Body Snatchers – Death, Resurrection Men… and Murder

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Dunegore Mort-House
Dunegore Mort-House

No Body Is Safe

In eighteenth century Ireland the activities of body snatchers was a real problem throughout the country. It was by no means a new occurrence or confined to Ireland. However, with the increase of medical schools and the scarcity of legal cadavers on which anatomists could practice, the sale of fresh bodies became a profitable trade.

At this time the only corpses officially permitted to be used for medical examination and dissection were those of executed criminals. These, although plentiful enough, were not sufficient for the increasing number of students studying medicine. Also, doctors wanted to discover the effects of various illnesses on the human body, so the corpses of those who died from disease were very informative and hence more valuable.

“There is a printed circular issued by a medical institution in December 1808, offering the sum of £5 for good, fresh corpses, and upwards of £10 for specimens known to have died of obscure complaints. These prices were for bodies delivered to John Forrest in Hudson’s Entry which is todays Gresham Street”

Joe Baker – ‘North Belfast- A Scattered History

The Resurrection Men

The Resurrection Men, as they were known, worked in pairs and tended to operate in sprawling urban graveyards or isolated rural ones. There is no way to estimate the number of graves desecrated in this manner. The fresh grave just had to be dug at the top, the lid prised off with a metal tool the ‘coffin crowbar’ and the corpse pulled out by its head. The grave would then be re-covered with earth. Most graveyards at this time were well occupied so interments were quite shallow.

“The activities of the ‘body-snatchers’, as they were popularly called, was much facilitated by the fact that in ancient graveyards the interments were very shallow. Often the coffin-lid was not much below the surface of the ground, and piled on top was a ‘mouldering’ heap of earth……Burials were many in these overcrowded graveyards, villages being decimated by what was called the ‘faver’ (typhus) and the mortality list was high from ‘the decline’ (phthisis), there being little or no regard for sanitation and no water-tests for tainted wells”

Joseph Skillen, Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol 2 1939

No Questions Asked

The bodies of the dead were usually undressed and delivered to the buyer naked. This was because stealing a corpse was considered merely a misdemeanour, but stealing a shroud was an offence punishable by transportation.

There always seems to have been physicians, medical students and anatomists willing to purchase fresh bodies ‘no questions asked’. The Medical School in College Square North were reputed to be willing recipients. While they may have eased their consciences by claiming scientific advancement, there was no excuse for discarding human remains like rubbish.

“On Saturday; a skeleton of a human being, evidently not long from the knife of an anatomist, was discovered in one of the fields South of the White Linen Hall (todays City Hall) – lying quite exposed on the green sward! An action like this is most disgraceful to any member of the medical profession… No doubt some brutal young student, belonging to Belfast, was guilty of this shameful conduct. We believe the skeleton still lies in the same exposed situation”

Northern Whig, 2nd January 1832
Stolen Bodies Found
Stolen Bodies Found

Bodies for Export

Not only did body snatchers sell their ‘goods’ to local doctors and surgeons, there appears to have been a trade in bodies to Scotland. An account in Saunders News Letter of November 1824 tells of the body of an old woman being discovered in a wooden box ‘en route’ from Belfast to Greenock. In other cases, Irish medical students studying in Scotland were guilty of partaking in this offensive business.

“Some shameful scenes, connected with the exhumation of dead bodies, are now taking place in Belfast. On Friday night last, a box (believed to be the property of a certain medical student, who was on his passage to Glasgow) about to be put on board a steam-boat at our quay, was suspected of containing corpses; and on being opened, a dead body was found therein. The student fled; or the incensed crowd would have taken summary vengeance on him”

Northern Whig, 2nd January 1832

Friar’s Bush Graveyard – Body Snatching

Friars Bush Graveyard on the Stranmillis Road, was often raided by body snatchers.

One Saturday in July 1823, a barrel on board a ship at Belfast docks bound for Scotland, aroused some suspicion. On cracking it open, the crew discovered the body of a woman aged around 30 and a child around the age of 3. The corpses had been packed in sawdust.

Friar's Bush Graveyard
Friar’s Bush Graveyard

The barrel had been placed on board by regular traders Mr George Stewart and Mr Feeney. Mr Stewart evaded capture, but an intoxicated Feeney was found at his lodgings in Academy Street. Here was also discovered a large box mailed to him from Scotland containing a surgeon’s knife, a brass syringe and various medical equipment plus 5 sovereigns.

