Families once had to stand guard over their loved one’s graves to keep them out of the clutches of the ‘bodysnatchers’, writes Eugene Dunphy

On a bitterly cold Tuesday afternoon, the 22nd of February 1820, three Dublin men, all close friends, made their way to the cemetery at Kilmainham Hospital Fields (‘Bully’s Acre’) to pay their respects at the grave of Dan Donnelly, the legendary Irish heavyweight boxer who died on the 18th of February.

One of the men, James Burrowes, 73 Baggot Street, was so horrified at what he saw, he penned a letter to the editor of Saunders’s Newsletter: ‘Coming to our Hero’s grave, what was our surprise, to behold the clay thrown up, the coffin lid broken, and the body gone’. Evidently, bodysnatchers had been at their work again.

The Murder Act of 1752 permitted surgeons to dissect the corpses of executed prisoners, or the corpses of those who had committed suicide. Since Dan Donnelly (pictured) had not been executed, and had not taken his own life, the disinterment of his body, and the procurement of it by ‘an eminent surgeon’, was not only immoral, but illegal.
With medical science still in its infancy in the early part of the nineteenth century, medical practitioners interested in finding cures for a vast range of diseases, opened anatomy schools in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, Cork and Belfast. The existence of these privately-run schools could only be sustained if their owners had a ready and ample supply of ‘raw material’ – dead bodies.

As the number of executions decreased with each passing decade, many anatomists tried to make up the shortfall in corpses by using the services of resurrectionists, sometimes known as sack ’em ups, but better known as bodysnatchers.

most bodysnatchers carried out their work in the depths of night, especially when it was cold; that way, there was little chance of being seen by mourners or apprehended by the police. Some of the more experienced practitioners of this dark art consulted almanacs or newspapers to keep track on moon cycles; a full moon meant that they did not have to carry cumbersome lanterns, which could easily alert passers-by. Usually operating in teams of three to six, they would arrive at a burial ground in a chaise (horse and carriage), a covered conveyance with enough room for at least one body.

By parking outside the ground, which was often surrounded by a wall, the driver would drive off for about an hour, during which time his colleagues would scale the wall and unearth the coffin with shovels, pick axes, crowbars and ropes. When the cadaver was removed and deposited in a sack, or wrapped in a tarpaulin, they would return the soil to the grave before making their way back to the wall again, to listen out for the return of the chaise.

Families were left with little option to prevent their loved ones graves from being ransacked and pillaged. Some spent nights in the graveyard guarding the burial plot, or hired friends to protect it, while others installed a ‘mortsafe’, a sturdy metal cage embedded in cement around the grave. Vicars and sextons attached to cemeteries such as Bully’s Acre, and to the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street, Belfast, built bespoke watch towers and manned them with armed guards, or ‘sentinels’.

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