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Chapter 17: Resurrection men

By Paul Slade
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Cross Bones
Murder Ballads
Secret London
Miscellany

The details in St Thomas Hospital’s dead book tell us Elizabeth Mitchell was most likely born in 1832. That also proved an eventful year for those charged with managing London’s graveyards, bringing not only the first of the four London cholera epidemics Green hints at above but also the legislation that ended a century of grave-robbing.
Doctors had always learned their trade by dissecting corpses, often using the bodies of executed criminals for this. No-one much cared what happened to bodies like that and, as long as students merely gathered to watch their teacher pick apart a single cadaver at the front of the room, Britain’s hundred-odd hangings a year could supply the bulk of demand. Anatomists would still buy black-market corpses from corrupt sextons or gravediggers from time to time, but so far that trade remained small enough to be kept under some sort of control.
All that changed in the 1740s, when the Paris Method of instruction became standard practice in London’s teaching hospitals and private anatomy schools. This required each student to be given body parts of his own to work on, meaning every dissection session at every school now needed not just one corpse to work on, but dozens. It was clear the Paris Method gave far superior results to the old system, so anatomy teachers had no choice but to adopt it – the teaching hospitals doing so because they knew it was essential to a proper training and the schools because students would desert them otherwise.
Most people still viewed the idea of dissection with extreme distaste, some even fearing that a sliced-up body might find itself inadequately re-assembled in Heaven, so no-one was going to volunteer their own dear departed for such treatment. That left no legal source of cadavers which could keep up with the huge increase in demand, forcing surgeons to turn to the black market en masse. A whole new tribe of professional grave-robbers were hard at work feeding this new demand in London as early as 1750 and their grisly trade grew rapidly as the city’s reputation for surgical instruction pulled in more and more students from abroad. Even a surgeon as eminent as the Leicester Square anatomist John Hunter relied on purchasing fresh corpses from the so-called “resurrection men” at his back door and not asking too many questions about where those bodies had come from. Often, they’d simply been ripped from a nearby burial ground overnight. (137)
Grave-robbing in the capital peaked between 1800 and 1832, by which time as many as 200 students might be gathered in a large teaching hospital’s dissecting room at any one session, each hacking inexpertly at the half-rotten limb or torso laid out before him. An accidental nick to their own finger or thumb could mean a fatal infection and yet still the pupils horsed around. Like all medical students, they affected a careless disregard for their work, treating the dissecting room like a senior common room where they felt free to eat and drink as the cadavers were wheeled in.
“On entering the room, the stink was most abominable,” one lay visitor to William Osler’s 19th century dissection room wrote. “About 20 chaps were at work, carving limbs and bodies in all stages of putrefaction and of all colours: black, green, yellow, blue. The pupils carved them, apparently with as much pleasure as they would carve their dinners. One was pouring [oil of turpentine] on his subject and amused himself by striking with his scalpel at the maggots as they issued from their retreats.” (138)
The poet-to-be John Keats was an anatomy student at Guy’s Hospital from 1815-1816, a period in his life which Donald Goellnicht addresses in 1984’s Poet-Physician. “While Keats was attending lectures on anatomy and physiology, he was also required to put his classroom knowledge into practice in the dissection room,” Goellnicht writes. “The bodies for dissection were bought, for three or four guineas apiece, from the body-snatchers, or ‘resurrection men’ who robbed local graves. This practice was carried on at night, the resurrection men bringing the bodies naked to the hospital in sacks, since stealing a shroud was a criminal offence, whereas stealing a body was only a misdemeanour.” (139, 140)

Cross Bones was a convenient and easy target for the city’s biggest gang of grave-robbers

The fact that both Guy’s and St Thomas’s teaching hospitals were located so close to Redcross Way, combined with Cross Bones’ poor security and the sheer number of bodies buried there at minimal depth, made it an ideal target for the grave-robbers. We have testimony from real resurrection men at the time confirming that poor people’s bodies were always easier to steal because the rich were buried too deeply. It’s no coincidence, then, that London’s most notorious gang of body-snatchers was based in Southwark and named themselves The Borough Boys in tribute to their favourite hunting ground. “There are records of corpses being taken from St Saviour’s churchyards,” the MoL’s report confirms. “It is quite likely, given the vicinity, that bodies were obtained from the Cross Bones ground.”
In fact, there’s direct evidence they were. A report in the July 6, 1889 issue of Guy’s Hospital Gazette records this incident from 1786:

“At the burying ground in Red Cross Street, named Cross-bones, belonging to St Saviour’s Parish, four men, ‘body snatchers’ or resurrection men, were at work and dug up a body and proceeded to put it into a coach and got away.”

