Digging up our dead – The Body Snatcher era

I remember hearing many years back an account of the body snatchers who resurrected a lady in Kilkenny.  The story went that a wealthy lady from Ballinlaw on the River Barrow died and was buried in Slieverue.  It was a time when even the dead could not rest in the country and later that night, the dreaded grave robbers arrived. They broke into the limestone tomb within which she lay.  As they uncovered her burial shroud a diamond ring glittered in their torchlight.  As her fingers had swollen prior to her death, her husband could not bear to have her rings removed. 

Now although they wanted her whole body, greed got in their way.  Try as they might they could not remove them, as they squabbled, jostled, and pushed each other aside.  Finally, as one held out the wedding finger on the tomb, another brought down a shovel. With a crack, the finger was parted and the ring flew onto the ground.  The thieves dived on it and started squabbling again.  When they finally stood up from the ground, they found the corpse sitting up in the tomb. The elderly lady, pale and gaunt, was groaning and looking from one to the other with bloodshot eyes.  As they fled the graveyard she rose from her tomb returning to her home, minus her finger and her wedding ring. She lived for several more months to come.

The account was only one of many of course which relates to a very macabre era in Irish history. It was the era of the Grave robbers, the body snatchers, the “sack ‘em up men” or the Resurrectionists.  The last term seems to be a rather grand title for what was a deplorable activity; the desecration of a grave and the removal of a corpse for monetary gain.  The trade-in corpses, however, was largely based on the need for medical students and those interested in furthering medical research to have access to bodies for dissection.

Historically dissection was largely carried out on animals and monkeys in an effort to understand human physiology. The research by William Harvey into the circulatory system was benefited by the dissection of his sister and father.  In 1752 the murder act enshrined in law the replacement of dissection to gibbeting of murders.  However, the activity of robbing the dead was common in Dublin from at least 1732. There were several scandals at the Edinburgh Medical school from its founding in 1726

Resurrectionism increased as a new area of medicine emerged, pathology.  As physicians began to struggle with the causes of illness and the impact of various diseases on the human body, it was no longer enough to simply extrapolate from the bodies of murders or soldiers who were more likely to be fit and well when they died.  What was needed was a variety of corpses of all ages and causes of deaths.  It also increased as medicine became a popular profession and with it an increase in the number of medical schools.

Four stages of cruelty – The reward of cruelty, fourth and last of series of engravings. Tom Nero’s body is dissected after he has been hanged. 1751. William Hogarth. Public domain

But there were other reasons to mine human bodies.  There was a roaring trade in human teeth for transplanting into gums.  After the battle of Waterloo so many teeth were scavenged from the mouths of the dead, that they flooded to market and became known as “Waterloo teeth”[iii]  Another target was body fat!  Used in candle making…and in Irish terms, there seems to have been a folk-based superstition. This held that a thief who used a candle made from the fat of the person would be invisible if this was used to light an intrusion and robbery of their home.

The incidence of Irish resurrectionism was further encouraged by the English market and exports, from Dublin, at least, seem to have been common.  The trade was noted from the late 18th Century and apparently increased after the introduction of faster and more reliable steamship crossings in the 1820s [vi]  Monetary gain was, of course, the principal driver.  In 1831 three Irish corpses were sold in London for £38. Almost a year’s wage. Criminals got in on the act and it is estimated that there were 50 professional resurrection men operating in Dublin alone at its height.[vii]

It seems they came there from all over the country including the Barony of Forth & Bargy in Wexford. “Peter Dempsey, a deputy supervisor of roads, died and was duly waked by his friends, but the night of his internment the body was removed from the grave, and all traces of it lost, notwithstanding a most determined chase from South Wexford to Dublin by the relatives of the deceased”. All to no avail, however.

In Waterford, the dead were unsafe too as this piece from the Waterford Mail of 1833 highlights. What was described as “two medical gentlemen” were spotted “driving into town [Waterford city] a peculiar kind of vehicle, long after midnight on Tuesday morning, some suspicions about the resurrect of the body were excited, and a search being accordingly instituted” The body of an old woman named Johanna Power who had been buried outside the city (no graveyard is mentioned but in another article Drumcannon close to Tramore is the given graveyard) were discovered “…entombed within a sack, on the upper floor of a store in Michael-street…” Investigations were instigated and somehow a rumour spread throughout the city that a local firm names Messrs. Kenney were involved. As a consequence “…A large mob rushed down towards the cross accordingly, about noon, on Thursday, and broke the shop windows of these gentlemen… and it was evident that the rioters would have proceeded to attack more violent nature, but for the timely presence of the Mayor and constables.”  Johanna’s corpse we learn was reinterred with a much larger crowd of mourners than before.

