an attempt to deter the resurrectionists from robbing fresh graves. The strategy was simply to deter the grave robbers until decomposition made the corpse useless for dissection and medical experiment. The authorities were very much aware that the fresher the corpse was, the greater was its value to the surgeons and it was to the advantage of the grave robbers to exhume a body as soon as possible after its burial. Those assigned to watch these fresh graves were usually close relatives or friends of the departed person and, therefore, this ‘watch’ period coincided with the height of their mourning. The average duration of a ‘watch’ was usually two weeks, but in times of cold weather it was often necessary to stay a while longer. Those unable to maintain an around-the-clock watch of the grave would often place a flower, shell or other object on the freshly- dug grave, as a means of detecting if the earth had been disturbed by resurrectionists. The body snatchers, however, were always careful to replace such items.

In some areas a ‘watch’ of up to six weeks was common, while estimations showed that it could take a body two or three weeks to reach far-off destinations such as Edinburgh or London. As a result, those bodies would, on arrival in Edinburgh and London, more suitable for the grave than for the study of anatomy’. So, the nearer the source of the bodies to the anatomical study students, the more valuable the bodies became and any efforts to prevent grave robbing needed to be overcome. Violence against watchers was, as a result, not a rare event and there are records describing how watchers who fortified themselves with whiskey often woke up in the morning to find the body they were watching, and the whiskey, gone. Unfortunately, after the body had been taken all that could be done was to offer a reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible.

In some areas armed professional watchers would be hired to constantly patrol the burying ground with guard-dogs constantly by their side, a task for which they were paid a pittance. In quite a few places heavy stone slabs, mort safes and iron frames were put in place to ensure that the resurrectionists would be deterred from their tasks. These devices took too much effort to remove and helped to protect the coffins and their contents until decomposition of the body was well advanced. Other equipment employed by the burial grounds were ‘spring guns’ with trip wires and loose stones placed on the cemetery walls to render them harder to climb. Another strange device to be used was the ‘mort collar’, which was a loop of iron placed around the corpse’s neck and bolted from below through the base of the coffin. Such was the demand for devices like the ‘mort safes’ that many of them were mass produced in Scottish iron foundries, one of which was “Shotts Iron Company.” As early as 1818 a patent was obtained for a coffin that had been designed to prevent resurrectionists from stealing the body buried within. It was manufactured in metal and had contained special spring-loaded devices that would prevent opening and were accompanied by various other forms of reinforcement. It is hard for us today to imagine that such contraptions could have been produced for use by those who could afford them. But once the threat of grave robbers had passed, such underground devices would have simply been left in place, while those on the surface would be dismantled or recycled to rid burial grounds of memories from an unhappy era in history. Some people took such measures to the extreme, as explained by a report from one Scottish newspaper that stated the father of a dead child was in such fear of the resurrection men taking the body that he buried the body in a small box that also enclosed some other apparatus that included wires from the four corners going to the top of the coffin. Immediately before the body was lowered into the earth, a large quantity of gunpowder was poured into the box, and the hidden mechanism made ready for activation. It was believed that this machinery would cause the box to explode if anyone attempted to raise the body. It was said that the sexton appeared to fear an explosion, for he jumped back immediately after throwing in the first shovel of earth.

This paper has already mentioned just how the poorest people bore the brunt of the resurrectionist’s activity, while the wealthier people could protect their remains with better quality coffins. In fact, some of the leading anatomists of the day went to great pains to ensure they were buried in such a way that none of his former employees or students could resurrect him and make money from their bodies. A noted Dublin anatomist, Sir Philip Crampton, established a private dissecting room and lecture theatre at the rear of his house in the city in 1804. He was said to hold his lectures with open doors and gave anatomy demonstrations to the poor people, who, once he had gained their interest, would bring him bodies to dissect. In accordance with his last wishes Crampton was entombed in Roman cement. Unfortunately for him the cement specified was not truly ‘Roman’ but a less durable type patented by James Parker in 1796.