The same article mentions that St Saviour’s had been forced to sack and prosecute one of its gravediggers, William Dodd, in 1717 for “carrying away the corpses of persons buried and disposing of them to surgeons in order for dissection”. There’s no indication which particular St Saviour’s ground Dodd was using for his supply, but vestry minutes confirm the parish was already leasing Cross Bones from the Bishop of Winchester during the grave-robbers’ era. In 1788, the churchwardens there concluded that “the east side of the burial ground next to the common sewer” – a description fitting Cross Bones perfectly – was “open and easy of access to those who make an infamous and detested practice of stealing dead bodies”. They responded by offering a reward of five guineas for any information leading to a body-snatcher’s conviction.
Two years later, St Saviour’s replaced the broken-down brickwork surrounding Cross Bones with a new wall topped with broken glass. But, as Gillian Tindall points out in her 2007 book The House by the Thames, even this failed to do the trick. “In spite of these parish endeavours, it was reported [in 1803] that the Cross Bones ground had again been the target of grave-robbers, and that ‘Mr Cooper the sexton has suffered the keys, at times, to go out of his hands’,” she writes. “A door was to be blocked up and a new sexton appointed.” In 1819, the new wall at Cross Bones was supplemented (or perhaps replaced) with a five-foot spiked-iron fence.
David Orme, who sets a grave-robbing scene at Cross Bones in his 2012 novel The Bodysnatcher’s Apprentice, suspects neither the added walls and fences nor the fact that people lived so close by would have offered any real protection. “Most of the worst burial grounds in London were surrounded by tenements and yet body-snatching went on,” he reminded me. “Many resurrectionists were in league with the gravediggers, so extensive noisy digging wasn’t necessarily required.” Knowing they could expect little help from the authorities, poor families sometimes tried to protect their own burial grounds by laying trip-wires or even mantraps there to hinder unwary thieves. The worst of these were the spring-loaded traps normally used to combat poachers, which snapped their vicious spiked teeth into the leg of anyone who stepped inside. We’ve no record this was done at Cross Bones, but it would certainly have been a prime candidate for such traps. (141, 142)
The custom that all bodies be buried on an east-west alignment with their feet at the eastern end told the thieves all they needed to know to extract a cadaver from the ground with minimum fuss. Any grave filled in the past day or two would still be visible as a patch of recently disturbed earth and the corpse’s shoulders could always be found about 18 inches from that patch’s western end. “They would dig down to the wider part of the coffin, get a crowbar under the lid and lever it until it split,” Dorothy Davies says in her 2007 essay The Corpse King. “The packed earth would hold the rest of the lid down. Then a rope was tied around the body under the armpits and it was pulled out.” Orme has his own grave-robber, Bill Baines, using exactly this technique during a nocturnal visit to Cross Bones in 1825. “The body-snatcher’s skill was to dig as little as possible and pull the corpse out through a small hole in the head end,” he explains. “Feet first was harder, as hands and arms got jammed as you tried to wriggle it out”. (143, 144)
Refrigerated morgues were still unknown at this time, which meant there was no market for dead bodies in the hot summer months, when they simply rotted too quickly to be worth buying. This created what everyone called a grave-robbing “season” running from August till April. One former resurrectionist giving evidence to an 1828 House of Commons select committee testified that his one gang alone had supplied 386 bodies to the anatomists in the 1809/1810 season and another 359 in 1810/1811. A second witness, this one a former parish officer, told the same committee that he thought there were around 200 professional body-snatchers in London at the trade’s height, creating fierce competition among rival gangs. “I have known them to fight in the graves,” he testified. (145)
The resurrectionist here is not named in the committee’s report, but the meticulous accounts he had to draw on suggest strongly that he was The Borough Boys’ Joseph Naples, a former Clerkenwell gravedigger known to be the gang’s bookkeeper. Naples is also thought to be the author of a genuine resurrectionist’s diary later recovered and published by the Royal College of Surgeons. On one 1812 night alone, this diary records, The Borough Boys stole a total of 13 adult corpses and two children:

