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‘The Corporation of Corpse-stealers’
Archaeological and historical evidence of bodysnatching in early eighteenth-century London

During 2011–15, the site of the ‘New Churchyard’ at Liverpool Street, London, was archaeologically excavated by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) for Crossrail Ltd. The municipal burial ground was established in 1569 and used until 1739. Among over 3000 excavated burials was a sand-filled and stone-topped coffin containing the skeleton of an unnamed individual aged c.16 years, dated to the early eighteenth century. These extremely unusual, perhaps unique, features were ostensibly measures designed to prevent bodysnatching, a practice documentary sources record occurred at the ground in 1717. In her seminal work, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, Ruth Richardson suggested the so-called ‘Corporation of Corpse-stealers’ was well-established in London by the 1720s. However, although bodysnatching for anatomical dissection during the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth century has been extensively researched by both historians and archaeologists alike, the earlier years of the practice have been relatively neglected. Following a multidisciplinary approach, this chapter presents new documentary research (particularly drawing newspapers and apprenticeship, hospital, criminal and parish records) alongside the archaeological evidence from the New Churchyard. This approach facilitates a novel inquiry into the earliest documented cases of bodysnatching in London and demonstrates that far more can be said of its key features – its perpetrators, modus operandi, the public response, punishments and influence – than previously thought. This chapter argues that the prevailing historiographical representation of early British bodysnatching, particularly in London, requires considerable revision.

The subject of bodysnatching – specifically, the trade in corpses stolen for anatomical dissection – has long interested historians (Abbott, 2006; Bailey, 1896; Bailey, 1991; Ball, 1928; Cole, 1964; Fido, 1988; Guttmacher, 1935; Lennox, 2016; MacPhail, 1914). Archaeologists have also studied the subject, bringing together material and documentary sources, with a focus on grave protection (physical measures to prevent disturbance) and osteological evidence of surgical training and dissection (Fowler and Powers, 2012; Kausmally, 2015; Mitchell, 2012; Mytum and Webb, 2018). Nevertheless, the extensive literature from both historians and archaeologists has, predominantly, examined the period when bodysnatchers became commonly called ‘Resurrectionists’ – between the Murder Act of 1752, which gave courts the power to provide anatomists the bodies of hanged murderers, and the Anatomy Act of 1832, which effectively ended the practice of bodysnatching by providing legal access to the unclaimed corpses from hospital, prison or workhouses. Bodysnatching in earlier periods has received comparatively little attention.

The prevailing historiographical representation of early British bodysnatchers holds that they were surgeon/anatomists themselves (or, more commonly, their pupils), having supplied their own material from at least the late sixteenth century by illegally acquiring cadavers at the gallows. In her seminal work, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, Ruth Richardson suggested churchyards raids were almost commonplace in London by the 1720s, citing a contemporary guide to the city, which satirically observed:

the Corporation of Corpse-stealers, I am told, support themselves and Families very comfortably; and that no-one should be surpris'd at the Nature of such a Society, the late Resurrections in St. Saviours, St. Giles's and St. Pancras’ Church-yards, are memorable Instances of this laudable Profession.

(Anon, 1725: 47–8; 1728 reprint cited in Richardson, 2001: 55)

However, it has long been thought impossible to place and date the inception of churchyard bodysnatching with any precision (Ball, 1928: 72; Richardson, 2001: 55–7), and few authors have attempted to characterise the early years of the practice with detail. Guttmacher made the seemingly unsupported claim that all early bodysnatching was done secretly and on a small scale (1935: 13), and Cole believed it engendered no significant public alarm or protest in England until the second half of the eighteenth century (1964: 11, 93). The transition of bodysnatching into a trade and the commodification of the corpse – with anatomists as consumers only, supplied by a new stratum of professional thieves (mostly sextons and gravediggers) – was, it is also argued, probably an uneven and piecemeal process, not fully complete before the mid-eighteenth century (Fido, 1988: 21; Guttmacher, 1935: 13; Moore, 2006: 86–7; Richardson, 2001: 55–7). Whilst some authors have cited a limited number of reported incidents of churchyard bodysnatching and a few examples of prosecutions in London between 1720 and 1750 (e.g., Linebaugh, 1975: 71; Moore, 2006: 71, 80, 87; Richardson, 2001: 54–5), others have perpetuated a misconception that there were no prosecutions for bodysnatching in the city until the late eighteenth century (Bailey, 1991: 21; Cole, 1964: 11).

Although the question of why sourcing cadavers from gallows transitioned to churchyard bodysnatching has long been confidently attributed to the convergence of problematic cadaver supply and increased demand in the early eighteenth century, other basic questions about the chronology, methods and beneficiaries of early bodysnatching are still not satisfactorily answered. That so little about this period is known is largely attributable to two factors. First, bodysnatchers were by necessity circumspect and disinclined to keep potentially self-incriminating records. Therefore, surviving written records mostly represent occasions when perpetrators were detected or caught. Second, available evidence is scattered, problematically fragmented, subjective or indirect, making it more challenging to work with in isolation. However, new evidence which emerged in 2015 has prompted the present wider interdisciplinary re-examination of corpse stealing during the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Archaeological excavations of the ‘New Churchyard’, Liverpool Street, London, by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) for Crossrail Ltd recovered physical evidence of early eighteenth-century grave protection. The site also had a history of bodysnatching: the corpse of a patient from St Bartholomew's Hospital had been stolen from the New Churchyard in 1717 to be dissected in Oxford. Contemporary records identified those involved, including gravedigger Joseph Bowen, who stole the corpse, and medical men behind the theft, led by a surgeon named John Kersey (Hartle, 2017).

Building on existing knowledge, this chapter will align the New Churchyard evidence with extensive new documentary research (particularly drawing on newspapers and apprenticeship, hospital, criminal and parish records). It will demonstrate that the prevailing historiographical representation of early British bodysnatching, particularly in London, requires considerable revision. This chapter will first discuss the New Churchyard evidence and consider the professional, social and legislative context of bodysnatching in early eighteenth-century London and Oxford. It will then discuss the earliest known cases in England and provide the first identification of a network of bodysnatchers – the so-called ‘Corporation of Corpse-stealers’ – demonstrating how they established a churchyard bodysnatching modus operandi in London which was a trade from the outset, and show that their exposure set judicial precedent and excited public outcry far earlier and wider than previously recognised. Last, this chapter will demonstrate how these early activities may have promulgated the practice and influenced later bodysnatching in London and beyond.

The New Churchyard: archaeological evidence

Established in 1569 for municipal use, the non-parochial ‘New Churchyard’ (later ‘Bedlam’ or ‘Bethlem’) saw c.25,000 interments before closing in 1739. From 1700 it was predominantly used by the prisons of Ludgate and Poultry Compter, and the hospitals of Bethlem and St Bartholomew's. During the 2011–15 excavation, the historic theft of bodies was perhaps indicated by the discovery of eleven empty coffins, but this could not be stated with confidence due to widespread disturbance from intercut graves. However, one burial (Figure 4.1) provided compelling evidence for bodysnatching; not through the removal of a corpse from a grave, but instead through the protective measures designed to prevent this. The skeleton had been encased in sand that filled an undecorated wooden coffin, stone slabs had been placed on the coffin lid, and rubble was scattered in the grave fill. Had they attempted to steal the body, would-be bodysnatchers, needing to work quickly and quietly post-interment, would have found re-digging the grave laborious and the corpse effectively anchored into the coffin (and, by extension, the ground).

Figure 4.1 Burial [3999]/[4000], 0.5 m scale.

The earliest responses to bodysnatching would have included digging graves deeper and simple security measures such as guards, locking churchyard gates and raising walls. By the mid-eighteenth century, executed criminals also occasionally had their corpses buried with quicklime to make them unfit for dissection (Bailey, 1991: 28). Anti-Resurrectionist measures recorded for the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century include close parallels to the New Churchyard burial: grave fills were compacted or had obstructions placed within them – such as rubble, branches or straw – and coffin lids were covered by stones (Hartle, 2017: 73–4; Derby Mercury, 25 March 1829, p. 4). Although scant, there is archaeological evidence of more sophisticated measures developed after the 1790s, including iron coffins, mortsafes and ‘coffin collars’ (Hartle, 2017: 69–75; Mytum and Webb, 2018). 1 The latter anchored the corpse to the coffin. However, the early date of New Churchyard burial appears archaeologically unprecedented.