THE IRISH ANATOMY SCHOOLS

Past records show that by the time that Queen’s College, Dublin, was built in 1845 there had been six anatomy schools in Cork city, some of which had as many as ninety pupils. Keeping these places stocked with fresh bodies demonstrates that there was a plentiful supply being provided by the resurrectionists were active. One story told of this period relates how one grave robber had attempted to lift a body by tying a rope to it and passing it over the branch of a tree. But the rope slipped over the resurrectionist’s neck and the next morning he was found hanged from the tree branch.

Old Dublin Harbour
Dublin Quays

Meanwhile, in Dublin fifteen private medical schools were established between 1804 and 1832, brought about by an increasing interest in pathological anatomy, which had been imported from France in the early part of the nineteenth century. In the summer of 1816 “The Association of Members of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland” was established in Dublin. The thrust of the association being the improvement of Pathological science’ and, as elsewhere, the demand for bodies to meet the swelling ranks of anatomy students continued to grow. It was the inclusion of two key professors of anatomy that made Dublin the favourite centre for medical students during the 1820s and 1830s.

Abraham Colles, at the College of Surgeons, had an innovative way of teaching anatomy in that he pursued a topographical approach as opposed to a systematic one, namely not requiring students to dissect a system, e.g. blood vessels, one at a time, as previously required and which caused students to fail to grasp the interrelationships between systems. James Macartney meanwhile had built a fine reputation for himself in London before bringing his expertise to Trinity College. Macartney’s major contribution here was to encourage the voluntary bequest of bodies for dissection and the furtherance of medical science. With the increase in the number of anatomy students in Dublin the need for bodies to dissect had grown correspondingly, the major source of these being an area called ‘Bully’s Acre’, which was named for the large number of rowdies or ‘bullies’ that were buried there. It lay close to the Royal Hospital and there were so many people buried there because no charge was made for the graves, and Body snatching by resurrectionists and students was so rife there that quite often there was violence between the two groups.

Peter Harkan, a notorious resurrectionist engaged by the noted anatomist Sir Philip Crampton, was discovered there with some students by ‘watchers’ and forced to flee. The ‘watchers’ began to chase and while the students easily cleared the perimeter wall, the less agile Harkan got stuck, and the students began pulling him one way and the ‘watchers’ the opposite direction. Harkan, it is said, was never quite the same again after the experience with the ‘Watchers’. The rewards of the trade, however, were worth the setbacks when a corpse could be bought for a guinea in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and before the export traffic in bodies drove prices up.

In Belfast the first anatomy school was established at ‘The Academical Institution’ (‘Inst’) in 1818, when James Lawson Drummond was appointed to the chair of anatomy and physiology, which was an isolated medical professorship in the faculty of arts. At this time, it was common for students for ministry in the Presbyterian Church to obtain some medical knowledge alongside their studies in divinity and, when the classes began in 1819, they involved some anatomical demonstrations. The small number of dissections involved would have created only a modest demand for fresh corpses, but the Resurrectionists certainly very busy in Belfast and surrounding areas from the earliest years of the nineteenth century and this must have been nearly all due to supporting the export trade.

In Belfast, dissection was carried out as a matter of form since a large number of the doctors based there were trained in Edinburgh medical schools. In fact, records suggest that almost one-third of Edinburgh’s medical graduates during the last quarter of the eighteenth century came from among the Ulster-Scots tradition and were exposed to the Scottish emphasis on dissection. Among these was Samuel Black, a physician from Newry, whose book, “Clinical and Pathological Reports” was published in 1819 and describes eighteen dissections that he carried out between 1792 and 1819. It is clear that some of these took place with the full consent of the family of the deceased, who were invariably of the Protestant tradition. There is little doubt that Samuel Black did make a valuable contribution to medical knowledge, particularly in the field of heart disease. His activities, however, were not without opposition and after suffering a severe accident in 1804, he almost always managed to find others to carry out the dissections on his behalf.

