The Darker Side of life in Ireland of Old

Part I

Recently I had the opportunity to read a book called ‘The Peeler’s Notebook’, concerning the work of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) from its formation until the establishment of the ‘Garda Siochana’. To my surprise I read a snippet about the activities of men involved in the ‘Sack ‘em up’ trade, more commonly known as ‘Grave Robbing’, or ‘Resurrectionism.’ Looking further into such activities I was surprised to discover that ‘Resurrectionism’ had been a long-established practice within Ireland, which appeared to reach its peak in the early decades of the nineteenth century. There was, at this time, a growing demand for reasonably fresh cadavers to the anatomy schools that had been established in Dublin and Belfast, the surplus supporting the burgeoning export trade to those supplying the anatomy schools in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere within Britain. In the northern part of Ireland, the gruesome trade was not as widespread as that in the south and was largely carried out for export purposes. However, it was the criminal actions of two men from Northern Ireland, Burke and Hare, that brought the practice into the light and hastened the demise of the trade.

Grave Robbing 2The methods employed by the ‘Resurrectionists’ in obtaining the cadavers were greatly facilitated by the common practice of the shallow interment of the dead, and the marking of their last place of rest marked by a mound of earth. To combat the practice various efforts were employed, such as putting lamp posts in graveyards, establishing corpse-houses, constructing iron frames to guard the coffins, watch-house, and the building of ‘mort-safes’. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh’s old graveyards there were rows of iron cages standing like so many animal enclosures to prevent newly buried bodies from being stolen.

Researchers have pointed out that it was the early years of the nineteenth century that saw the ‘Resurrectionist’ movement peak, and finally began to decline after the revelation of the murders committed by Burke and Hare, both of whom were originally from Ireland. This blog has been written to outline what I have discovered about this dark era of ‘Resurrectionism’, with the emphasis being on the Irish experience and the events that led to the passing of ‘The Anatomy Act’ in 1832.

BEGINNINGS

We who live in a modern Ireland can see that anatomy is an essential medical subject that is, in many cases, studied by the dissecting dead bodies. For many hundreds of years, however, superstitious beliefs, religious objections, and completely blind acceptance of existing medical teaching combined to erect a huge obstacle to practical studies by anatomists that would give us new understanding on how the human body functioned. It is also a sad reflection on humanity that from the days when men first took to burying their dead, graves have been robbed of anything of value that had been buried with the corpse. In fact, I can recall that some thirty years ago there was a widely reported case of thieves being disturbed in an old churchyard as they attempted to steal the heavy lead that had been placed around some corpses almost two centuries previously to prevent those bodies from being taken by body-snatchers.

Andreas Versalius, Flemish anatomist, physician was born in Brussels in 1514, and is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy, authoring ‘De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body)’. He was professor at the University of Padua, and later became Imperial Physician at the court of Emperor Charles V. At this time most anatomical studies were carried out upon the bodies of animals, but Versalius would change this practice. It could also be said that Versalius, who was the man who established the foundations of modern anatomy, was the first grave-robber to use his talents to expand human understanding anatomical science. There are many stories about Vesalius and his activities, one of which describes how he smuggled the body of a hanged criminal into his lodgings, with the help of a friend. Such stories, concerning the development of anatomy in Europe, are many and a considerable number of pages could be filled with them. We shall not do that but will simply state that the trade in supplying fresh cadavers for dissection flourished widely throughout Ireland and the British Isles from the mid-eighteenth century until The British Parliament passed the ‘Anatomy Act’ in 1832.

