Bodysnatchers: What was the price of a good corpse in Worcestershire?

Computing seems to be pretty much gone now, replaced by 21st century nasties like computer fraud and going over 100 mph on a freeway, but there was a time when body snatching was high on the list of crimes in Worcestershire.

And why not, because with major medical schools in Worcester and not far from Oxford, there was a high demand for bodies to be dissected. Up to £20 was paid for a good clean corpse, which would cost nearly £18,000 today.

In 1984 I visited what was left of the old county jail with photographer Roy Booker before it was finally demolished. This was part of the D wing

In fact, with demand exceeding supply, an ingenious local craftsman has invented a gadget to oil the wheels of the corpse-stealing business. It was a nifty kit with a powerful screw that could lift the lid of a coffin and a hook that was then hooked under the jawbone of the body which lay peacefully so that it could be removed with the minimum of excavation.

Worcester Royal Infirmary, as many older townspeople will remember.  Undated image but possibly from the 1950s

Worcester Royal Infirmary, as many older townspeople will remember. Undated image but possibly from the 1950s

He was particularly favored by a gang of four who operated in South Worcestershire in the early 19th century and although they were never caught in the act their identities were fairly well known.

One even had intimate knowledge of the most recent graves being a clergyman’s son, the offspring of the Reverend David Davies, aka “the Drunken Parson”, who served as Vicar of Broadway for 42 years, from 1777 to 1819.

The Old Worcester County Gaol in Castle Street.  The facade was demolished and the H. A. Saunders garage was built, while in some of the old prison buildings the furniture company GT Rackstraws operated

The Old Worcester County Gaol in Castle Street. The facade was demolished and the H. A. Saunders garage was built, while in some of the old prison buildings the furniture company GT Rackstraws operated

On January 21, 1831, Berrow’s Worcester Journal reported: “Graves have been opened in the cemetery of Hanley Castle and two recently buried bodies have been carried away.

“They had been sent in packing cases from the Anchor Inn, Upton upon Severn in London, but the parties following them found them and restored them to the graveyard. The Resurrectionists were not caught.

Taken from Pitchcroft in 1920, this image shows the Royal Infirmary, while opposite Castle Street is the old castellated prison, which was due to close two years later.

Taken from Pitchcroft in 1920, this image shows the Royal Infirmary, while opposite Castle Street is the old castellated prison, which was due to close two years later.

Nor was there luck in apprehending those who visited St John’s Church in Bromsgrove on November 24, 1829. Joseph Rose, the sextant, noted in his notebook “three bodies were stolen from the graveyard but the thieves have not been found”.

The most notorious case of body abduction concerned a lady called Mrs. Hannah Ward, a pastry chef, who was buried in Broadway Old Church on Wednesday, February 18, 1831, aged 37.

Fine undated old photo of nursing staff on the steps of the hospital entrance off Infirmary Walk

Fine undated old photo of nursing staff on the steps of the hospital entrance off Infirmary Walk

Shortly after the burial, his grave was opened at night, but this time everything went wrong. When the resurrectionists (as they were rather called feyly) arrived with the body in Worcester, the surgeons did not want to know.

They noted that the deceased had sore legs and decomposition had set in. Damaged goods, sir, we’re not interested.

Stuck with a body they couldn’t get rid of and faced with the time and difficulty of re-burying it in its original grave – resulting in the only known case of a body being resurrected and then re-resurrected a few days later – the Criminals temporarily hid the late Mrs. Ward in a large pile of manure next to the cemetery.

The front part of the old prison site was later converted into the HA Saunders garage.  It was the showroom overlooking Castle Street.  Has anyone bought a car there?

The front part of the old prison site was later converted into the HA Saunders Garage. It was the showroom overlooking Castle Street. Has anyone bought a car there?

Unfortunately, a curious terrier sniffed out the body and began to eat an arm. The animal was then seen running at full speed down the main street of Broadway, never to be seen again.

Meanwhile, surgeons at Worcester Infirmary in Castle Street have returned to a more reliable supply, dissecting the bodies of those hanged at the old county jail just across the road.

About Raymond A. Bentley

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