“December 2, 1812: Met at Vicker’s pub. Rectified our last account. The party sent out me and Ben to St Thomas’s crib. Got one adult. Bill and Jack went to Guy’s crib. Got two adults, but one of them opened. Took them to St Thomas’s. Came home. Met at St Thomas’s. Me and Jack went to Tottenham. Got four adults. Ben and Bill went to St Pancras. Got six adults, one small and one foetus. Took the Tottenham lot to Wilson, the St Pancras lot to Bart’s.” (146)

The names there all match known members of The Borough Boys gang: Ben Crouch, Bill Hollis and Jack Harnett. St Thomas’s, Guy’s and Bart’s were three of the biggest hospitals in London, of course, the first two in Southwark itself and the third (St Bartholomew’s) just across the river in Smithfield. Every hospital in London then had a graveyard of its own, known as a “crib” in underworld slang, so it’s clear that Naples and his friends were selling these corpses straight back to the selfsame hospitals that had buried them a day or two earlier. The “opened” corpse he mentions was one already operated on in hospital, and hence of little (if any) value to the anatomists. “Wilson” was James Wilson, who ran a private anatomy school in Soho’s Great Windmill Street.

It’s interesting to note that the Guy’s crib bodies were sold at St Thomas’s - and perhaps vice-versa - presumably to ensure that dead individuals could not be recognised by the doctors who’d treated them in life. Turning a blind eye to the source of these bodies would have been one thing for the doctors involved, having it rubbed in their faces quite another.
It would obviously have made a lot more sense to let the hospitals simply pass unclaimed bodies from the wards where they died directly to the anatomy students in their own dissection room, but that would have required a change to the law which public opinion still ruled out. For most people, the rational arguments in favour of dissection and the medical advances it brought were far outweighed by their instinctive disgust at the whole process. Even when surgeons reassured people that all the bodies they used in dissection sessions were later given a decent Christian burial, it didn’t help.
This left successive governments unwilling to pass laws giving surgeons legitimate access to all the cadavers they needed – and so removing the body-snatchers’ market at a stroke – but also reluctant to enforce the law as it stood. Crushing the body-snatchers’ trade without putting a legitimate supply of corpses in its place would not only have destroyed Britain’s reputation for continued medical innovation, but also have robbed London’s economy of the hundreds of foreign students who came there every year to study anatomy. The result was deadlock, with the police taking action only when someone like The Borough Boy’s ham-fisted Tom Light made himself impossible to ignore, or when a specific case was dropped directly in their laps. That’s exactly what happened in the case of anatomist Joshua Brookes, who repeatedly ran into trouble because he just couldn’t get along with the resurrection men he used.
One year Brookes, the owner of a private anatomy school in Mayfair, refused to give his regular gang of suppliers their traditional August gratuity, so they dumped one very ripe corpse in plain sight outside the door of his Blenheim Street school and another outside his home at the corner of Poland Street and Great Marlborough Street in the heart of Soho. When a couple of young women stumbled across the Soho body early next morning, their screams raised an angry mob outside Brookes’ front door and it was only the quick intervention of coppers from the nearby Marlborough Police Court that saved him a beating.
On another occasion, Brookes used a rival gang, paying a hefty 16 guineas to buy a body they’d stolen from an undertaker in St Saviour’s parish. His regular suppliers, angry at this lack of loyalty, shopped him at Union Street police station and suggested to PC James Glennon there that he might like to search Brookes’ Blenheim Street premises. Brookes was part-way through cutting away the body’s identifying tattoo when Glennon arrived, identified the corpse with ease and ensured its return to Southwark for a proper burial. (147)
The St Saviour’s undertaker was later found to have been complicit in its theft and served two years in prison for it. He’d taken a bribe from the resurrection men in return for agreeing to leave the body in an unlocked outhouse overnight, where they’d been able to collect it with minimum fuss. Brookes himself – who told police he believed the body was that of an executed criminal – faced no judicial punishment himself, but he did lose both the body and the huge sum he’d paid for it. Sixteen guineas at that time would be worth somewhere round £1,300 today. (148)
It’s the gang’s extreme reaction to Brookes’ slights which tells us just how much they disliked him. More often, the resurrection men would punish disloyal customers by breaking into their premises overnight and severely mutilating any corpses purchased from their rivals. This rendered the bodies unusable for teaching purposes and so cost the surgeon they’d targeted a great deal of money. But for Brookes that clearly wasn’t thought punishment enough - the gang wanted to be sure he got a good scare from the police too.