Stratigraphy suggests a post-1700 date for the New Churchyard burial, when the site was becoming densely packed, and the closure of the ground provides a terminus ante quem of March 1739. The skeleton belonged to an adolescent aged c.16 years at time of death and of indeterminate sex. Osteological analysis showed a possible healed blunt force trauma injury on the skull and widespread tuberculosis (TB) – a possible cause of death (Hartle, 2017: 222–3). Unfortunately, the individual is unidentifiable because the New Churchyard had no burial register and the grave no breastplate or gravestone.

Supply and demand: cadavers in early eighteenth-century London and Oxford

Founded in 1540, the Barber-Surgeons’ Company still regulated surgery in the City of London (to a radius of seven miles) at the turn of the eighteenth century. London had no university or medical schools and, whilst physicians were typically university educated, surgeons trained under apprenticeship. For the surgical education of their members and apprentices, the Barber-Surgeons’ Masters and Stewards of Anatomy also gave four lectures annually at their hall, where additional lectures could be conducted to broader audiences subject to permission and invitation (Young, 1890). However, the Barber-Surgeons’ influence on education was waning and it was London's two public hospitals – St Bartholomew's and St Thomas's (Figure 4.2) – that offered the broadest experience for aspiring surgeons and physicians alike. Staff at both trained apprentices but the three surgeons of St Thomas's also took short-term paying pupils (limited to three each in 1703) (Lawrence, 1996: 117; Wilson, 1992). Additionally, increased demand began fostering a small but burgeoning market of supplementary private lectures outside the Surgeon's Hall. The first verifiable private lecturers to offer courses on human and comparative anatomy in London were: Bernard Connor (1666?–98), who lectured at Oxford in 1696 before repeating his course at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster, in 1697 (Post Man and Historical Account [PMHA], 11–14 January 1697), p. 2); George Rolfe (born c.1680, fl.1728), who lectured with ‘human subjects’ at the Surgeon's Hall in 1701, before lecturing at his house in Chancery Lane, Holborn, in 1704–6 and 1713; and James Douglas (1675–1742), who lectured in 1706 at Fleet Street. Connor used animal vivisection and dissection and it is unknown if Rolfe used human remains outside the Surgeon's Hall, but Douglas used animals, preparations and ‘fresh’ human subjects if available (Douglas, 1707: 209–11; Peachey, 1924: 11–13).

Figure 4.2 Key locations mentioned in this chapter, plotted on Rocque's map of London, 1746.

The demand for human remains created by these activities meant problems with cadaver supply were endemic. Whilst occasional insights came from autopsy, this procedure was still not widely accepted, and was usually restricted to cause of death and subject to family permission and hospital regulation (Harley, 1994). For the purposes of dissection, the only universally available lawful source of cadavers was those willing to sell or bequeath their own bodies. Nevertheless, although condemned criminals and others are known to have sold their corpses in the early eighteenth century, such sales were extremely rare and financially motivated rather than altruistic. Bequests were almost unheard of. 2

Instead, the principal supply was granted by Crown and legislature: the Barber-Surgeons were allowed the bodies of four criminals per annum executed at Tyburn and the Royal College of Physicians could also claim up to six from executions within London, Middlesex or Surrey. However, although dissection of these bodies outside the halls and jurisdiction of the Barber-Surgeons and Royal College was proscribed, this meagre provision nevertheless met intra-professional competition from as early as the late sixteenth century, from unauthorised anatomists who ‘begged’ or bribed executioners (South, 1886: 231–3). By the beginning of the eighteenth century, when this increasingly left officials with warrants empty handed at the gallows, supply problems were exacerbated by the increasing violence of the ‘mob’: friends, relatives or well-wishers who aimed to rescue and secure the remains of the executed for ‘decent’ burial (Linebaugh, 1975). Prevailing public antipathy is evident in this anonymously authored epigram, which illustrates the perceived repugnance and ignominy of dissection, as well as a mistrust of medical practitioners:

To the Physitions upon a Dissection,

Trouble not yourselves, ye Butchering Fools,

Our Bodies want not your dissecting Tools,

For he that takes your Drugs, and Poisnous Stuffs,

I'll swear be Anatomiz'd enough.

(Diverting Post, 23–30 June 1705, p. 9)

This unprecedented combination of professional and lay interference forced the Barber-Surgeons and Royal College to expend considerable resources asserting their corporate rights during the first decades of the eighteenth century. As a result, unofficial acquisitions became increasingly conspicuous. The Barber-Surgeons were particularly quick to issue formal complaints: unauthorised anatomists risked £10 fines and rescuers were prosecuted (Linebaugh, 1975).

An almost identical situation prevailed in Oxford. The first Reader in Anatomy was founded at the university in 1624 and medical students were obliged to attend their lectures. 3 Despite the professors showing little inclination to conduct their anatomical duties in the early eighteenth century, practical instruction nevertheless underwent a short revival led by aspiring students and deputies (Robb-Smith and Sinclair, 1950: 10–11, 18–26). A Charter of Charles I (1636) allowed the Reader the bodies of anyone executed within twenty-one miles of the city following the spring Assizes. However, executions were rare and, as in London, official acquisitions became increasingly confrontational. In 1714, John Bellers (1654–1725) wrote: ‘it is not easy for the students to get a body to dissect at Oxford, the mob being so mutinous to prevent their having one’ (Robb-Smith and Sinclair, 1950: 12, 24).

Early evidence of bodysnatching in England: finding other sources of cadavers

Events of 1700 to 1715 support the established assertion that early bodysnatching was conducted directly by the medical profession itself. Three incidents involving students, discussed below, give the earliest clear evidence of how cadavers acquired at the gallows of London and Oxford were beginning to be supplemented by other illicit methods in this period, including churchyard bodysnatching. 4

One of these incidents involved William Stukeley (1687–1765), who studied medicine at the University of Cambridge (Matric. 1704, M.B. 1709) and attended Rolfe's London lectures in 1706. His memoirs recalled how, while home in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, in February 1708, he and a local Cambridge graduate had exhumed the corpse of a man who had committed suicide and been buried ‘in the highway’. They then dissected it and displayed the skeleton. Although Stukeley noted how, ‘The Country people were strangely alarm'd at this unusual Operation’ (Commentary 1720, in Lukis, 1882: 43), he faced no apparent legal consequences.

Four years earlier there had been an attempt at bodysnatching from a churchyard in Oxford. On 11 January 1724, Oxford antiquarian Thomas Hearne (1678–1735) wrote in his diary of an incident which had occurred twenty years earlier: 5

a pretty young Woman being buried in St. Peter's Ch. Yard in the East, search was made in the night time for her body, but they mistook her Grave, & took up one Goody Beacham, an old Woman who had been Bed-maker of Edm. Hall [St. Edmund Hall]. This old Woman they had convey'd out of the Church Yard but being some way or other disturbed as they were going along, thy drop'd her, and set her in her shrewd, bolt upright, just under Edm. Hall against the Wall, where (before day) in the Morning she, being seen, frighted some People, who knew nothing of the Matter.

(Rannie, 1907: 156–7)

Hearne, who lived and was educated at St Edmund Hall (Vertue, 2004), is perhaps a firsthand witness, but his account appears corroborated by burial registers: the ‘pretty young Woman’ was probably Katherine Wallis, spinster, buried 14 January 1704, and ‘Goody [Goodwife] Beacham’ was Elizabeth Beacham, widow, the next person to be buried two days later (Burials of St. Peter-in-the-East). 6

In London, only months earlier, the ‘young men’ of St Thomas's had been caught dissecting dead patients (Minute Books of the Grand Committee, 27 October 1703). No punishment was noted but apprentices and pupils were pointedly prohibited from dissecting patients again, whilst staff surgeons, who had been forbidden from ‘dismembering’ dead patients as early as 1670, required strict authorisation thereafter. Although a case of bodysnatching, there is no evidence the corpses were acquired post-burial. Exhumations, however, may not have been difficult. Although St Thomas's required all patient burials to be coffined by 1700, they buried paupers en masse in graves not fully backfilled between interments (Parsons, 1934: 104, 129, 135, 149, 186–7, 231). Evidence from recent archaeological excavation of circa late-seventeenth-century patient burials from St Thomas's did not demonstrate bodysnatching but did reveal both mass burial and surgical interventions, including medical waste (amputated limbs) and at least one example of post-mortem modification indicative of dissection (Miles, forthcoming).