The corpses were taken to Belfast Court House on the instructions of the magistrate Mr Ferrar. The recently bereaved were asked to come forward to identify the bodies. We can only imagine how distressing that was! The lady was recognised by her husband, Mr Bell, a shoemaker of Forest Lane. The child by her father. Both victims had been interred in Friars Bush the previous week. They were reburied on the Sunday afternoon.

Measures to deter Body Snatchers

Securing the Graves

Naturally families began to employ various devices to protect the remains of their loved ones.

The rich could secure their dead in familial stone vaults with sturdy padlocked iron doors or gates. Others employed mort-safes. These were metal cage-like structures fitted over the grave.

Mortsafes in Logierait kirkyard, Scotland - Copyright Dr Richard Murray and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Mortsafes in Logierait kirkyard, Scotland – Copyright Dr Richard Murray and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Large stone slabs were sometimes placed on top of the grave and iron coffins which were more difficult (and noisy) to open were also introduced at this time for those who could afford them.

Large Stone Slab
Large Stone Slab

In some cases, the local authorities would pay to have walls and strong gates enclose a cemetery. However, this tended to be only an obstacle rather than a fail-safe method of securing the graves.

In Mallusk cemetery, in County Antrim, an old metal resurrection lamp still exists. This was lit on nights after a funeral to deter the ‘stiffy-lifters’ (as they were colloquially known).

The Resurrection Lamp - Mallusk Burying Ground
The Resurrection Lamp – Mallusk Burying Ground

Keeping Watch at Shankill Graveyard

At Shankill Graveyard in Belfast, two local businessmen, William Sayers and Israel Milliken, paid to have a watch- house complete with fireplace, constructed in the cemetery. Here relatives, for a small fee, could sit guard. This would only last for a couple of weeks for by then the body would be too decomposed to be of value to an anatomist.

Watch-House Sign
Shankill Watch-House Sign
The Watch-House
The Watch-House at Shankill Cemetery

The antiquarian and historian Francis Joseph Bigger describes how his uncle and cousins watched for 3 weeks over the grave of his deceased father.

A tale of two unfortunate resurrection men is told by Robert Armstrong in his book Through the Ages to Newtownabbey and covered in a previous article – see Mallusk Graveyard post.


Another ploy to thwart the body-snatchers was the construction of ‘mort-houses’. These were stone-built chambers erected in cemeteries. A family could pay to have a loved ones remains stored in the room until no longer fresh. Then the coffin would be interred in its final resting place in the graveyard. Rashee graveyard in the parish of Kilbride (among many others) had a mort-house built.

“There is another vault at the north corner of the graveyard, which was built by subscription of the inhabitants as a protection vault, to prevent exhumation. The dead bodies are deposited in this vault for 6 weeks before interment; subscriptions from 1 guinea to I shilling, non-subscribers pay 10 shillings, which sum is kept”

Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1838
Dunegore Mort-House
Dunegore Mort-House

Mort-houses, also known as corpse-houses were built in many graveyards in Ireland and could hold up to six coffins at a time. Some examples in county Antrim were at Ballylinny, Donegore and Connor.

Donegore Mort-House Entrance
Donegore Mort-House Entrance
Donegore Mort-House Interior
Donegore Mort-House Interior

The author Dr John Fleetwood in his book The Irish Body Snatchers (1988) tells the story of an incident in the parish of Connor. Some of the village lads decided to try to make some extra money. One of the group, wrapped in a shroud, was carried to the home of a local doctor suspected of working with the body snatchers. The ‘body’ was offered for sale. The doctor agreed and haggling began. However, during a lull in the conversation the ‘corpse,’ thinking the doctor had left the room, whispered “Don’t sell me too cheap” – the ruse was over!

Clifton Street Cemetery graves
Clifton Street Cemetery graves

The New Burying Ground at Clifton Street

The New Burying Ground at Clifton Street, was also a prime location for the Resurrection Men. At this time, it was located at the very edge of the town.

Poor House Reward Offered - Newsletter 20 Jan 1824
Poor House Reward Offered – Newsletter 20 Jan 1824

In 1827, three men – James Stewart, James Pemlico and Robert Wright – were in court accused of attempting to steal bodies from the graveyard. The men had thought they had bribed the night watchman to ‘look the other way’ but instead they were caught in the act.