Resurrectionists (1847), by Hablot Knight Browne. Public Domain image

But for all these efforts the trade continued until the grisly business reached what was perhaps its logical conclusion.  For if it was ok to rob the dead out of the ground, would it not be a logical step to actually kill to provide for the trade.  The names Burke and Hare will be well known to many as they were responsible for the murder of 16 individuals in the streets of Edinburgh for sale to the anatomist Robert Knox.  Their capture and the subsequent hanging of Burke (followed somewhat ironically by dissection) after his companion Hare gave evidence against him led indirectly to the 1832 Anatomy Act which finally outlawed the practice, although it was slow to stop. From that point forward it was illegal to rob a corpse. The bodies of the executed, those that died in the workhouse or by their own hand were available for science

Faithlegg Churches and graveyard

All that remains now are the folk memories, and I will conclude with one of the more interesting; the corpse that hung the man.  My brother-in-law Maurice told me this again only recently. As he had heard it, a thief landed by boat at Cheekpoint and walked to Faithlegg Graveyard. There he unearthed a recently deceased body.  Wrapping it in canvas, he tied both ends with a rope, using this on his shoulder to carry the body back to the village.  As he came down the chapel road he decided to rest at the bottom of the Bridge Hill before the steep climb. He placed the body on the wall of the bridge.  The body slipped and fell off the opposite side. As the rope was still around his shoulder, this slipped too, got caught around his neck and the weight of the corpse strangled him. 

Jim Doherty in his wonderful book, the House Next Door, tells the same tale. Although in that telling, the bridge was at Mooneys Grove, by the bumps in the road.  And there is a very fine account from Passage East too.

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The Banshee attack at Coolbunnia

Halloween is upon us again. In the past it was a very different occasion and I’ve written about the Halloween of my childhood before. Now it wouldn’t be Halloween without a Ghost story and here’s one my Father told1. 
“There was a family called Walsh who lived above where your brother Robert now lives in Coolbunnia. The man of the house was a fisherman, renowned for mischief. He was returning home from fishing one night with his eldest son. They were coming up the lane off the strand when the heard the banshee howling and keening.  The son ran away up the lane, but his father stayed behind and crept up to see her.  She was sitting on a rock looking out on the river and was combing her hair with a beautiful comb. Now Walsh loved a bit of blackguarding.  So he watched the banshee carefully and at some point she dropped the comb to fix her hair and in that instant he ran up, snatched the comb and ran away home. 

Meanwhile his son had arrived home and was relating what he had seen to his increasingly concerned mother. Suddenly the door crashed open and there her husband stood laughing and shouting, his eyes wild with the sport. But as he banged the door shut behind him the howls of the enraged banshee could be heard coming up the lane. His son and wife saw a strange eerie light shining under the door and the screaming raised to a furious pitch.
The wife ran to her husband and shook him, asking was he mad or what, how could he bring the banshee on their home and her children, that the demon would murder them all. Realising his mistake, her husband barred the door and they then ran to the windows, checking the latches, pulling the curtains across.  He urged his son to put what timber was in the house on the fire.  The banshee was rushing round the house, checking for a way in.  The windows were shook, the door banged and rattled, the light was seen coming down the chimney.  The fire was stoked till the flames rose higher.  But it was an open fireplace and they knew that sooner or later they would run out of fuel. 

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They went up into the bedroom where the younger children had been woken from their sleep and all huddled together and started to pray.  Outside the roars of the banshee were relentless, and many the home was woken, and in those homes prayers were said that she would be soon on her way.

Suddenly the son had an idea.  Could they not just give the comb back. But how. It couldn’t be thrown out, what if she didn’t see it.  Would they wait till she came down the chimney, but then the house would be cursed.  They considered the dilemma and finally they came up with an idea. The son would retrieve the fire tongs from the kitchen and hold the comb out to the enraged banshee.  Once done, his father placed the comb between the iron tongs and the window was opened a crack and the comb pushed out in clear view.  The eerie light appeared at the window and the screeching reached a crescendo of rage as the banshee spotted her stolen comb. She grabbed it and the tongs but the boy hung on and a fierce struggle ensued, she pulling with all her demonic strength while the boy hung on to the tongs, terrified it would force open the window, and entering she would kill them all.  All at once she relented and departing, she could be heard screeching her way up towards the Minaun, her returned comb firmly in her grasp.
Exhausted, the family slumped down on their bed or slept where they were huddled. Next day the neighbours called and asked after the noise of the banshee they had heard the following night. No one would believe the account, but on the fire tongs being produced, they had to relent with the sight of them in a twisted and mangled state.  For years afterwards people coming to the village called in to view the tongs and hear the story” 
The banshee, my father claimed, having been bested by the Walsh’s, was never heard in Coolbunnia afterwards!
1.  Jim Doherty in his book – The Next House has a similar story, but with different details. 

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