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Body Snatchers


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Present day, it's often accepted by families to leave a body or organs for medical science or transplant but not so years ago. The only way doctors and surgeons could obtain corpses for medical science legally was by ones who'd died by the hangman's noose. 

The Judgement of Death Act 1823 saw the reduction in prisoners receiving the death penalty and the availability of corpses reduced drastically. The trade in illegally obtained corpses increased and communities fearing for the safety of the recently interred bodies of their relatives become victims of the "Body Snatchers" (Resurrectionists) had earlier tried to find ways to secure the graves, mort safes and watch towers had been established. 


St. Nicholas Church, High Bradfield and the Watch Tower (right) built 1745 to guard against bodies stolen from the Churchyard. 

1828 in Edinburgh, Burke and Hare achieved notariety through their escapades digging up the recently interred and for murders committed to sell the corpses to the medical profession. The case and the one in London in 1831 led to the Anatomy Act 1832 which allowed doctors, anatomy lecturers, and medical students greater access to cadavers and allowed for the legal donation of bodies to medical science, effectively calling an end to the illegal body-snatcher trade.

Sheffield was no exception to the practice; as seen in the extracts of articles and letters from The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent 1872/3, edited by Robert Eadon Leader 1875. "Reminiscences of Sheffield, it's, Streets and it's People

Pages 300-304.

Mr. Hall Overend and the Resurrectionists.

Leonard: Mr. Hall Overend was an enthusiast in the cause of surgical science, which in his day was carried on amid great disadvantages and hazards, since the law provided only for the dissection of criminals who had been hanged, and the supply was altogether inadequate for the medical schools. This gave rise to the horrible practice of employing "resurrection men" to disinter clandestinely bodies which relatives supposed had been borne to their last home. Mr. Overend established the Sheffield Medical School, and was its most zealous promoter. The duty of obtaining "subjects" rested mainly upon him, and he carried it out with characteristic vigour and success. None but a man standing so high as he did, professionally and socially, could have sustained himself against the prejudice which the suspicion of the employment of " resurrection men " brought upon him, for not only were the feelings of families grievously wounded, by fears or realities, but there existed an ever-smouldering popular indignation, which the slightest incident might any day have caused to break out in riot and outrage. Besides this, was the constant risk of the capture or injury of some of the agents employed, or the search of the premises of the school, which might have resulted in the discovery of some body capable of being identified. It certainly was not a subject favourable to the humour of Hood's lines, representing the ghost of a departed wife as coming to her husband's bedside and saying —

" The body-snatchers, they have come,

And made a ****** at me ;

It's very odd that kind of men

Can't let a body be."

Mr. Hall Overend had not even the benefit of that rule of political economy that occupations are highly paid in proportion to their disagreeableness and danger. Both in money and in mental anxiety and worry, he lost largely by the war he waged against antiquated law in the interest of science and humanity. The students had the "subjects" for the mere sum paid to the men who procured them, while the sacrifices and costs of Mr. Overend himself were utterly unrequited. There were rumours that Mr. Overend personally took part in the lifting of bodies and their conveyance to the medical school, and it was a popular belief that his death was hastened by injuries received in one of these nocturnal expeditions. It was improbable enough that a gentleman over 50 years of age, whose days were intensely occupied in a most laborious practice, could personally give up his nights to the labours, risks, and exposure incident to body-snatching; but I had the opportunity lately of conversing with a surgeon, in his student days one of the young gentlemen, of the most respectable families in the neighbourhood, who sought the advantage of being Mr. Overend's pupils. This gentleman holds in unbounded honour the memory of his old master, and on my naming to him the rumour I have mentioned, it gave rise to a very interesting conversation, which perhaps I had better record in its original form of dialogue.

Doctor: Mr. Overend did not go out, but he knew what was done, and on almost the last occasion when we brought in a body, he happened to be in Church Street, and was in a state of extreme perturbation lest the constables should search the house and find it. I satisfied him at last by showing that the body could not be identified.

Leonard: "What sort of men were employed in this work?" 

Doctor: There were two men employed, but we pupils were active accomplices, planning the operations, keeping watch, giving signals, drawing off the watchers, and carrying away the bodies. When we had got a corpse in the bottom of the gig, or dressed up in cloak, bonnet and veil supported between two of us, we were not long in driving to Sheffield. Mr. Overend kept good horses, and anybody who tried to catch us after we had got off, must have looked sharp.

Leonard: I suppose you did not often venture on the Town Grave Yards ?

Doctor: No; unless there was some special reason for it, in the singularity of a case. I remember a deformed woman who had died in childbirth. We were very anxious to examine her, and we got her. But we preferred the quiet village churchyards — most of these within 12 or 14 miles were visited at times.

Leonard: When your men got to work on a newly-filled grave, they would soon get at the body ?

Doctor: Well, not always. They sometimes found obstacles put in their way, or graves made deep. I remember one case where the men had excavated, and came back to us saying there was neither body nor coffin there. We had to give it up for a time; but we were so sure that we tried again, and we found that the sexton, when he had gone low enough, had made a sort of cave along one side of the grave, and the coffin had been pushed in there.

Leonard: You would not like now to run such a risk as you did then?

