Cadder Parish Church, showing watchhouse and iron mortsafe, which was used to hold the corpse until it had decomposed enough to render it unsuitable for dissection and thus safe from the resurrection men [e.g. body-snatchers].
THE CASE OF JOHN HOLMES AND PETER WILLIAMS
Publicly whipped, by the Sentence of the Middlesex Court of Quarter Sessions, for December, 1777, for stealing Dead Bodies
The sum of all our long list of thieves, and their different deceptions and modes of plunder, surely were those detested monsters of depravity who broke into the sacred deposit of the dead and robbed the graves of the bodies of our departed fellow-creatures, for the sole purpose of selling them to surgeons for dissection.
The impious robbers were vulgarly called, in London, “Resurrection Men,” but rather should have been called “Sacrilegious Robbers of our Holy Church,” not even confining the unnatural crime to men alone. The gentler sex were connected in this horrid traffic, whose business it was to strip off the shroud, or whatever garments in which the body might have been wrapped, and sell them, while the men, through the darkness of night, dragged the naked bodies to be anatomised.
When Hunter, the famous anatomist, was in full practice, he had a surgical theatre behind his house, in Windmill Street, where he gave lectures to a very numerous class of pupils. To this place such numbers of dead bodies were brought during the winter season that the mob rose several times, and were upon the point of pulling down his house. He had a well dug in the back part of his premises, wherein was thrown the putrid flesh, and with it alkalines, in order to hasten the consumption thereof.
Numberless were the instances of dead bodies seized to be carried to the surgeons. Hackney-coachmen, for an extra fare, and porters with hampers, were often employed by these resurrection men for this purpose.
A monthly publication, in March, 1776, says: “The remains of more than twenty bodies were discovered in a shed in Tottenham Court Road, supposed to have been deposited there by traders to the surgeons; of whom there is one, it is said, in the borough, who makes an open profession of dealing in dead bodies, and is well known by the name of ‘The Resurrectionist.’ “
Still more shocking was it to be told that men who were paid for protecting the sacred deposit of the mortal remains of their fellow-parishioners were often confederates with those carcass stealers, as the present case will demonstrate.
Holmes, the principal villain in this case, was grave- digger of St George’s, Bloomsbury; Williams was his assistant, and a woman, named Esther Donaldson, an accomplice. They were all indicted for stealing the dead body of Mrs Jane Sainsbury, who departed this life on the 9th of October, then last past, and the corpse was interred in the burying-ground of St George’s on the Monday following. They were detected before they could secure their booty; and the widower determined, however unpleasant, to prosecute them. In order to their conviction he had to undergo the mental pain of viewing and identifying the remains of his wife!
The gravedigger and his deputy were convicted on the fullest evidence; and it was regretted that it did not reach the woman, though no doubt remained of her equal guilt. She therefore was released, but Holmes and Williams were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, and to be whipped twice on their bare backs, from the end of Kingsgate Street, Holborn, to Diot Street, St Giles’s, being half-a-mile, and which was inflicted with the severity due to so detestable an offence, through crowds of exulting spectators.
-Published in the Newgate Calendar, 1777.