Weird Norfolk: The Great Yarmouth bodysnatchers
- Credit: Nick Butcher
It was a time when the gruesome exploits of a band of ruthless men cast a shadow on the world of science as they stole corpses from graveyards - but in Norfolk, it was the surgeon son of a Yarmouth vicar who actually commissioned the deed.
It would be a masterly understatement to suggest that Great Yarmouth received a particularly unwelcome Christmas present in 1827 when the town discovered that bodysnatchers had been hard at work in the graveyard at the imposing church of St Nicholas close to the market place.
George Beck was the first to realise that something was awry. He'd lost his beloved wife Elizabeth on Halloween of 1827 and she had been laid to rest on November 4, clothed in a shroud and a gown. Grief-stricken, George went to visit his wife's grave a few days later, only to discover that the grave had been quite obviously disturbed.
He called the police and he and local constable Peter Coble laboriously exhumed the coffin, only to find to their horror that it was empty: all that was left was Elizabeth's shroud. During the bitterly cold weeks of November and December, constable Coble kept watch over the cemetery in the vain hope that the bodysnatchers, or resurrectionists as they were also known, would return once again with their gruesome shopping list. Townspeople became aware of the grim vigil and fear
turned to fury. Enraged relatives flooded to the graveyard and the graves of the most recently deceased were disinterred – there was an outcry when more empty coffins were discovered and it became apparent that the bodysnatchers had struck again.
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The scene in St Nicholas's churchyard was grim: coffins splintered like kindling, rotting corpses strewn on the grass. As The Norfolk Chronicle reported at the time: '…wives were seen searching for the remains of their deceased husbands; husbands for those of their wives; and parents for their children. Bodies of the number of 20 or more were found to have been removed and the grief of those whose search was in vain can better be imagined than described.'Coble had been gathering evidence and soon there were three names in the frame for the horrific crimes: William and Robert Baker from Beccles, their puppet master being a Thomas Vaughan from London, who had masterminded the thefts on behalf of an anatomist eager to hone his craft on cadavers.
Surgeons were, at the time, only permitted to practice their techniques on the bodies of hanged criminals and only at the behest of the presiding judge – to be offered up to medical science was considered to be a heinous sentence as dissected remains could not be buried on consecrated grounds.
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With a lack of bodies to practise their art on, some sought services from the underbelly of society, slipping cash to those prepared to break into coffins under a cloak of darkness – thanks to a loophole in the law, the crime of bodysnatching was less of a crime than the theft of the clothes the corpse were wearing (and was why garments were often left behind).
Sir Astley Cooper, surgeon to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria was quite open about using the corpses he bought from bodysnatchers, pointing to the fact that his research had allowed him to pioneer new techniques, such as the tying of an abdominal aorta to cure aneurysms. In addition to his lofty Royal position, he was also the son of the vicar of St Nicholas' Church – now Minster – in Yarmouth and the man who employed Thomas Vaughan to provide him with bodies.
Vaughan arranged the theft of bodies from the churchyard over a period of 19 days, including two children, a young woman and a 67-year-old man – the corpses were packed in bags filled with sawdust (earning the bodysnatchers another nickname: the 'sack-em-up men') and were taken to Vaughan's house on Row Six, which became known as Snatchbody Row. Bodies were later packaged in crates labelled 'Glass: Handle with Care', stacked on carts and sent to London where the would be laid out in a room close to St Bartholemew's Hospital for surgeons to choose their preferred corpse.
For his crime, Vaughan was sentenced to six months in prison, his costs paid for by the surgeons, his wife cared for while he was behind bars. He was finally transported to Australia after being caught bodysnatching once again – his fatal mistake on that occasion to steal the clothes as well as the corpse. Sir Astley Cooper, meanwhile, has his statue in St Paul's Cathedral.
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