EXPORTING BODIES FROM IRELAND

Old Belfast QuayWhen it comes to medical examination the fresher the corpse was, the better research sample it would be, and decomposition rendered the body’s presence unbearable and its anatomy useless. This was a time when the use of preserving fluids in dissection was not yet known. Freshness of the sample, therefore, was dependent upon rapid delivery and ambient temperature, which meant the grave robbers have much more leeway on delivery during the winter. There were two major factors, however, that assisted the growth of the export of corpses from Ireland to the more distant markets in Scotland and England – the short sea crossing and the use of the more rapid steamships. The escalation in demand for bodies in the anatomical centres in London and Edinburgh had forced the resurrectionists to spread their nets ever wider in search of a good source. New sources of fresh corpses was also made necessary for resurrectionists as vigilance by the relatives of the dead and the authorities increased in those burial places close to the main centres.

It is unlikely that there was a large trade in exporting bodies from Cork because the sea crossing to Wales would have taken too long to complete. The export trade from Dublin, however, began in the late eighteenth century, and rapidly accelerated after 1820 when steamships were introduced to the main sea routes, particularly to Glasgow, just as demand there was approaching its height. Although the advantage of speed provided by steamships was offset to some extent by the warmer ship’s holds in which the bodies were transported, the disadvantages were far outweighed by the advantages and the openness of the trade even caused one doctor to recommend that ‘casks’ should be left on deck, on the lee side of the vessel, during the journey to help keep the cadavers cool. That ‘Casks’ were employed for transporting bodies is confirmed from a report concerning Dublin in 1829.[1]

Yesterday a large hogshead was brought by a carman to a sailing vessel here (we believe the Mary), bound for Glasgow, to be shipped for that port, as containing hams. A strong smell, however, which proceeded from the cask, excited the suspicion of the Captain as to the contents – examination followed, when it was discovered, that instead of hams, the hogshead contained the bodies of no less than seven individuals – four males, two females, and a small boy.

In fact, for most of the 1820s a company of corpse exporters turned the anatomy school of the ‘College of Surgeons’ a form of storage place for their trade goods. On one occasion, in early 1828, a body that was ready for export was discovered and caused a mob of people to attack the place and a porter in the college, Luke Redmond, was murdered. But when a motion was submitted to award his widowed wife ten pounds in compensation for his tragic death the motion was defeated.

Prior to the arrival of a gentleman called Rae and his fellow resurrectionists the trade in grave robbing in Dublin had been conducted with a certain decency and secrecy. But because of the free market forces in Dublin, the export trade in corpses resulted in a very deep shortage of bodies for dissection in the Dublin anatomy schools. The introduction of various efforts to restrain the activities of the resurrectionists had also helped to increase this shortage. It was widely regarded that the trade generated by Rae, who had often been openly seen in the College bargaining for bodies when there were plenty, had gone now gone beyond control. The impact that this ghastly trade had on the population had grown to such a point that the ‘Humane Society of St John’ was formed to provide men to watch over the newly interred remains of the city’s citizens’. Nevertheless, records show that in December 1831 three Irish bodies were sold in London for thirty-eight pounds, demonstrating that the trade had become so profitable that many unscrupulous persons, even professional criminals, were now involved. At its height it is estimated that there were over fifty professional resurrection men who were engaged in the body export trade in Dublin alone.

sailing ships in dockMeanwhile, from the situation north of Ireland bodies had been exported to Glasgow and Edinburgh for at least the previous thirty or forty years. Usually these bodies were smuggled, being landed from boats on lonely parts of the Scottish coast, particularly that of Ayrshire. Sometimes, captains of these vessels would conceal the bodies in holds laden with limestone that was imported from Belfast and other Irish ports. Since there was not much of a demand for bodies from local medical schools before the first was established at Inst., the bulk of cadavers taken by the resurrectionists in the north of Ireland supplied those schools established in Scotland. The routes along which the bodies were taken generally followed those same short sea crossings taken by Scottish settlers during the ‘Plantation of Ulster’ by King James I. The most well used routes were those from the small port of Donaghadee to Mull of Galloway, and the crossing from Ballycastle/Fairhead to the Mull of Kintyre. In fact details suggest that the trade in bodies from Northern Ireland may actually have started a little earlier than further south because of its proximity to Scotland. But another factor that may have stimulated the trade in corpses was the older tradition of smuggling stolen linen, since the similarity between the smuggling of both commodities was very close. In both cases the theft usually took place predominantly at night, and both enterprises caused the establishment of nocturnal vigils and the building of watch houses, and both involved the transport of bulky commodities. While in the case of linen it was the bleach-green that was kept under surveillance, in the case of bodies it was the cemetery.