Grave Robbing 4In the middle of the sixteenth century, while all students of medicine were required to be thoroughly familiar with the anatomy of the human body, the Crown authorities provided surgeons with a totally inadequate number of corpses for anatomical study that had been obtained from executed criminals. The considerable gap between supply and demand was filled by entrepreneurial individuals in a variety of ways. The most common method, however, saw men going out after dark and digging up recently interred bodies from the many graveyards. It appears that this task was usually undertaken by medical students, doctors, or by professional grave robbers who were commonly known as ‘body-snatchers’, ‘resurrection men’ or ‘sack-’em-ups’. In fact, the practice became so common that there were occasions when rival grave robbers, mourning relatives, watchmen, and others would become involved in fighting over the possession of corpses. One such occasion was recorded as happening in Edinburgh, which had become a major medical teaching centre. As was their habit, the students of the famous anatomist Alexander Munro, attended the public hanging of a woman, intending to secure the female criminal’s body for their studies. The students, however, were noticed by members of the gathered crowd and, in moments, a ferocious public battle erupted. Unfortunately for both sides, they were a bit too quick off the mark, and soon after the public uproar had broken out the poor woman’s life was revived by the students, and she was to live for many more years after the incident, albeit with the nick-name of “Half-hangit Maggie Dickson.

The great demand for corpses was met, for the most part, by the industriousness of the Irish resurrection men who were able to export their surplus trade to Edinburgh and other major medical training centres. But as the years passed, this source of corpses was proven to be totally inadequate to fill the constantly increasing demand. Then, in 1829, the entire dark world of grave robbers and the medical establishment was blown wide open when the career of a well-known surgeon called Knox was suddenly brought to ruin because of his dealings with an infamous duo of ‘resurrectionists’ called Burke and Hare. These two men had tried to overcome the shortage of fresh bodies for anatomical research by murdering anyone whom they believed would not be missed. These unfortunate victims were tramps, orphans, street women, and poor people. Even today the name of Burke and Hare is enough to send a shiver down a person’s spine and their infamy was recorded in song e.g.

“Up the close and down the stair

But and ben with Burke and Hare

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,

Knox the boy who buys the beef.”

 

Grave Robbing 3In the twenty-first century it is almost impossible for us to comprehend the mindset of those men that involved themselves in such a trade. One story, however, might just help enlighten us, and it concerns a certain labouring man from a town on the south coast of England whose wife died in 1800. When a close friend went to the man’s house to offer his condolences, being taken into the kitchen he saw that the coffin was empty and had been left upside down. Curious as to what had happened to the body of the man’s wife, the visitor asked his friend where it was, and he was stunned by the reply he received. The widowed husband told his visitor that, when he and his wife had first been married, she had been brought to him with a horse’s halter around her neck. At the time, the husband took this to be a sign that he would have absolute control over her and that she would be obedient to him in all matters. So convinced was he of his ‘rights’ as a husband that he had sold his wife’s body to local ‘body snatchers’ and had decided that he should keep the coffin to use as a sideboard.

A similar record of the period demonstrates just how the activities of the ‘grave robbers’ had caused the moral standards of the ordinary citizens to change. One news report gave details of a man whose son had died seventeen years previously and, when he went to the graveyard to ensure the corpse was safe, he discovered the corpse had been stolen by ‘resurrectionists’. All that was left in the young man’s grave was his coffin, which the father took home with him and used for his own burial seventeen years later.

Similar tales were all too familiar in Dublin and Belfast at the time and, sadly, a casual approach toward the bodies of dead loved ones appeared to become widespread among people. In February 1830 a city paper reported the following story:

“A few nights ago a corpulent midwife named Magennis rather aged died on the north side of the city and on the night of her burial it was discovered that the leader of those who attempted to disinter the poor woman and deliver her body up for dissection was one of her own sons. On the fellow being accused of the crime he said, ‘Sure even if I did so a tenderer hand couldn’t go over her.’”

It is evident from such records that in and around Dublin at that time family mourning was very much in short supply. The reason behind this change in attitudes was due in part, if not in full, to the spread of ‘Resurrectionism’ to almost epidemic proportions by the 1820s. The lack of human bodies for scientific study because of various religious and traditional taboos had already impeded developments in anatomy study for centuries. In previous times monkeys and pigs had been dissected by students because they were thought to be broadly similar anatomically to humans. But when these studies were extended to the actual treatment of humans there were gaps in knowledge and understanding. It was William Harvey (1578 – 1657) was the first physician who described in complete detail the systematic circulation of blood being pumped to the brain and body by the heart.[1] The accuracy of his work was due entirely to the fact that he had studied the dissected bodies of his sister and father.