Identifying the ‘Corporation of Corpse-stealers’ and the emergence of churchyard bodysnatching in London

Surgeon John Kersey – the instigator of the theft of a St Bartholomew's patient from the New Churchyard in 1717 – has been almost entirely overlooked by history. 7 However, by identifying Kersey, this chapter reveals his role in early churchyard bodysnatching in London and, by extension, allows the first detailed examination of the early eighteenth-century ‘Corporation of Corpse-stealers’. As this section suggests, evidence points not to St Bartholomew's but, instead, reveals a network of aspiring young medical men, including Kersey, who were educated at St Thomas's and pursued careers as private anatomy lecturers.

Born c.1687, Kersey was the son of publisher and lexicographer John Kersey (1657–1720). 8 His apprenticeship began on 1 June 1703 under the surgeon and embalmer Thomas Greenhill (fl.1698–1732 (Davidson, 2004)), 9 but transferred to St Thomas's surgeon Simon Rideout on 6 April 1709 (Register of apprentices bindings [RAB]: /002: 430; Register of freedom admissions [RFA]: 35; Court minute book [CMB]: 82). 10 Kersey would have assisted Rideout in all aspects of his hospital and private practice, and attended lectures at the Surgeon's Hall, but he also joined a small student fraternity, including William Cheselden (1688–1752) (Cope, 1953), who began his apprenticeship at St Thomas's in 1703 (the same year patient dissections by pupils were banned); and Stukeley, who, after his own bodysnatching foray, supplemented his studies at Cambridge by becoming a pupil at St Thomas's between August 1709 and May 1710. Stukeley's memoirs recalled how the juniors of St Thomas's socialised with the wider medical community in coffee houses and taverns but also formed their own informal learned societies. Kersey was probably among a group of ‘young Physicians & Surgeons’ formed by Stukeley, who met weekly to lecture among themselves and occasionally ‘dissected som’ part or other’ (Commentary 1720, in Lukis, 1882: 46).

By the end of 1710, Stukeley had left St Thomas's and London, and Cheselden had completed his apprenticeship. Stukeley ultimately found his niche as clergyman and antiquarian, but Cheselden quickly established his medical reputation by immediately embarking on two lucrative and prestigious ventures: private lectures at his home and the publication of his highly influential Anatomy of the Human Body (1713). 11 Cheselden's achievements are widely documented; however, the role of St Thomas's in fostering early entrepreneurial anatomy lecturing has hitherto not been fully recognised. Cheselden was only the first of a series of men educated at St Thomas's in the 1700s and 1710s to undertake such work. Kersey was the second and completed his apprenticeship on 3 June 1712. 12 Although Kersey's professional activities are not documented until 1717 (see below), 13 it seems probable he initially worked with Cheselden, 14 whose 1713 syllabus certainly indicates at least one unidentified partner (Cheselden, 1713: 270) (Figure 4.3).

Figure 4.3 William Cheselden giving an anatomical demonstration to six spectators in the anatomy-theatre of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, London. Oil painting, c.1730/1740.

Cheselden, Kersey and their peers would have had little or no access to cadavers while studying at St Thomas's. Although occasional cadavers may have been acquired via extra-mural employment, 15 ignoring recent hospital restrictions on patient dissection risked expulsion. However, establishing successful lecturing careers required marketable courses, for which a reliable provision of cadavers was advantageous, since the alternatives – drawings, models, casts and animals – were, by themselves, increasingly considered inadequate. It is known Cheselden initially used ‘executed bodies’ from Tyburn (Cheselden, 1713), as many had done before him, but this arrangement became unviable in 1714. Cheselden was reprimanded that year by the Barber-Surgeons for frequently taking Tyburn bodies without authorisation and for competing with official lectures at the Surgeons’ Hall. He responded by promising to cease his private lectures, but would, in later life, bitterly condemn the restrictions placed on private dissection by the Barber-Surgeons, which he considered deliberately stifled the education and advancement of young surgeons (Le Dran, 1749: 472). Cheselden's reprimand is widely cited in histories of bodysnatching but was more significant than has been appreciated. Members of the Barber-Surgeons, such as Cheselden and Kersey, were subject to the full scrutiny and jurisdiction of the Company. For them the 1714 reprimand appears to have been a watershed. Thereafter the students and alumni of St Thomas's sought what they were denied – professional freedom and cadavers – and found new routes to both in London and Oxford.

There appears to be no further evidence of churchyard bodysnatching in Oxford until 1749 (Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal [KWPCJ], 22–25 March 1749, p. 2) and the practice probably faltered in the city (Boston and Webb, 2012). 16 Instead, the university became reliant on visiting lecturers with cadavers sourced from London. In 1710, anatomist D. Lavater of Zurich was forced to lecture on osteology at the Ashmolean Museum because he had no corpse to dissect, having failed to ‘obtain’ one from London (Robb-Smith and Sinclair, 1950: 24). With his private lecturing in London hindered and his application for two St Thomas's staff positions in 1714–15 unsuccessful, it is conceivable Cheselden sought work in Oxford, possibly assisted by Kersey. Cheselden was perhaps the unidentified London surgeon who Thomas Hearne records conducted the dissection of ‘a woman’ at the Clarendon Building, Oxford, on 15 May 1715 (Rannie, 1901: 59). 17 Cope suggests that others supplied Cheselden with Tyburn corpses that season, but that the supply was again interrupted: Cheselden's former master, James Ferne (d.1741, St Thomas's surgeon, 1703–41), was himself reprimanded by the Barber-Surgeons’ on 21 April 1715 for taking cadavers out of the Surgeon's Hall without authorisation (Cope, 1953: 10).

The earliest recorded cases of bodysnatching outside of the gallows in England (above) suggest occasional, opportunistic or ad hoc forays. However, by 1716, with the dead of St Thomas's protected and the monopoly on supply from execution sites now more effectively enforced, the men of St Thomas's progressed to what must have seemed the easiest, most circumspect and sustainable method of cadaver procurement: theft from burial grounds by proxy. By this time, Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514–64) had probably inspired generations of British anatomists to adopt a direct approach to bodysnatching. Vesalius had taken bodies from the gallows but also, by his own admission, kept ‘bodies taken from graves’ in his bedroom, and he had encouraged students to follow his example (O’Malley, 1964: 114, 222). Kersey clearly admired Vesalius, demonstrating his vocation by baptising his first son ‘John Vesalius Kersey’ (Baptisms of St Andrew, Holborn, 14 December 1718). 18 However, Kersey and his peers may have also looked to anatomists in seventeenth-century Paris, who had set a precedent for delegating the theft itself to corruptible gravediggers (Guerrini, 2015: 22–3; Harding, 2002: 115–16).

The three earliest recorded cases of churchyard bodysnatching in London suggest the practice emerged in the city during the 1710s. Exploring these cases chronologically allows, for the first time, a detailed account of its early modus operandi. Most (if not all) of these thefts were undertaken by men linked with St Thomas's and include the 1717 New Churchyard incident.

An incident in 1716 represents the first known example of churchyard bodysnatching in London. It demonstrates the early public and legal response and shows how the practice was a trade in London from inception, with both consumers and suppliers. On 11 November 1716, a man learned that his wife's corpse had been exhumed the night after its burial in the Quaker ground, Whitechapel (see Figure 4.2) and ‘carry'd to a Hospital in Southwark’. The burial register shows the corpse belonged to Sarah Shepherd (formerly Stiver, née Hoe) who died of ‘consumption’ (TB) aged 41 on 9 November (Library of the Religious Society of Friends [LRSF], London, Quarterly Meeting of London and Middlesex [QMLM]: Burials 1699–1723, Devonshire House, fol.566). Mr Shepherd organised a search of the hospital but, despite obtaining a warrant, was denied full access by a ‘person of authority’. 19 When the corpse was returned to Mr Shephard in a coffin on 16 November it had been dissected: ‘us'd after a barbarous Manner’, the Weekly Packet reported (17–24 November 1716, p. 3).