They dumped a very ripe corpse in plain sight outside Brookes’ home in the heart of Soho

Brookes later complained that the same body he’d paid 16 guineas for in this affair could have been had for just two guineas back in his student days. New anatomy schools were opening in London every year at this time, their students were demanding ever-more practical experience as part of their training and it’s this which explains the steep rise in price for every illicit corpse. As in any market where demand is growing faster than supply, the resurrection men were able to charge more or less what they liked.
One anatomy student writing in an October 1889 issue of Guy’s Hospital Gazette recalled that some of his fellows had got so fed up with the body-snatchers’ arrogance that they decided to take drastic action of their own: “The students for a short time became their own resurrection men,” he writes. “That, however, lasted but a very short time, as they were cheated and duped on every hand, and ran in much danger of very rough treatment at the hands of the law besides.”
Initiatives like this were never more than a marginal part of the trade, and that left surgeons no choice but to keep their own full-time suppliers happy. Often, they agreed to pay any court fines the resurrection man might incur in his work, or even to support his family while their breadwinner was in jail. Sir Astley Cooper of Guy’s Hospital was particularly careful to protect Naples and the other Borough Boys, boasting that he had such influence with them as a result that he could obtain the body of any dead man in England he cared to name. (149, 150)
Crouch’s men had the contacts to pull it off too. In October 1819, his gang arranged for two packages to be delivered from Chatham in Kent to a Cheapside pub called the Cross Keys, just across the river from Southwark. One was a hamper addressed to Joseph Wright in Old Street and the other a heavy item of some kind, wrapped up in an old carpet and addressed to Oxford Street’s William Simpson. The innkeeper accepted both these deliveries off the Chatham coach, the coachman telling him Wright and Simpson’s agent would be there to collect their property soon. All seemed well, until the innkeeper noticed that the parcel wrapped in carpet had begun to stink and decided he’d better open it.
“He found the corpse of an old woman,” Brian Bailey writes in his 1991 book The Resurrection Men. “The local beadle was called and he opened the hamper, which contained a man’s corpse. The coroner was informed and the authorities waited for someone to collect the luggage. It turned out to be a man who called himself Williams and having paid the innkeeper the bill for carriage he was arrested as he prepared to take the parcels away. He was, in fact, George Martin, one of Crouch’s cronies, who was acting on this occasion on behalf of William Millard, the dissecting room superintendent of St Thomas’s Hospital.”
Richard Grainger, owner of the Borough’s Webb Street anatomy school, told the Commons’ 1828 committee that men like Crouch and Martin were “the very worst part of society”, but said he was forced to meet their demands anyway. “For one resurrection man alone, I incurred an expense of £50, in consequence of allowing him a certain sum a week for two years while he was in prison,” Grainger testified. “During the present season, I have expended several guineas supporting another man’s family while he was in prison. These expenses fall not on the pupils, but on the lecturers, for if bodies are to be obtained, we must promise to take care of these men when they are in trouble.”
Grainger was a surgeon himself and the solution he proposed for this whole mess was a new law stating that all cadavers not claimed by family or friends should be routinely offered to the anatomists before burial. He set this idea out for the committee then and there, but it would be another four years before MPs mustered the courage to act. In August 1832 – nearly a century after the body-snatching phenomenon began – Parliament finally passed the Anatomy Act.
This ruled that all bodies deemed “unclaimed” or “friendless” should be given up for dissection. The controversial changes proved difficult to enforce at first, partly because people felt they targeted only the poor and partly because of the religious fears about dissection that many people still harboured. Some parish workhouses took an obstructionist line, some crooked officials still found ways to scam the system and the illegal trade certainly didn’t vanish overnight, but it was clear from 1832 onward that the body-snatchers’ days were numbered.
“The Act was successful in putting the resurrection men out of business,” the MoL confirms. “It is estimated that 57,000 corpses were supplied during the first 100 years of the Act’s operation. Ninety-nine point five per cent were from workhouses, asylums and hospitals, showing that the burden was indeed borne by the poorest. The Act left a long legacy of fear – that falling into poverty would mean the State claiming your body after death.” (151)




