Bodysnatchers by Suzie Lennox

Bodysnatchers by Suzie Lennox

Author:Suzie Lennox
Language: eng
Format: epub
Tags: TRUE CRIME / General
ISBN: 9781473866560
Publisher: Pen & Sword Books
Published: 2016-09-29T16:00:00+00:00

Chapter 5


Dealing with the perpetrators

‘… as it now stands … it[s] only a misdemeanour, that is to say a crime punishable by a fine and imprisonment, as a common assault is, or as a libel is, to steal, to sell or to purchase a dead human body.’

– William Cobbett, Political Register, Volume 75 (1831).

No one was immune from prosecution for stealing a dead body. Yet, very different sentences were awarded according to the defendant’s status in society. Anatomy lecturer Granville Sharp Pattison was severely reprimanded in 1813 for stealing the body of a Mrs McAllaster, whereas bodysnatcher and reputed thief Harry Perring was sentenced to three months’ hard labour in 1822, after stealing a body from St Mary’s Churchyard, Newington.

As a dead body did not count as real property and therefore did not belong to anyone per se, stealing a corpse was classed as a misdemeanour; a crime was only committed if property belonging to another person was taken. Any bodysnatcher worth his salt always routinely threw the burial shroud into the bottom of the coffin before the soil was replaced. If they were caught taking any item from the grave, including the coffin and/or its fittings, this could be classed as a felony and the bodysnatcher might be punished accordingly.

In 1795 Sir John Fredrick failed in his attempt to get a Bill through Parliament to upgrade the crime of bodysnatching to a felony and so it remained a misdemeanour, right up until it all but faded out with the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. Potential punishments ranged from whippings, severe reprimands and fines to straightforward imprisonment and even, on occasion, transportation. The type of punishments delivered by the authorities fluctuated.

A very early case of bodysnatching in which a punishment is recorded occurred in Edinburgh in 1739. Colin Rhind, a mason, was found guilty of opening the grave of Mary Stewart who had been buried in the West Kirkyard. An easy target for the resurrectionist, West Kirkyard (later known as St Cuthbert’s) would be so plagued with bodysnatchers that the authorities erected an 8ft wall around its perimeter and also established a watch there in 1803. Rhind was sentenced ‘to be carried to the Cross, there and at Cowhead Well, West Port, and at the end of Portburgh, to receive on his naked shoulders three stripes.’

Another early case of bodysnatching also earned the punishment of whipping. In 1777, John Holmes and Peter Williams, together with a female bodysnatcher named Esther Donaldson, took the body of Jane Sainsbury from St George’s Churchyard in Bloomsbury. Holmes was the gravedigger and Williams his assistant, whilst Donaldson was ‘charged as an accomplice’. All three stood trial for the snatching of Jane Sainsbury. Holmes and Williams were not only sentenced to six months’ imprisonment but also whipped ‘twice on their bare backs, from the end of Kingsgate Street, Holborn, to Diot Street, St Giles, being half a mile’. Much to the authorities’ annoyance, there was insufficient evidence to convict Esther Donaldson.

Further lashings of


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