Watchmen employed to combat invasion of the body snatchers

PUBLISHED: 11:26 21 June 2007 | UPDATED: 12:32 04 May 2010

Looking Back with historian LYNNE TURNER

Looking Back with historian LYNNE TURNER

FROM April 7-10, 1832, 58 new cases of cholera were reported in Ely. This brought the total numbers to 99, of which 38 had proved fatal. The next problem the Board of Health had to contend with was burial of the victims. Logistically this began to prove

FROM April 7-10, 1832, 58 new cases of cholera were reported in Ely. This brought the total numbers to 99, of which 38 had proved fatal.

The next problem the Board of Health had to contend with was burial of the victims.

Logistically this began to prove a problem, because the churchyard of Holy Trinity was fast becoming overcrowded. The churchyard was located on the North side of the cathedral nave; today the area bordered by the Lady Chapel, Steeple Gate and The Gallery. Of the 38 deaths, 31 had lived in the parish of Holy Trinity. After a series of letters exchanged hands between the authorities, it was decided that parishioners from Holy Trinity should now be buried on the south side of St Mary's churchyard.

The city also employed 'six persons to carry the biers'. More interestingly, however, is the reference to a watchman being employed 'constantly in the churchyards for the protection of the bodies buried'. Why would the bodies need to be watched over?

This reference throws up a highly significant attitude in the early 19th century - the question of body snatchers.

Since Henry VIII's time, the sole legal source for corpses for dissection had been the gallows. Bodies of murderers were handed over to the anatomists as a further post-mortem punishment.

The course of the 18th century witnessed an increased interest in human anatomy and physiology, alongside a growing demand for qualified doctors, which promoted a black market in corpses.

Reputation was paramount to the anatomists, so they would offer good money for recently buried corpses. Therefore every buried corpse in the country was vulnerable to body snatching. Admittedly, it usually occurred in the larger towns and cities, but popular opinion and fear was rife.

This was heightened by a change in the law in 1827-8, which led to a conviction of an anatomist for receiving bodies. Richer people protected their dead with sealed lead coffins, large tombs, railings and the like.

In 1828, the case of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh and then the 'London Burkers' Bishop and Williams hit the headlines.

They had committed murder and sold the victims bodies to anatomy schools. Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, Hare having turned King's evidence.

The word 'burking' became part of the common language, describing murder for dissection.

When cholera reached Britain, health boards all over the country were pressing that the bodies of victims should be buried as quickly as possible. This went against all the traditional rituals that surrounded death and the preparation of the body for the funeral.

At the same time as cholera was sweeping the country, the 1832 Anatomy Act was passed. This provided for the needs of physicians, surgeons and students by giving them legal access to corpses that were unclaimed after death, in particular those who died in prison or the workhouse. A person could also donate their next of kin's corpse in exchange for burial at the expense of the anatomist.

This was the last straw and in many parts of the country popular disturbances took place, sparked off when cholera victims were forcibly taken into isolation hospitals or when burials within 24 hours were enforced by the authorities. The common fear was that the powers that be were scaremongering about the cholera for the benefit of doctors who were then experimenting on their 'patients'.

The Board of Health in Ely did let the parishioners of Ely bury their dead in consecrated ground. But fear of disturbances witnessed in many other areas of the country appear to have made them add to their notice about funeral arrangements and watchmen that 'Directions have been given to the Watchmen and Constables to prevent any person from attending the funerals or entering the churchyards except the mourners.'

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