A general ignorance of bodysnatching appears to have still been prevalent in London – the Stamford Mercury commented that the Quaker community was ‘much surpriz'd at such a barbarous and inhuman Treatment’ (22 November 1716, p. 7). The Devonshire Meeting, who oversaw the Whitechapel ground, responded by authorising £10 for a prosecution to ‘prevent such Practices for the future’. Their gravedigger, Michael Holmes, was swiftly dismissed after his son, John, was linked to the crime, committed to Newgate and examined before the Lord Mayor. 20 However, John Holmes was discharged and his employer, ‘one Griffiths’, was arrested. Described as a ‘Savage Creature’ who ‘made it his Business to treat with Sextons and Grave-Diggers, to purchase dead bodies’, Griffiths had paid Holmes and an unidentified coachman 10s and 6s, respectively (Stamford Mercury, 29 November 1716, pp. 6–7). 21

Unfortunately, no more can be said about ‘Griffiths’ (including his first name) or who he supplied. Although the Weekly Packet noted he was to be tried at the next session of the Old Bailey (17–24 November 1716, p. 3), records for his prosecution – perhaps the first of its kind in London – do not seem to survive. Moreover, no surgeons appear to have been named or prosecuted for their involvement, so their identity and that of the ‘Hospital in Southwark’ cannot be proved. However, the only Southwark hospitals at that time were St Thomas's and Lock Hospital (located on the outskirts of Southwark). The incident was not noted in its official records but St Thomas's, with its history of teaching and surgical operations, would seem far more likely to have sourced a cadaver for anatomical study than the latter, a smaller institution which treated venereal disease. The involvement of Cheselden could be suggested but is equally unprovable. Cheselden is known to have restarted his lectures in London during that winter (1716/17). 22 Although the location of these lectures was not recorded, the institutional status of St Thomas's could have offered him a venue sheltered from the Barber-Surgeons. 23

The second case demonstrates a clear connection with St Thomas's, a continuity of the modus operandi and the early establishment of legal precedent. It involved a man called William Childers, who died of ‘consumption’ in St Bartholomew's and was buried in the New Churchyard on 10 or 11 April 1717. Gravedigger Joseph Bowen exhumed his corpse at 11 pm, placed it in a sack, and bent it double into a hamper. It was delivered to the Rose Inn, West Smithfield (see Figure 4.2), and sold to John Kersey and two ‘young surgeons’ for one guinea. However, the landlady became suspicious and surreptitiously searched the hamper after one man said it contained wine, while another claimed it held Westphalia hams. The men were detained under suspicion of murder but released after incriminating Bowen, explaining that Childers had died a natural death and was to be anatomised in Oxford (Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer [WJBG], 20 April 1717, p. 5; Stamford Mercury, 25 April 1717, p. 8; Evening Post, 4–7 May 1717, p. 3; Weekly Packet, 4–11 May 1717, p. 3; Weekly Journal or Saturday's Post [WJSP], 1 June 1717, p. 3).

Childers was one of 207 St Bartholomew's patients who died between March 1717 and March 1718 (Butler, 1740: 27) but his identity is unclear because no record exists of his burial (or reburial). 24 It is conceivable the skeleton discovered in 2015 – an adolescent c.16 years old with widespread TB, of indeterminate sex – was Childers, had he married very young and the burial was his reinterment. 25 However, given the New Churchyard's association with St Bartholomew's and the prevalence of TB victims among the hospital's dead, 26 a more plausible scenario (albeit equally unprovable) is that the skeleton belonged to another St Bartholomew's patient buried after Childers. Perhaps remembering the theft of April 1717 and being too poor to arrange burial elsewhere, friends or family could have brought basic materials to the funeral to protect the body.

One of the ‘young surgeons’ with Kersey was probably his new apprentice, 27 but the other is identified within a letter to Thomas Hearne from John Woodward (1665–1728), dated 30 March 1717. Woodward enquired: ‘There went thither [London to Oxford] lately young Surgeons, Mr Kersey and Mr Brathwaite, to teach a course of Anatomy. How have they acquitted themselves?’ (Rannie, 1902: 35). Thomas Brathwaite (or Braithwaite) was just 21 years old and was related to prominent families from Westmorland, Hampshire and Kent (Betham, 1805: 496–7; Lane-Poole, 2004). 28 Still an apprentice, his master was not Kersey but St Thomas's surgeon William Dickinson. 29 The wording of Woodward's question could suggest that if Kersey had previously lectured at Oxford, then this was the first course read by him, with Brathwaite, his junior, presumably acting as demonstrator. 30

How many corpses Kersey's group stole in 1717 is unclear, but more than one was probably required. Despite courses being conducted by necessity in the colder seasons, without modern refrigeration, they would have been usable for only short periods. When the group were arrested in mid-April, they were probably completing a course started in early to mid-March. Moreover, although their syllabus does not survive, courses commonly comprised lectures over many weeks and were generally repeated over the autumn–spring anatomy season (September to May). 31 Circumstantial evidence could indicate the group used multiple corpses and churchyards. First, Thomas Abraham, gravedigger of Kersey's own parish (St Andrew, Holborn), was ‘detected of several misdemeanours’ in mid-April. Accused of ‘robbing the dead and other enormities […] most sacrilegiously practised’, he was dismissed on 23 April (Vestry minute books). Bodysnatching was not explicitly recorded, and no details were revealed publicly; however, the timing and link to Holborn seem an unlikely coincidence and suggests Abraham could have been another employee of Kersey. Second, a bag containing a ‘murder'd child’ and ‘heads of two others’ was found on the Thames waterfront near Arundel Street on 12 April (Evening Post, 11–13 April 1717, p. 2). It is tempting to speculate this was an attempt by Kersey's group to destroy evidence, since the discovery was made not far from Kersey's home (Figure 4.2) and immediately followed their arrest and release.

St Bartholomew's records show the impoverished Mrs Childers requested their help to prosecute all those involved. 32 Kersey's group avoided indictment, probably due to their social status and connections. 33 However, an Old Bailey jury found Bowen ‘guilty of the Indictment’ on 1 May 1717, after hearing evidence from witnesses at the funeral and the Rose Inn. Bowen was fined of 40s, plus fees (costs) and whipped from Newgate to Smithfield Bars on 29 May 1717. The court thought this punishment ‘condign [fitting, deserved]’ and, having recently seen similar crimes (presumably in 1716, above), commented: ‘he and his Fraternity are grown such common Disturbers, that the Dead can't rest quietly in their Graves for ‘em’ (Old Bailey Proceedings Online [OBPO], LL ref: t17170501–35).

Since records from 1716 do not survive, Bowen's trial is perhaps the earliest surviving example of a bodysnatching prosecution in London (and Britain) and demonstrates the early establishment of judicial precedent. First, no medical practitioner would be prosecuted in London for their part in bodysnatching until the late eighteenth century; instead, it would continue to be their employees who were punished. Second, the crime of bodysnatching continued to be considered a misdemeanour and not a felony. Punishments would, therefore, remain relatively lenient and included whipping, fines and short prison sentences, rather than harsher punishments such as deportation or death. Although the records of this case do not document the rationale behind the sentencing, it probably paralleled well-documented late-eighteenth-century cases, which did not recognise bodysnatching as ‘theft’. Common law, it was argued, held that the dead body (or parts thereof) was nullius in bonis (among the property of no person) and therefore could not be ‘owned’. Thus, an indictment for theft only occurred if ‘property’ was also taken, such as a shroud or coffin. 34 There remained no statute against stealing a corpse; 35 instead, bodysnatching was cognisable in a criminal court as a great indecency, contra bonos mores (against good morals). 36

There is no evidence of Kersey professionally after April 1717. Continuance of his work perhaps left no record, but it is more probable that his career faltered, not because of public exposure, but due to familial tragedy and ill-health. The years 1719 and 1720 saw the deaths of his first son and father respectively, and Kersey himself died in February 1723 (Burials of St Andrew, Holborn: 21.04.1719, 07.02.1720 and 26.02.1723, respectively; Will of John Kersey, 1720). 37 However, Brathwaite's career continues to illustrate the bodysnatching activities of the men of St Thomas's. In the winter of 1717/18, he may have formed a new partnership with another recent alumnus of St Thomas's, Joshua Symonds (1694?–1731). Symonds had succeeded Cheselden as apprentice to Ferne at St Thomas's and completed his apprenticeship there in late 1716 (Peachey, 1924: 19). In late 1717, Symonds published a syllabus for a course of thirty human anatomy lectures aimed at students (Symonds, 1717). The syllabus did not record the venue but a letter to Hearne dated 9 November 1717 suggests he had taken Kersey's place in Oxford. Dr Richard Mead (1673–1754), physician of St Thomas's Hospital, wrote: ‘Mr. Simmonds, a surgeon […] who comes [from London to Oxford] to give a course of Anatomy to your young students’ (Rannie, 1902: 105). As will now be discussed, Brathwaite certainly received bodies stolen from a churchyard in London that winter.