Doctor: Oh, the excitement totally overbore the risk. You will quite understand how the expeditions would arouse the adventurous spirits of young medical students, who had to plan and conduct them. The greater the difficulty the more we tried to overcome it. Most of the adventures were of our own planning.

Leonard: How did you go about them?

Doctor: We went out "prospecting," to borrow a word unknown then. When we heard of a death in one of the villages, one or two of us would go out for a country walk, with a piece of bread and cheese in our pockets, and a silver coin or two, not of the largest. We rested in a little village alehouse, and of course we must look at the church or copy curious epitaphs in the churchyard. Sextons were usually communicative. We ascertained where some poor body was to be buried in a day or two, perhaps saw the sexton at work, noted the points it was necessary to watch, marked the line of retreat, and settled the best time to come. When the time arrived, we walked to the place by different ways, and the gig came after, to diminish the risk of its being observed waiting.

Leonard: Of course it would be a great object with you, when you had rifled a grave, to have it filled up so as to show no trace of disturbance, but you must sometimes have had to escape in a hurry.

Doctor: Oh, yes. I remember one very funny case. It happened in a village that had -been infested by fowl-stealers, who had made the people very vigilant, and we knew several of them kept their guns in readiness loaded with slugs. All had gone right with us. The night was dark. We had got the body removed to a little distance, and the men were rapidly completing the grave, when unluckily the sky cleared and the moon shone out. A young couple had been married that day, and lived in a cottage overlooking the churchyard. The bride happened to get out of bed during the night, just too soon for us, and to look out of the window. Of course she shrieked when she saw us, and her cry brought her husband to the window. She screamed "Shoot! shoot!" and if we had seen the husband turn from the window and come back again, we should have supposed he had got his gun, and have expected a charge of slugs. Of course we could not stay to finish the work, though we got clear off with the body. We had a narrow escape at another village where the church and the rectory were adjacent. Instead of finding all quiet at the usual time as we expected, we perceived that some of the rectory family were up. The rector had gone out to dinner, and besides the servants in the house, a man was in the out premises, waiting to assist the coachman in putting up the carriage horses. We were just ready to be off, when the carriage came up, but we had to bring away a fellow pupil, whom I had put on the rectory yard wall, where he lay to watch. Our usual mode of signalling was by throwing stones in the direction of the party to be warned, but in this case our watcher was too far off, and I had no chance but to run across the rectory lawn and bring him away. On another occasion a strict watch had been set over a grave. We got the watchers into the public-house, and so entertained them with our songs and stories that our object was accomplished quietly, and we left the watchers boasting what they would have done if the body-snatchers had dared to come there.

Wragg: I think I can tell a story how one of the two professional resurrectionists once got into trouble. About the year 1830, a young man died of consumption and was buried in Bradfield churchyard, close to the east end of the church. Some one near the church hearing the gig and the feet of a horse pacing about, got up to learn the cause of so unusual a noise, and saw what was going on in the churchyard. Those in the gig made a precipitate retreat towards Sheffield. One man was caught in endeavouring to make his escape from the churchyard, in which he would have succeeded, but his course was impeded by a deep snow drift. This man suffered twelve months' imprisonment.

Page 269. 

Resurrectionist Riot 1835. 

Johnson: Talking of riots, these are happily gone out of fashion. Formerly, they were too plentiful. I can just remember the riot at our first Borough Election. Fortunately I was kept at home on that night, but I well recollect going down the next day and seeing the devastation that had taken place. Three men and two boys were shot dead on the occasion, and another young fellow died of his wounds shortly afterwards. Then, as I have already mentioned, we had the riot in Eyre Street, which took place in January, 1835. At this time, a second Medical School which had been established in Eyre Street, corner of Charles Lane, was completely gutted, and the building set on fire. The mob got an impression that it was a place where "Resurrection Men" sold the bodies they stole. I recollect that a small case containing the body or skeleton of a child found on the premises, was nailed up by the mob on a house opposite, to serve as an incentive to the work of destruction. The origin of the riot was a quarrel that took place on the previous day (Sunday), between the keeper of the school and his wife. This caused a disturbance, and the place bore such an evil name that the quarrel of these two persons ended in the destruction of the building, excepting the walls, on the following day. I recollect on the Monday night a great part of the mob, crying "All in a mind for Overend's," passed my father's shop, and went along Orchard Street to Mr. Wilson Overend's house and surgery, causing much alarm, but doing little mischief."


Mr. Wilson Overend was the son of Mr. Hall Overend who lived in his later years at Bolsover Hill on the Barnsley Road until his death in May 1831 aged 59.


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Not exactly body snatchers Ponytail!  But there were some strange goings-on in Norton Churchyard according to this Sheffied Independent article from 1860.

Norton Churchyard.jpg

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As an aside , some years ago ,I arranged to leave my corpse to Sheffield University Medical School for use training doctors. A few weeks ago I was informed by the University they had changed their teaching methods and donated corpses were no longer needed!

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1 minute ago, Lysanderix said:

As an aside , some years ago ,I arranged to leave my corpse to Sheffield University Medical School for use training doctors. A few weeks ago I was informed by the University they had changed their teaching methods and donated corpses were no longer needed!


Thanks for that post Lysanderix, I'd better get in touch with them as I've moved since I did my arrangement. 


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