Cemetery Watchmen

Sometimes families hired armed men to stand guard overnight at grave sites. This was probably the most effective means of scaring off the robbers. However, on occasion this did not always go to plan. In February 1832 residents living around the New Burying Ground in Belfast complained about the noise and the rowdy behaviour of some of these watchmen.

“We have been requested to state, that, in consequence of these persons who have been employed to watch the graves of persons lately interred in the Poor House Burying Ground, having been in the habit of firing guns, charged with slugs and bullets, which sometimes alarmed the neighbourhood and passengers, and also injured tombs and head-stones in the grounds”

Northern Whig, 6th February 1832

In response the Poor House Committee decided to officially shoulder the responsibility of safeguarding the cemetery.

“The Poor House lately came to the resolution, that they would employ two ‘responsible persons’ for whose faithfulness they required considerable security, and for whose correct conduct they feel themselves accountable, to watch the graves of all persons buried in these grounds; and who will require but trifling remuneration”

Northern Whig, 6th February 1832
Poor House Appointment of Responsible Watchmen
Poor House Appointment of Responsible Watchmen

These watchmen were armed and accompanied by guard dogs. An old flintlock gun issued by the Committee is still preserved in Clifton House.

Burke and Hare – Exporting Our Body Snatchers

The most infamous of the body-snatchers, who resorted to murder to supply ‘fresh goods’ were Burke and Hare. They plied their evil trade in Edinburgh, but both men originally came from Ireland.

William Burke

William Burke was born around 1792 in county Tyrone near Castlederg, into comfortable circumstances. However, in 1818 after several years in the Donegal Militia and a failed marriage, he deserted his wife and children and moved to Scotland. Here he worked as a labourer on the Union Canal. With second wife (it is uncertain if they were officially married), Helen ‘Nelly’ McDougal, Burke moved to the Scottish capital.

In Edinburgh he worked as a cobbler and a second-hand clothes dealer. The couple also earned extra money by hiring themselves out as farm labourers during harvest season. William Burke, although born Catholic, converted to Presbyterianism while in Scotland. He was a regular at the Crossmarket Meeting House and usually carried a Bible.

William Hare

William Hare was also born in the north of Ireland. He too moved to Scotland and by the mid-1820’s was lodging with Mr & Mrs Logue in Edinburgh. When Mr Logue died in 1826, Hare married his widow Margaret (nee Laird), who was also an Irish immigrant. The pair continued to run the boarding house in Tanner’s Close. While working the harvest at Penicuick, the Burkes and the Hares met and became friends.

Some Body That I Used to Know

On 29th November 1827, one of William Hare’s lodgers, an old man named Donald, passed away owing back rent of £4. Burke and Hare came up with a scheme to recoup the loss. The coffin was filled with stones and buried in the usual manner, while the body was sold to Dr Robert Knox of Surgeons Square, for £7 and 10 shillings. Prof Knox was a renowned anatomist. He gave twice daily anatomy lectures, complete with dissection, to hundreds of medical students.

Body & Sold

This must have seemed like ‘easy money’ to the unscrupulous pair for they proceeded to provide the medical profession with a regular supply of corpses. However, instead of the risky and labourious task of grave robbing, Burke and Hare cut out the middle-man, in this case ‘Death’, and took to murdering their victims.

Lodgers, especially those without families, a long way from home or already suffering from an illness were suffocated and their bodies placed in tea chests or barrels and sold to Professor Knox. It is clear that the two wives, Nelly and Margaret, were active participants in the business.

“These ‘Devil’s Buckies’ as they were aptly called, for both of them with their respective paramours were surely forged and fashioned in the flames of Hell, with not a solitary drop of pity or remorse in their whole beings”

Belfast Telegraph, 8th April 1924
Burke Murdering Margery Campbell (Image 1840)
Burke Murdering Margery Campbell (Image 1840)

Burke and Hare Murders Uncovered

Burke and Hare also invited women they met in the pub or on the street back to the boarding house with the promise of alcohol. Once sufficiently intoxicated, they too fell victim to the murderers.

At length in October 1828, some other lodgers, Ann and James Gray, became suspicious of the number of nightly visitors who had ‘disappeared’ by morning. Searching the property, they found the body of recent tenant Mary Docherty hidden in straw at the end of a bed.