The third earliest London case involved a woman buried at 9 pm on 11 February 1718 in St Saviours, Southwark (see Figure 4.2). By 11 pm, gravedigger William Dod and soldier George Gambol had exhumed her corpse, stripped it and squeezed it into a hamper by breaking her neck and back. It was carried to the nearby home of a surgeon of St Thomas's, described as a ‘lusty fat man’ (Anon, undated). However, the men forgot the address (WJBG, 15 February 1718, p. 5). One account recorded that they ran away after knocking at the wrong door (Original Weekly Journal [OWJ], 8–15 February 1718, p. 5), another that they were challenged by a maid (WJSP, 15 February 1718, p. 4), and another that the hamper was left unattended while they ‘made water’ and then discovered by a gentleman who raised the alarm (Anon, undated). The deceased – described as a 60-year-old midwife whose son was a cooper – was probably Catherine Worrell (née Simonds). 38 While her body was reclaimed by family after being ‘exposed to public view’ at St Thomas's (WJSP, 15 February 1718, p. 4), other concerned citizens excavated St Saviours’ burial grounds to search for loved ones. Many of those buried in the previous six weeks were found missing from their graves. 39

An anonymous angry letter responding to the incident was published in the Original Weekly Journal (15–22 February 1718, p. 4). It demonstrates awareness of bodysnatching had markedly increased since 1716, but that the antipathy was equally strong:

Sir, the sudden Resurrection of the Dead in Southwark, is become the general Subject of Conversation, and has render'd Death far more Frightful and Terrible to some People, than ever it was described. And I fear our Teachers will now find a hard Tuggon't to perswade People to submit so tamely to it as formerly; seeing that neither common Humanity, the strongest Elm, nor even the Grave are capable of Protecting the most Pious Mortal, after he has left these Transitory Mansons, from falling into the Hands of some Galenian Butcher or other, to be Scarified in such a Manner, as would make a Bailiff, a Hangman, or a Hussar almost Tremble, at the sight of him.

The letter also reveals an awareness of the transactional relationships involved, referring to ‘Sexton, or Grave Digger, standing Proxie's at the Cart-Tail’, and branded surgeons:

Wretches who deserve Tyburn, or at least an Oates's Punishment [pillory and whipping], for Tempting such Necessited Rascals to become Accessaries, to a Fact that a Turk would be Astonish'd to hear of; and of which, such falsely Stile themselves Christians, ought Justly to be Asham'd of Committing.

Although the sexton, Dod and their families were all carried before a Magistrate, only Dod was detained. Gambol was arrested later but gave King's evidence, testifying he had been paid 5s ‘porteridge’ and that Dod was paid 30s for each child under 2 years old and one guinea per adult (OWJ, 8–15 February 1718, p. 5). Awaiting trial in Marshalsea prison, Dod was protected from the ‘Clamour of the Thieves in that Prison, who pretend to be much Honester Fellows, because they only robb the Living’ (Stamford Mercury, 20 February 1718, p. 10). Sentenced at the Kingston assizes soon after, his punishment seems to have followed the precedent set in 1717: he was fined six nobles (£2) and given two years’ imprisonment (OWJ, 29 March 1718–5 April 1718, p. 4). St Thomas's distanced itself from scandal through a newspaper advertisement in which they publicly insisted the ‘Person’ responsible was a ‘Teacher of Anatomy on his own Account’ and denied any association with him (Post Boy, 13–15 February 1718, p. 2). An internal inquiry, however, attributed the thefts to Brathwaite, after bodies were found at his lodgings in Joyner Street, Southwark (Figure 4.2). Brathwaite again avoided prosecution but, having already been previously rebuked for bringing unauthorised guests to the wards, was dismissed from his apprenticeship and refused entry to the hospital (Minute Books of Courts and Committees [MBCC], 26.03.1718).

Nevertheless, although Brathwaite was publicly presented as fully culpable, the large number of corpses reportedly stolen that winter seems excessive for the needs of just one teacher. Indeed, there is evidence Brathwaite was scapegoated for the activities of others. The autobiography of Alexander Monro (1697–1767) records that he studied surgery and dissection with Cheselden in London from early 1717 to spring 1718. During this time, Monro claimed he was ‘furnished with more [bodies] than with the utmost Application he could make use of’ (Erlam, 1954: 81). He did not explain their source publicly but recorded the dates and descriptions of eight corpses he dissected between 5 August 1717 and 18 January 1718 (six children (boy and girls) between ‘some months old’ and 7 years old, a man c.26–27 years old and a woman ‘over 60’ (Commonplace Book)). Although a precise correlation is impossible because of limited biographic detail, potential matches can be found for all these individuals among the burial register of St Saviours. Monro recalled how these bodies were dissected by a ‘Society of young Gentlemen’, who ‘undertook to give Lectures in Their turns on different Organs’, 40 and how, by early 1718, he had enough material to make numerous anatomical preparations to send home to his father (Erlam, 1954: 81; Guerrini, 2006).

The influence and legacy of early churchyard bodysnatching

Although it is beyond the scope of this chapter to fully assess the influence of early churchyard bodysnatching in both London and beyond, this section serves to demonstrate that its legacy was both long lasting and wide ranging. Churchyard bodysnatching persisted during the 1720s and perhaps intensified. Yet, while private anatomy courses began to flourish in London during this period, evidence of the practice of bodysnatching during this decade is rarer. The careers of Thomas Brathwaite and others offer some clues about why this was and demonstrate the ongoing demand for cadavers.

Expelled from St Thomas's, Brathwaite continued his education under London surgeon Richard Lee, completing his apprenticeship on 22 October 1719 (Freedom Admission Papers, /0402–0408). However, Brathwaite also returned to Oxford in early 1719. Using a London newspaper, he advertised a course on human and comparative anatomy to be conducted in the ‘public schools’ of Oxford in March 1719, for which he claimed forty-two students had already subscribed (Daily Courant, 2 March 1719, p. 2). Brathwaite was to demonstrate and his new partner, Christopher Furneaux (1693–1730) of Exeter College, would read the lectures. 41 Although Brathwaite perhaps continued working with Furneaux in Oxford into the 1720s, 42 it seems more probable he gained his next employment in London with Scottish surgeon John Douglas (d.1743), brother of Dr James Douglas (Bevan, 2008). From late 1719 to early 1723, John Douglas performed private practical anatomy lectures for students, with an emphasis on the dissection of human subjects (Douglas, 1719; Peachey, 1924: 22). Douglas had been a pupil at St Thomas's in c.1715–16 (Cheselden, 1723: vii) and been made foreign brother of the Barber-Surgeons in 1717. He clearly knew Brathwaite; they had been contemporaries at St Thomas's and in later life Douglas described Brathwaite as an ‘ingenious Surgeon, and accurate Anatomist’ (1735: 44). Another indication of an association or friendship between the two men is the venue of Douglas's lectures. Records show the house was located a few doors from Kersey's house in Fetter Lane (see Figure 4.2) and that Brathwaite continued the lease of the same property from 1724 (Land Tax Assessment Books [LTAB], /62, 71, 74, 77, 80, 83, 86, 89; Anon, 1728: 146).

Brathwaite's career, however, was not a long one. He took an apprentice in 1725 43 but died of an unknown cause in the summer of 1730 (Will of Thomas Brathwaite, PROB 11/640/275, dated 17.05.1730, proved 30.10.1730). 44 An auction of his belongings to benefit his family 45 included: an ‘anatomy in wax’, instruments of midwifery, surgery and dissection, a syllabus, medical books and ‘Anatomical Preparations and Curiosities, not commonly to be met with’. The latter included the hymen from a 22-year-old woman executed at Tyburn, three boxes of bones, one box of ‘anatomical preparations injected’, an ‘old man's head’, an embryo in spirits, three fetuses (dried and in spirits) and one fetus in utero (Payne, 1731: 114–15). As well as being indicative of a lecturing career supported by illicit procurement, these items may suggest specialism in obstetrics and midwifery. Indeed, Brathwaite's only known publication was a pamphlet which criticised his rival, St Andre, and others for their credulity over the fraudulent rabbit births of Mary Toft (Brathwaite, 1726; Harvey, 2020).