In the first half of the sixteenth century a very limited number of bodies from executed criminals had been made available, by royal enactment, to surgeons in Scotland and Wales. These proved to be too few to satisfy a growing demand, and ‘The Murder Act’ of 1752 included the substitution of dissection for gibbeting in chains for the guilty. In fact, there are records that tell us that in Dublin there were many occasions when the corpse of a publicly executed murderer would be followed to the gates of the College of Surgeons by a disaffected mob of people, which included the executed person’s relatives.

It was, of course a period of great scientific exploration of all sorts including the generation and possible uses of electricity like ‘Galvanism’. This involved passing a ‘Galvanic’ current through the muscles of a dissected body causing them to jump and move as if alive, leading some to believe that such experiments were the inspiration for stories like ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. Meanwhile, as anatomical research continued to gain momentum in medical circles the demand for bodies of the deceased grew and certain ‘entrepreneurs’ took to stealing the bodies of those who had been newly interred. These men saw no legal problem in this activity since the bodies of the deceased had no value in British law, although they did have some value in Common Law. In Scotland medical students traditionally had to source their own bodies, while in Dublin the trade in ‘Body Snatching’ had been continuous since the beginnings of the 1730s. The early nineteenth century, however, witnessed a great growth in the number of surgical students, which was due in most part to the increase in population between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1830s, as well as the increase in demand for surgeons during the wars with Napoleon.

Grave Robbing 6The wars with France and Spain caused a great downturn in foreign trade at this time and caused the sons of the middle-class to seek careers in medicine rather than commerce. At the same time, the government wanted to bring some regulation to the business of dispensing medicines and within the terms of ‘The Apothecaries Act of 1815’ instruction in anatomy was made compulsory for the training of all recognised apothecaries. It was also a time of discovery, with voyages of exploration to all the far-flung parts of the world revealing new peoples, new foods, strange, animals, and new, extremely deadly diseases. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this was also a time when medical scientists increased their exploration into the inner workings of the human body.

This period in the history of medical science was encouraged by a new spirit of investigation into diseases, developed in France and involving new clinical-pathological measures. The Napoleonic Wars and a new law gave anatomical students an ample number of corpses for research and their work demonstrated that a limited number of dissections might increase knowledge of human anatomy, but the dissection of many bodies with diseases at different stages gave greater knowledge of the causes of death and led to methods to prevent many of those causes. As one commentator of the time stated, “the examination of a single body of one who has died of Tabes or consumption … is of more service to medicine than the dissection of the bodies of ten men who have been hanged.” Nevertheless, when it came to the study of pathology, Ireland and the rest of the British Isles lagged far behind the advances made in France. In fact, powers in England called the exportation of corpses from Ireland as being an abominable and shameful trade, likening it to the shipping of dead or live cattle or any other cargo. One noted Irishman, Dr Peter Hennis Greene from Cork, who served on the staff of the ‘Lancet’ for years, had taken part in grave robbing expeditions as a medical student at Trinity College Dublin, and he wrote of ‘his shillelagh red with the blood of the Charleys’ (night watchmen).[2] The anatomy schools, however, were totally dependent upon the support of the ‘resurrectionists,’ whose trade by had begun to reach its peak in the second decade of nineteenth century. If compared to a modern-day illegal trade it would be like today’s drug trade, for it too was wholly consumer-driven, although in this case the purchasers, the heads of the anatomy schools, escaped prosecution criminalization. But, like drugs, human bodies represented the money that underwrote their wealth and professional influence for, by the late 1820s, bodies could command a price of between £16 and £22. Unfortunately, as it always seems to be, it was the poor who bore the brunt of the activity, because they were buried in the flimsiest of coffins in shallow, mass graves. In commercial terms, the poor had come to be worth more dead than alive.