“One of the most sensational murder trials of the nineteenth century was that of Burke and Hare, the Edinburgh murderers. These men were ‘body-snatchers’ who, when ‘subjects’ were not forthcoming in the usual way of stealing them out of graveyards, resorted to murder to procure them for surgeons who were prepared to pay well for them, without asking any embarrassing questions”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946

The Verdict

Burke and Hare and their spouses were arrested. Hare turned ‘King’s evidence’ and was granted immunity from prosecution in return for a full account of the murders.

The trial began on Christmas Eve 1828. After an all-night sitting a verdict of guilty was passed at 9:20am on Christmas morning. William Burke was hanged on the morning of 28th January 1829 in front of a huge crowd. It is believed that the murdering pair had killed at least 16 people.

Burke’s body was publicly dissected by Professor Munroe at Edinburgh University. His skeleton is still preserved at the Anatomical Museum there, while his death mask and a book said to be covered with his tanned skin can be seen at the Surgeons Hall Museum.

Nelly McDougal/Burke received the verdict Not Proven and was released from custody. The jury may have been influenced by the fact that she took to the stand nursing her sick baby daughter. She claimed to have known nothing about the murders.

Nelly returned to her Edinburgh home. However, the following day while on an errand to purchase whiskey, she was pursued by a furious mob and had to take refuge in Fountainbridge police station. She subsequently disappeared.

The Fates of William and Margaret Hare

Meanwhile William Hare was kept in police custody till after the trial. In disguise and with a new identity he was taken by mail coach to Dundee in southern Scotland. However, he was recognised and a large angry crowd surrounded the inn where he was staying. He was taken for safe-keeping to the local police station. Extra Special Police constables had to be drafted in to restore order. In the early hours of the morning, Hare was escorted by a guard of militia to the Annan Road (the A75) and instructed to head for England. Hare died, a sightless beggar on the streets of London..

Margaret Hare who escaped prosecution due to her husband’s immunity fled the city and was last seen boarding a boat for Belfast.

“The feeling was particularly acute in Ulster because both were degenerate sons of that province, and so was the wife of Hare, and there were other local associations that burned the whole episode very deeply into the feelings of our progenitors”

Belfast Telegraph, 8th April 1924
Burke & The Scaffold - Belfast Telegraph 3 Apr 1924
Burke & The Scaffold – Belfast Telegraph 3 Apr 1924

Professor Knox

No charges were brought against Professor Knox despite a public outcry. However, his reputation was destroyed and he left the city.

He finished his career working as a pathological anatomist at Brompton Cancer Hospital and had a medical practice in Hackney, England. Knox died in 1862 but his notoriety lived on in a Scottish children’s skipping song

Up the close and down the stair,

Back and forth with Burke and Hare,

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

Knox the boy who buys the beef.

Scottish Children’s Skipping Song

The End of Body Snatching – The Anatomy Act

In August 1832 the Anatomy Act was passed by parliament, perhaps influenced by a spree of copy-cat murders by a gang known as the London Burkers. Professional medical men could now apply for a free licence from the Home Secretary to preform dissections. New rules were set up to regulate the procedure.

The bodies of executed criminals no longer automatically went under the knife. People could donate their own bodies for dissection in the name of science. A relative could also donate a body, this way the medical institution would pay for the burial and save the family money they could perhaps ill-afford.

Those who died in prison, the workhouse or hospitals, whose remains were unclaimed, also ended up on the anatomist’s table. No-one thought to give these people a say in the matter, a final indignity for the poorest of the poor.

“The difficulty of obtaining bodies in sufficient numbers was acknowledged, and it was proposed to the Committee of the House of Commons that the bodies of all friendless paupers, all women of a certain class, all suicides, and those who lost their lives in duels, prize-fights, or on account of drunkenness should be handed over to the College of Surgeons”

Belfast Telegraph 2 Mar 1910

Body Snatchers – Gallery of News Articles

Resurrection Man Shot - Derry Journal
Resurrection Man Shot – Derry Journal
Report on Body Snatching Incident - Northern Whig 2 Jan 1832
Report on Body Snatching Incident – Northern Whig 2 Jan 1832
Body-Snatching - Belfast Telegraph 02 Mar 1910
Body-Snatching – Belfast Telegraph 02 Mar 1910
Body Snatching in Digg's Lane, Dublin
Body Snatching in Digg’s Lane, Dublin

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