Between 1719 and 1727 there are four known incidents of bodysnatching in London, but none can be linked to a surgeon or hospital (Hartle, 2017: 268; Daily Journal (London), 17 February 1727, p. 2). Douglas and/or Brathwaite may have been responsible, but the London market in private anatomy lecturing was becoming more crowded: Swiss physician Nathaniel St Andre (1680?–1776) initially lectured with ‘Mr. Martin’ (see note 23) from 1718 and later alone until 1726; and Peter Coltheart, foreign brother of the Barber-Surgeons, lectured in Covent Garden, 1721–6. Cheselden was appointed assistant surgeon at St Thomas's in 1718 and surgeon in 1719, in place of Brathwaite's former master, Dickinson (recently deceased), but also lectured privately with Francis Hauksbee (1687–1763) between 1720–2 at Fleet Street. Whether Hauksbee, Coltheart and Cheselden had access to cadavers in this period is unrecorded, but St Andre was able to source preparations and supplied students with human skeletons (PMHA, 6–8 March 1718, p. 2, and 11–13 September 1718, p. 2; Daily Courant, 21 November 1719, p. 4, and 5 October 1721, p. 4; Lawrence, 1996: 180–5; Peachey, 1924: 8–24).

Churchyard bodysnatching had clearly become a national practice by the mid-1720s. On 11 January 1724, Oxford antiquarian Thomas Hearne (1678–1735) noted in his diary that it was ‘common practice nowadays for young Physicians to rob Church Yards […] many Clarks, as ‘tis said, in London, & other great Places, being confederate with [them]’ (Rannie, 1907: 156–7). In Scotland this had developed broadly in parallel: suspicion of bodysnatching from a grave in Edinburgh was documented in 1678 and an allegation of the same recorded in 1711 (Richardson, 2001: 54); and four apprentice surgeon-apothecaries of Perth were fined for bodysnatching in October 1718 (Warrants of Decreets). However, the practice proliferated in and around Edinburgh from the mid-1720s, following Monro's appointment as foundation Professor of Anatomy at the university. 46 Although there is no evidence the alumni of St Thomas's – specifically, Cheselden, Kersey, Brathwaite, Symonds and Douglas – ever lectured at Cambridge, it is certainly possible one or more of them did, and there are clear links between London, St Thomas's and early bodysnatching in Cambridgeshire. Cambridge students are known to have studied concurrently in London 47 and George Rolfe, the early London lecturer, was the university's first Professor of Anatomy, 1707–28. Rolfe is said to have neglected his duties, but anatomical teaching did occur during his tenure and into the 1730s. The university opened its first anatomy school in 1716 and, as at Oxford, it was common contemporary practice to supplement college teaching with private lectures (Rolleston, 1932). Although a sixteenth-century Royal grant allowed the university the bodies of two executed criminals annually for dissection, additional bodies were sought via a clause in the Physicians Bill in 1724. 48 After the clause was rejected, five incidents of churchyard bodysnatching were reported in and around Cambridge between 1725 and 1732 (Caledonian Mercury, 1 April 1725, p. 1; Ipswich Journal or Weekly Mercury [IJWM], 1–8 October 1726, p. 3; KWPCJ, 7–11 February 1730, p. 2 and 12 April 1732, p. 4), and the university was compelled to publish an ordinance against the practice by its students and graduates in 1731 (Peachey, 1924: 3, 13).

In London, during the decades following Brathwaite's death in 1730, medical training and lecturing became increasingly common within hospitals (including St Thomas's), private extra-mural anatomy tuition proliferated and bodysnatching persisted. Two prominent anatomy lecturers of this period had close links with Oxford. First, Edward Nourse (1701–61), son of an Oxford surgeon, who was apprenticed at St Bartholomew's in December 1717 and advanced to staff surgeon by 1745. He lectured at his house from 1729 and then at St Bartholomew's from 1734 (Moore, 2004). Second, Frank Nicholls (1699?–1778) who matriculated undergraduate in 1714 at Exeter College, Oxford, and would have been a pupil of Furneaux and probably an auditor of Kersey, Brathwaite and Symonds. Nicholls was lecturing at Oxford by c.1721 and was Professor of Anatomy at Oxford by the time he first lectured in London in 1727 (Guerrini, 2008; Robb-Smith and Sinclair, 1950: 26–31).

For Cheselden, the 1730s and 1740s brought significant professional success, placing him as arguably the most eminent British surgeon of his generation. We may suspect Cheselden, Nourse and Nicholls all sourced cadavers through the practice of bodysnatching but evidence is generally lacking or circumstantial. 49 Nevertheless, although anatomists advertising London lectures during the 1700s to 1730s had refrained from promising access to human remains, those of the 1740s were more explicit about its availability (Lawrence, 1996: 183). Some among the next generation of lecturers were irrefutably incriminated in churchyard bodysnatching. The private lectures of surgeon Sir Caesar Hawkins (1711–86), for example, who had trained in London in the 1720s, were linked to bodysnatching in 1736 (Hartle, 2017: 269). Only the previous year he had been appointed surgeon to St George's Hospital, where he would have worked alongside Cheselden, who had joined the hospital's surgical staff in 1733. However, it is William Hunter (1718–83) and his brother John Hunter (1728–93) who are most notable – and who became somewhat notorious (see Figure 4.4). In 1749, the year he became pupil to Cheselden, John Hunter avoided prosecution after being arrested in possession of a corpse stolen from a Westminster churchyard (Chaplin, 2009: 61). From the mid-eighteenth century, the Hunters were at the forefront of a burgeoning of private anatomical instruction in London through the establishment of the first private anatomy schools, but they also helped transform bodysnatching from a trade into an industry (Moore, 2006).

Figure 4.4 A nightwatchman disturbs a body-snatcher who has dropped the stolen corpse he had been carrying in a hamper, while the anatomist runs away. Etching with engraving by W. Austin, 1773.


Introducing a lecture to students in c.1780, William Hunter observed that anatomy was the basis of surgery, but that it also familiarised ‘the heart to a kind of necessary Inhumanity’ (St Thomas's Hospital Manuscript 55: 182v, quoted in Richardson, 2001: 31). This clinical dispassion, exemplified by bodysnatching, came into conflict with both the individual grief and general moral repugnance of the lay populace. The New Churchyard archaeology is a rare physical manifestation of contemporary antipathy toward bodysnatching but also the undocumented anxiety of bereavement.

This chapter shows that this antipathy was a response to a well-organised network of bodysnatchers. The modus operandi of the early churchyard bodysnatching which they established in London shows that it was a trade from the outset. The dead body was already objectified within the surgical fraternity by the end of the seventeenth century, but to the men of St Thomas's it was an anonymous material commodity to be bought and sold.

It is clear that the practice of churchyard bodysnatching excited a public outcry far earlier and wider than previously recognised: the archaeological evidence from the New Churchyard is the material manifestation of the outrage visible in print culture. As this chapter discussed, bodysnatching quickly became an early newspaper sensation. Widely considered tantamount to both spiritual and physical violation, the earliest known prosecutions in London for churchyard bodysnatching probably set judicial precedent. Those who conducted the thefts themselves were vilified at the time but have not been adequately considered by historians until now. Among the surgeons of the period, Cheselden achieved a far longer lasting legacy than most of his peers, including two key figures in the history of early bodysnatching, Thomas Brathwaite and John Kersey. Brathwaite had some limited posthumous status as a luminary 50 and published at least once, but neither he nor Kersey gained any accoutrements of surgical eminence: hospital appointments, patronage, fellowships or eponymic recognition. Bodysnatching in the early eighteenth century does not appear to have necessarily partnered professional success. Nevertheless, while corpses could be a commodity and a conduit to professional prestige and personal fortune, difficulties in obtaining bodies for the purpose of research and teaching meant that the wider adoption of churchyard bodysnatching was arguably a necessary mechanism underpinning surgical advancement for over a century. Much is owed to the entrepreneurial efforts of junior members of London's medical elite, a small group of men educated at St Thomas's, as well as those they bribed to steal on their behalf who were, together, the ‘Corporation of Corpse-stealers’.