It was estimated that in 1826, the trade in corpses for anatomical research probably exceeded several thousand bodies annually in Great Britain. Moreover, the growth was greatly assisted in that year when dissection was made compulsory in surgical studies, and all students were required to dissect one or more cadavers. One of the largest classes of students studying anatomy was under the direction of Robert Knox in Edinburgh and numbered over five hundred pupils. Such large classes were not unusual in any of the anatomical schools and many other medical researchers complained that surgeons in London, particularly, created massive competition between private schools and hospitals. There were also increasing criticism of the ‘College of Surgeons’ for its emphasis on dissection and had, therefore, caused the acute shortage of bodies and the high prices that were being charged for them. More damaging, however, was the growing attacks against the relationship between resurrectionists and anatomist as being totally dishonourable to the reputation of the medical profession. Meanwhile, in Dublin at this time, it was estimated that the number of ‘dissecting pupils’ exceeded five hundred, and the number of bodies used for dissection as being numbered between fifteen-hundred and two thousand. But Dublin was a major centre for ‘resurrectionists’ activities in the British Isles at this time and, as we shall discover, also had a flourishing export trade in bodies.

METHODS EMPLOYED

The methods employed by the body snatchers were many and varied but were made less difficult by the fact that the lid to a coffin did not lie very deep below the surface of the ground. The grave robbers often worked with short- handled, wooden spades that deadened the noise of their excavations. In some places the body snatchers used a canvas sheet to hold the excavated earth and, once the coffin lid was exposed, two hooks were inserted under the lid and pulled upwards with a rope. This would cause the coffin lid to shatter enough to allow them to drag out the corpse with sacking heaped over everything to assist in deadening any noise that might have been caused. Thereafter, the body was stripped of any shroud covering it, and this was scrupulously re-buried, because to steal it was a misdemeanour. The body itself, however, was put in a sack, which led these grave robbers to be known commonly a ‘sack-em-up men’, and the whole scene would be carefully restored to its original appearance. The entire procedure could easily be completed in an hour, even when the coffin had been buried deep.

With grave robbing having become a major commercial enterprise, its members developed their own words to describe their ‘goods’. Bodies, for example, were referred to as ‘things’, while the bodies of children and tiny infants were often referred to as ‘large smalls’ and ‘foetuses’. Other enterprising resurrectionists specialized in hair for wigs, and teeth for dentures and transplantation, as a profitable side-lines. In fact, for many resurrectionists, the greater profit from their activities could be obtained from teeth alone, which were used to fulfil the demand for transplanting teeth and the manufacture of dentures.

There were stories that some acts of resurrectionism had been carried out to harvest the fat from the corpses to supply the ready market for candle making. It was said that candles made from ‘human lard’ caused a lot of smoke and this, perhaps, led to the rumour that when used with a so-called ‘Hand of Glory,’ they were believed to put people into a trance, which made them popular with burglars. This so-called ‘Hand of Glory’ was a candleholder created from the severed hand of a murderer and used to burn candles made from the same source. One story concerns a certain Ralph Westropp, a former sheriff of Limerick, who died in March 1858 at the age of sixty years. He was buried at Drumcliff outside Ennis but, in early May, his grave was violated by unknown persons, which resulted in his body being cut open and the Stomach and some of the body fat being taken away. Initially it was thought that insurance companies were to blame the man had been heavily insured and poison might have been involved in causing his death. Suspicion, however, quickly fell on certain groups that were carrying out an evil, superstitious act i.e. the manufacture of a candle from human lard that would allow them to enter a house unseen and rob it with impunity.

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed), 2019

[2] Fleetwood, John F. “The Dublin Body Snatchers: Part Two.” Dublin Historical Record, vol. 42, no. 2, 1989, pp. 42–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30087188. Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.