With linen being the chief item produced in the north of Ireland, the theft of linen from bleach-greens became such a serious problem that watch houses were built to accommodate the watchmen who guarded the cloth at night. To deter thefts the stealing from bleach-greens was made a capital offence in 1763 but the severity of the punishment defeated its purpose since those who stole only trivial amounts were often dealt with more leniently. Finally, this law was repealed in 1811 and substituted with transportation for life was substituted. But none of these penalties had much effect on theft from the bleach-greens because there was a deep sense of justice among the people in the North, and there was a great reluctance to prosecute anyone for a crime for which the punishment was severe when compared to the offence committed. Sadly, the theft from bleach greens had a much more severe punishment than the theft of human bodies from their graves.

By 1817 regular cross-channel traffic in stolen linen was being carried on and Belfast was a major centre for this trade. The ships that entered and left these Irish ports exchanged the stolen goods of Ireland for the stolen goods of Scotland and elsewhere. The stolen Irish linen would be made into shirts and sold at low prices on both sides of the Irish Sea. The same criminals involved in developing the routes and techniques smuggling stolen linen across the Irish Sea also led the trade in the export of stolen human cadavers to Scotland within a few years. Although the first steamship to sail from Glasgow to Belfast did not do so until 1816, and regular sailings did not start until 1818, the sea crossing under sail was short. The only drawback to the trade, however, was that the journey on land through Scotland to their destination was slow.

Steam sailing shipThere are frequent references in the local Northern press to the activities of resurrectionists, but at least half of these accounts refer to events in Dublin, and they appeared with increasing frequency throughout the 1820s. It is reported that in a burial ground not too far from Carrickfergus in County Antrim, a party of resurrectionists was arrested in 1823. They had been suspected for some time of carrying out an organised export of bodies from Irish graveyards to Edinburgh. It was discovered that the resurrectionists had attempted to ship a barrel containing the bodies of a woman and child to Scotland. Their arrest encouraged a torrent of stories including tales of frightful murders having been committed. Then, a few days later, customs officers at the port of Greenock in Scotland had their suspicions aroused by another cask that was of ‘questionable shape’. This cask, it turned out, contained the bodies of another woman and child in very poor condition which were being sent from Belfast to Edinburgh.

For resurrectionists in Belfast the most favoured places to obtain bodies appear to have been Friar’s Bush, Old Clifton Street and Shankill graveyards. In fact, in September 1829 the ‘Northern Whig’ newspaper that a gun battle of sorts occurred between a group of twenty men and two men ‘corpse watchers’ in the Shankill graveyard. Quite startlingly the same newspaper, in a later edition, the same newspaper commented that ‘there are Resurrectionists walking our streets every day, and we could point them out’. This suggests that the trade in selling bodies was of a limited scale at this time.

In the rural districts outside of Belfast there were plenty of incidents reported, such as that of two medical students being arrested in Dromara for trying to export two bodies to Scotland. Even those people employed by the Church could not resist the temptation of easy money and several sextons of various rural churches were dismissed after being found guilty of having knowledge about grave robbing. The trade had grown to such a level that corpse houses and mort safes were being used in Irish graveyards, and the revelations of the actions of Burke and Hare led to heightened fears and demands for greater vigilance. It is the actions of these two famed grave-robbers that we will consider in the next instalment….

[1] John F Fleetwood, “Dublin Body Snatchers”; Dublin Historical Record, Vol.42, No. 1; Dec., 1988

Author: weebush

I am an author of Irish Short Story books and have two books currently in publication i.e. "Across the Sheugh" and "Short Stories and Tall Tales." other new stories can be previewed on my blog

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