Although the research for this chapter was part of a personal and self-funded project, the author would like to thank his MOLA colleagues for their advice and help during the writing and publication process, particularly Susan Wright, David Bowsher, Juan Jose Fuldain Gonzalez and Tracy Wellman. The author would also like to thank Karen Harvey and Elizabeth Craig-Atkins for inviting him to write this chapter and for their invaluable guidance, constructive comments and enthusiasm.


1 Extensive evidence from this period has recently been found at St James's Chapel, Hampstead Road, London, excavated by MOLA Headland Infrastructure (MHI) for HS2 (Hartle, 2022).
2 Charles Smith, a dwarf, sold his body to a surgeon in c.1725, receiving 6d a week until his death in 1735 (Derby Mercury, 18 December 1735, p. 4); a ‘Whimsical Lawyer’ bequeathed his body for dissection in 1729, on condition his remains were preserved and displayed (IJWM, 12–19 April 1729, p. 4), as did philosopher Robert Greene (1678?–1730) (Vian, 1890); Richard Ellis, of Colonel Kirkes's regiment, was whipped and court-martialled in 1725 after attempting to sell his pregnant wife, dead or alive, to Edinburgh's anatomists (Mist's Weekly Journal, 8 May 1725, p. 2).
3 Four Lent term dissection lectures (January–March), by the Reader and his appointed surgeon, and three Michaelmas term osteological lectures (October–December) (Ayliffe, 1714, Vol. 2: 111–12 and 189–90).
4 Possible earlier evidence for the movement of illicitly acquired cadavers or their disposal after dissection includes: a mutilated corpse found in a shallow grave near Tyburn in September 1697 – the Post Man and the Historical Account suggested that it was one of the ‘Malefactors last Executed there, which was begg'd by a private Chirurgeon’ (28–30 September, 1697, p. 2); a child's corpse found abandoned in a coffin in the churchyard of St Dunstan, Stepney, in April 1700 – the ‘very dismal Spectacle’ had signs of dissection, including dismemberment, craniotomy and organ removal (London Post with Intelligence Foreign and Domestick [LPIFD], 1–3 April 1700, p. 2); and a case in the Custom House, Dublin, in September 1700, discovered to contain a corpse in a coffin dated 1698. A ‘gentlewoman’ had paid to transport it from London, claiming it contained ‘old Clothes for her Friend’ (Flying Post or the Post Master [FPPM], 14–17 September 1700, p. 2). This could have simply been a mix up with repatriated remains; alternatively, they were perhaps stolen, covertly transported and sourced for an anatomical skeleton.
5 Robb-Smith and Sinclair (1950: 24) imprecisely dated this incident to c.1710.
6 The incident was later recorded in an epigram attributed to ‘Dr. H—n’ (Hodges and Reeve, 1749: 190).
7 There appears to be no mention of Kersey in any secondary sources, except recognition of his existence in Wallis and Wallis (1988: 203).
8 His parents, John Kersey and Juliana Owen, married 16.02.1686 (Marriages of St Bride Fleet Street); Juliana Kersey bur. 28.04.1745 (Burials of St Michael Cornhill); Wallis, 2004.
9 Greenhill conducted autopsies and espoused embalming for teaching anatomy and anatomical preparations. Ironically, Greenhill also stressed the importance of funeral practices, considered the ‘want of a burial to be a Punishment and a Curse’, and noted the ‘Infamy and Disgrace of the Dead bodies being denied burial’ (1705a: 3–5, 118; 1705b).
10 John Kersey senior perhaps secured his son's career – a ‘John Kersey’ was subscriber to Greenhill's work (1705a). Rideout was appointed surgeon in 1691 and was elected Barber-Surgeons’ Steward of Anatomy in 1708 (Parsons, 1934: 125; MBCC, 28.04.1714; CMB: 9).
11 Lecturing was particularly profitable, since students commonly each paid several guineas to attend, and audiences could be large (Guerrini, 2004).
12 See note 10.
13 From 1713 Kersey lived with his parents at the ‘Surgeon's Arms’, Blewitt's Buildings, Fetter Lane (LTAB, /42, fol.28, /47, fol.28, /59, fol.27, /65, fol.24; Post Boy, 24–26 October 1717, p. 2) and married Rebecca Taylor on 14 February 1716 (Parish registers of St James, Clerkenwell).
14 Mirroring the Barber-Surgeons’ ‘Masters’ and ‘Stewards of Anatomy’, traditional format involved a ‘Reader’, who read/led the lecture, and ‘Demonstrator’, who dissected (Kausmally, 2015: 48; Young, 1890: 362). Kersey was perhaps ‘Demonstrator’ to Cheselden's ‘Reader’.
15 In 1742 the London Evening Post (30 September 1742–2 October 1742, p. 2) reported on material evidence of bodysnatching in London found, remarkably, in the church of St Michael, Southampton, when an old burial was disturbed for a new grave. Marked ‘Edward Serle, Gent, 1711’, the wooden coffin contained only clothes stuffed with animal bone and wool. Serle, it was said, had been buried in Southampton ‘with his Ancestors, pursuant to his Desire’. Despite a ‘Grand Funeral’, it was thought his body had been sold to anatomists in London. Although bodysnatching cannot be substantiated, Edward Serle and his burial seemingly existed. ‘Edward Serle’ (or Searl), resident of All Hallows London Wall, London, died aged 60 in 1711 and his burial was registered on 18 December 1711. At St Michael, Southampton, ‘Mr Searle’ was buried ‘in ye Church’ on 26 December 1711. The All Hallows register does not distinguish intra- and extra-parochial burials; therefore, the former date could reflect the coffin leaving London and the latter its burial in Southampton. If the interpretation of theft was correct, an embalmer may be strongly suspected, since transporting a body in a wooden coffin to Southampton would have required embalming to mitigate unpleasant putrefaction during transit. Having trained under Greenhill, Kersey may have had opportunities, both during or after his apprenticeship, to develop the close professional relationships with undertakers necessary to bribe them or substitute corpses, with or without their connivance.
16 Hearne notes the event of 1704 left an impression and increased burial within churches because of its perceived security (Rannie, 1907: 156–7).
17 The cadaver may have been Mary Skip, the only women recently hanged at Tyburn (highway robbery, 11.05.1715, OBPO, OA17150511).
18 His other children probably included Mary, bapt. 26 November 1716 (Baptisms of St Andrew, Holborn) and John, bapt. 10 October 1720 (Parish registers of St James, Clerkenwell).
19 Sarah Shepherd married John Stiver, 11 January 1695 (QMLM: Marriages 1690–1700, Devonshire House, fol.267), who died January 1700 (QMLM: Burials 1699–1723, Devonshire House, fol.4), then married Peter Shepherd, 28 January 1700 (Parish registers of St Dunstan, Stepney).
20 Michael Holmes was dismissed, and his replacement was ordered in future to dig graves six foot deep and backfill promptly. News spread to the Peel Meeting, who oversaw the Chequer Alley burial ground, near Bunhill Fields. They let adjoining properties and feared their poorer tenants might be ‘prevailed upon’ to steal corpses. It was ordered these tenants be replaced by Quakers and gates locked at night (Devonshire House Monthly Meeting Men's minutes (regular), Vol. 3, 1707–27: 219–20, 239; Devonshire House Monthly Meeting Men's minutes (adjourned), Vol. 4, 1707–30: 156, 173, 175, 237, 243, 295; Peel House Monthly Meeting Men's minutes (regular), Vol. 4, 1709–17, 29 tenth month [Nov] 1716).
21 Holmes was perhaps recruited because he had already committed a similar crime. A week earlier a ‘John Holms’ of St Mary, Whitechapel, had been branded for stealing the shroud from a corpse, although on that occasion it was noted ‘No Notice taken of the Corps’ (OBPO, LL ref: t17161105–78).
22 Thomas Secker (1693–1768) studied in London during that winter and attended ‘Courses of Anatomy with Mr Cheselden’ (Greaves and Macauley, 1988: 7).
23 Two other men advertised courses in their London homes, 1715–18, but there is no evidence either used cadavers: ‘Mr Martin’ in Northumberland Court, Charing Cross (PMHA, 10–12 April 1716, p. 2; 16–18 August 1716, p. 2; 15–17 August 1717, p. 2; 14–16 November 1717, p. 2; 6–8 March 1718, p. 2); and Hosea Fiquel (d.1736), an army surgeon, English by nationalisation, who lectured in Leicester Fields, 1715–16 (Evening Post, 1–3 December 1715, p. 2; Daily Courant, 3 November 1716, p. 3; Will of Hosea Fiquel, PROB 11/680/328, proved 12.10.1736; Wallis and Wallis, 1988: 45).