Meet the Corpse King and his Borough Boys

London’s most notorious grave-robbers in the early 19th century were The Borough Boys, named for the fact that Southwark was both their base and their favourite hunting ground.
    The core of the gang – Ben Crouch, Tom Butler and Jack Harnett – had a background as scavengers in the Peninsular War, where they harvested teeth from dead soldiers after each battle was done. Some believe they killed any wounded soldiers they found and then looted their teeth and belongings too. (201)

Ben Crouch: A former carpenter and prizefighter who became a body-snatcher after a spell working at Guy’s Hospital. “He was a dandy, wearing sharp clothes, gold rings and frilled shirts,” Dorothy Davies writes. “The surgeons knew him as an artful, impudent, bullying drunk [but that] did not stop them dealing with him.” (143)
    The sheer scale of Crouch’s grave-robbing operation, combined with his flamboyant personality, led to him being nicknamed The Corpse King. He handled the gang’s negotiations with surgeons, charging two or three guineas for an adult corpse (that is to say, one taller than three feet) and up to a guinea for children. He’s said to have secured upfront fees of as much 50 guineas at a single time for corpses to be delivered later. (202)
    Crouch retired from the body-snatching trade with enough money to buy himself a small seaside hotel. His reputation soon caught up with him, though, customers began avoiding the place and he died in poverty.

Tom Butler: Crouch’s former partner in their Peninsular War activity. Doubled as a dealer in bones and teeth.

Tom Light: A former gentleman’s gentleman who, as Davies puts it “didn’t think too well”. The gang must have found him something of a liability and he lasted only a few years in the body-snatching business. “He was a clumsy worker and ended up in custody too often,” Brian Bailey writes.
    I imagine Light as a Satanic version of Lenny from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men: strong on brawn, but with a very tiny brain. He was once caught while trying to drag three corpses over the wall of a graveyard into London’s busy Pancras Road. On another occasion, he was arrested carting seven bodies up Holborn Hill in broad daylight. (203)

Joseph Naples: An ex-Navy man who served with Nelson’s forces at Cape St Vincent. After his discharge, Naples took a job digging graves at Clerkenwell’s Spa Fields, where he moonlighted selling the ground’s corpses to the Guy’s Hospital surgeon Sir Astley Cooper.
     In 1802, Naples was caught, sacked and sentenced to a prison term, but by that time Sir Astley thought him too valuable a supplier to lose. He intervened with Lord Pelham, the Home Secretary, who ensured Naples was released. From that point on, he worked full-time with Crouch’s gang.
     Naples kept the accounts for The Borough Boys, meticulously noting down every body they stole. It’s thought he also wrote the anonymous 1812 Diary of a Resurrectionist later recovered and published by the Royal College of Surgeons.
    After the Anatomy Act was passed in 1832, Naples retired from the body-snatching business, trading his testimony to a House of Commons committee for immunity. He was later given a job in St Thomas Hospital’s dissection room.

Bill Hollis: Another former gravedigger who moonlighted selling corpses direct to surgeons. The gangs didn’t like gravediggers cutting them out of the loop like this and ensured Hollis got the sack by informing against him. He had no choice but to join Crouch’s gang, where his old skills proved useful.

Patrick Murphy: Succeeded Crouch as The Borough Boys’ leader. His greatest coup was netting £144 for 12 corpses in a single day, a sum worth over £10,000 today. One of the two surgeons who bought them was Naples’ friend Sir Astley Cooper.

     At various times the gang also included Bill Harnett and Jack Hutton. Ben Crouch, Patrick Murphy and Jack Harnett (Bill’s nephew) seem to be the only three members who got out with any worthwhile amount of money. The rest spent it all as they went along and ended with nothing.