24 By 1717, the New Churchyard was used for those buried at the cost of the hospital (paupers or unclaimed dead). However, the death and burial registers of St Bartholomew's do not survive before 1762 and 1744, respectively (Harding, 2002: 94–5; Maitland, 1756: 986; Moore, 1918). This has created a large void in the historic record because a burial register was never kept at the New Churchyard. Patient burials transferred to St Giles, Cripplegate, following the closure of the New Churchyard and indicate how heavily used the latter must have been by St Bartholomew's: 178 patient burials (noted ‘B.H.’) were recorded by St Giles 3 March 1739–28 February 1740 – c.51% of the 349 patients who died in the hospital during approximately the same period (Burials of St Giles, Cripplegate; St Bartholomew's Hospital, Minutes of the Board of Governors [MBG], SBHB/HA/1/11, 1734–48: 231, 255, 337, 357, 368–9 and 372).
25 Childers was probably reburied in the New Churchyard. No record of his reburial appears to exist elsewhere.
26 Consumption killed 38% of the patients buried 3 March 1739–28 February 1740 (Burials of St Giles, Cripplegate).
27 John Whiten (RAB:/003: 184 (04.12.1716)).
28 Baptised 4 May 1695 (Baptisms of St Martin-in-the-Fields), son of John Brathwaite (fl.1699, deceased by 1712), Stationer, and Sylvestra Brathwaite (née Cooke, 1669–1740).
29 Dickinson had been appointed in May 1714, in place of Kersey's former master, Rideout (deceased), and had recently been elected a Steward of Anatomy (Dickinson, 1901: 116; Parsons, 1934: 160, 167; MBCC: 08.04.1719; CMB: 15.08.1717). Brathwaite's apprenticeship had not begun under Dickinson (RFA: 104; CMB: 210) but under army surgeon Latimer Ridley on 7 October 1712. It was discharged on 11 February 1713 and transferred to Dickinson because Ridley had falsely claimed Freedom of the Barber-Surgeons.
30 Visiting surgeons required permission from the incumbent Chancellor or Vice-Chancellor of Oxford to lecture (Ayliffe, 1714, Vol. 2: 153; Robb-Smith and Sinclair, 1950: 24). Brathwaite's connections may have proved useful – his uncle, Thomas Brathwaite (1660?–1720), had been Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, 1710–12 (Will of Doctor Thomas Brathwaite, PROB 11/575/455, proved 31 August 1720; Foster, 1891: 172).
31 Cheselden's course of 1713, for example, lasted two months, repeated 1 September 1713, 1 November 1713, 12 January 1714 and 12 March 1714 (Cheselden, 1713).
32 Her forename was not recorded (MBG, SBHB/HA/1/09, 1708–19: 169r and 169v).
33 Brathwaite's family may have supplied legal advice, representation and influence: his maternal uncle, Richard Cooke, and his mother's cousin, John Marsh (d.1753), were both barristers-at-law (Burke and Burke, 1847; Roberts, 1933: 246).
34 See indictments of 1777 and 1788 (Anon, 1832: 204–9; Dobie, 1829: 156–60; Public Advertiser, 31 January 1789).
35 Except for witchcraft, a felony 1604–1735 (Guttmacher, 1935: 363).
36 Occasionally also associated with charges of trespass.
37 Kersey's wife, Rebecca, died in ‘ye Hospital’ in 1725 (Burials of St Andrew, Holborn: 30.03.1725).
38 Buried 26 April 1706. Widow of John Worrell, distiller, and mother of Thomas Worrell (bapt. 4 December 1687), carpenter's apprentice (Parish registers of St Saviours, Southwark; Parish registers of St Katherine by the Tower; Freedom Admission Papers [FAP], /0301–0306: 04.09.1705).
39 One source recorded thirty missing (Anon, undated) and another recorded twenty-five children and thirteen adults missing (OWJ, 8–15 February 1718, p. 5). This represents approximately 30 to 40% of the ninety-five individuals buried by St Saviours 1 January–10 February 1718 (c.fifty-one children, forty-four adults (Parish registers of St Saviours, Southwark)). These thefts probably reflect a typical disproportionate targeting of women and children. Hearne noted in 1724: ‘tis for young people, especially young, Women, that they [bodysnatchers] generally seek’ (Rannie, 1907: 156–7). Such bias addressed a key problem with contemporary lawful supply – relatively few women were condemned to execution. Pregnant women and young children were never knowingly executed (Chaplin, 2009: Appendix 2).
40 Probably a continuation of the society founded by Stukeley a decade earlier. According to Monro, the group also included physician William Rutty (1687–1730) (Morgan 1730: 427) and physician and man-midwife James Douglas (1675–1742) (Erlam, 1954).
41 Furneaux, son of a vicar of Torrington, Devon, matriculated undergraduate in 1710, Fellow 1713, B.A. 1715, M.A. 1718 and B.Med 1719 (Foster, 1891: 540; Howard, 1877: 195–6).
42 Details of Furneaux's later life are mostly lacking. He was described as ‘Professor of Anatomy’ when listed by Jebb as a subscriber (1722: 572). In 1721, he forcefully claimed a corpse from the Oxford gallows to dissection at Exeter College, despite the man's parents wanting a funeral and attending the execution with a coffin (Robb-Smith and Sinclair, 1950: 26).
43 Richard Austin (Apprenticeship Books, IR1/11/12, 16.09.1725), possibly the same ‘Richard Austin’ who studied operations as St Thomas's pupil from October 1725 to February 1726 (Wilson, 1992).
44 What killed Kersey and Brathwaite at relatively young ages (c.36 and c.35, respectively) is unrecorded but may have been occupational. In 1779, surgeon Peter Clare noted links between disease, putrefaction and the dissection room, and observed that many aspiring anatomists ‘died unheard of in early life’ (Clare, 1779: 118–20). Although the transmission of infectious diseases from cadavers was poorly understood in the early eighteenth century, the risk was recognised. In 1727, the WJBG noted how anatomist practices ‘the barbarous Custom of digging up human Bodies after their Decent Interment’ manifested dangerous ‘contagious Distempers’ (22 April 1727, p. 2). In November 1729, the deaths of four unidentified surgeons from ‘goal fever’ were linked to a dissection at St Bartholomew's. The subject, Hester Morgan, was dying of the disease when executed at Tyburn (Ipswich Journal, 22–29 November 1729, p. 3 and 20–27 December 1729, p. 4). There is no indication Kersey and Brathwaite targeted specific corpses. Indeed, their subjects probably placed them at greater risk because the anonymity of bodysnatching masked cause of death. Sarah Shepherd and William Childers (1716 and 1717, above), for example, both died of ‘consumption’. During his education in London, Monro dissected the suppurated lungs of a man who had died from TB and, after scratching his hands, was lucky to survive a dangerous infection (Erlam, 1954: 81).
45 Brathwaite married his last master's daughter, Mary Lee, and the couple had a son (Will of Richard Lee, PROB 11/700/501, proved 26 February 1740).
46 Bower suggests Monro initially relied on corpses procured from London (1817: 176)
47 For example, Stukeley and William Rutty (see note 40).
48 Stukeley supported this and attended the House of Lords when the Bill was debated (Commentary 1720, in Lukis, 1882: 73–4).
49 See Cheselden's possible involvement in 1716 and 1718, above. Direct evidence against Cheselden, however, is perhaps limited to his own candid admission in Osteographia (1733: Table 43) that one skeletal specimen was dug ‘out of a grave’, for which he was strongly chastised by John Douglas: ‘if Mr CHESELDEN dug it out of a grave himself, or set any body else about it, he ought to have kept that part of the story to himself; because People are too apt to suspect and surmise such things, without being told them in so publick a manner’ (Douglas, 1735: 36).
50 John ‘Chevalier’ Taylor (1703?–72) credited ‘Hunter, Nicols, Monro, Brathwaite’ for teaching him anatomy (Taylor 1761: 47).


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The material body

Embodiment, history and archaeology in industrialising England, 1700–1850


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