Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Resurrection Men: Ben Crouch and his gang

Resurrection Man: the Diary of Joseph Naples

The Gang

The men who composed the gang at the time the Diary was written are, in that document, nearly always spoken of by their Christian names. Their names are Ben [Crouch], Bill [Harnett], Jack [Harnett], Daniel Butler, Tom [Light], and Holliss. This gang, whose doings are recorded in the Diary, was the chief one in the Metropolis in the early part of the present century. The account, therefore, of the proceedings of these men gives a good idea of the work of the body-snatchers in general. Honour amongst thieves was not the motto of the resurrection-men; they seem to have been ever ready to sell or cheat their comrades, if a favourable opportunity presented itself.

Ben Crouch

Ben Crouch, the leader of the gang, was the son of a carpenter, who worked at Guy’s Hospital. He was a tall, powerful, athletic man, with coarse features, marked with the small-pox, and was well known as a prize-fighter. He used to dress in very good clothes, and wore a profusion of gold rings, and had a large bunch of seals dangling at his fob. He was tried for stealing cloth from Watling Street, but was able to successfully prove an alibi.

Bransby Cooper states that Crouch was seldom drunk, but when he was in that state he was most abusive and domineering; the Diary shows him in more than one of these attacks. He was sharp enough to be always sober on settling-up nights, and so had a distinct advantage over his comrades; by this means he generally managed to get more than his proper share of the proceeds of their horrible work.

About 1817 he gave up the resurrection business, and occupied himself chiefly in dealing in teeth; in this he was joined by Jack Harnett. They obtained licences as sutlers, so that they might be allowed as camp-followers, both in France and Spain. A large supply of teeth was thus obtained by them, their plan being to draw the sound teeth of as many dead men as possible on the night after a battle. They did not limit their attention to teeth, but made large sums of money by stealing valuables from the persons of those who had fallen in battle—proceedings which were even more brutal than their former resurrectionist practices.

With the money he had thus made, Crouch built a large hotel at Margate, which at first looked like being a paying concern. The nature of his former occupation, however, leaked out, and ruined his business; he then parted with the property at a great sacrifice. Subsequently he became very poor, and, whilst Harnett was away in France, Crouch appropriated some of his property; for this he was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment.

After this he lived in London, in great poverty, and was ultimately found dead in the top room of a public-house near Tower Hill. It is very probable that at one time he made money by lending to the medical students. In his “Confessions of a Dissecting-room Porter,” before alluded to, Albert Smith says, “I beg you will look at your watches, if you have not already lent them to Uncle Crouch.”

Bill and Jack Harnett

Bill Harnett was a favourite with Astley Cooper and Henry Cline. With the exception of a fondness for gin, he seems to have been a more respectable man than one would have expected to find in such company. He was very obliging, and could generally be trusted to carry out his promises.

Bransby Cooper states that Bill Harnett and “N.” objected to Crouch, and often worked against him; in the Diary they will be all found working together, though there is recorded at least one “row” with Crouch. Bill Harnett was a good boxer, and fought Ben Crouch at Wimbledon; he had previously received an injury to his jaw, and Crouch hit him a severe blow on this part, which decided the fight in Crouch’s favour.

Harnett died in St. Thomas’ Hospital of consumption. Like Southey’s “Surgeon,” he had a great horror of being dissected, and on his death-bed he obtained a promise from Mr. Joseph Henry Green that his body should not be opened.

Jack Harnett was a nephew of Bill; he is described as a stout, red-haired, ill-looking fellow, uncouth in his address and manner of speech. Like his partner, Crouch, he seems to have been fond of display in the matter of jewellery. But, unlike Crouch, he did not lose the money he had made, and at his death left nearly £6,000 to his family.


Butler was originally a porter in the dissecting-room at St. Thomas’. Bransby Cooper describes him as “a short, stout, good-tempered man, with a laughing eye and Sancho-Panza sort of expression.” He was a clever articulator, and dealt largely in bones and teeth.

Afterwards he set up as a dentist in Liverpool; but his dissolute habits were his ruin, and he was obliged to fly from his creditors. Butler was sentenced to death for robbing the Edinburgh mail, but his execution was postponed. During this delay he obtained the skeleton of a horse, and articulated it in the prison. The Austrian Archdukes John and Lewis were at that time in this kingdom, and, on visiting the prison in Edinburgh, were shown this skeleton; they were so pleased with the man’s handiwork that they obtained his pardon from the Prince Regent.

After his release, Butler was never heard of again by any of his old comrades or employers.

Tom Light

Tom Light is not mentioned by Bransby Cooper by name; he gives an account of a resurrection-man whom he calls “L——,” but whether this notice refers to Light or not cannot be definitely determined. In all probability L—— and Light are identical; Cooper speaks of the former as being so unreliable that his comrades could never trust him.

Tom Light seems to have had a happy knack of escaping justice; on p. 92 will be found an account of his being acquitted, even when taken with the bodies in his possession. He does not seem to have worked regularly with Crouch’s gang; at Hatton Garden Police Court he appeared as T. Light, alias John Jones, alias Thomas Knight, in October, 1812, and it was stated against him that he had lately been convicted at the Middlesex Sessions of stealing dead bodies for dissection, but he had evaded standing his trial, in consequence of which the Bench issued a warrant against him.

The particular charge on which he was now brought before the magistrates was that, with Patrick Harnell, one of his bail, he had been found in the act of stealing three dead bodies from the parish burial-ground of St. Pancras, or St. Giles, which were separated only by a wall. The men were apprehended by the horse patrol of the Hampstead and Highgate district. There was some difficulty in carrying on the case, as, until it was determined from which burial-ground the bodies had been taken, it could not be said which parish was the real prosecutor.

Light attempted to escape, but was secured. The newspaper adds, “and, from the frequency of such offences, strong indignation was excited in the neighbourhood, from whence a crowd attended at the office.”


Holliss was originally a sexton, and, like so many of his class, came into the pay of the Resurrectionists; at last his demands became so exorbitant that the resurrection-men refused to pay him, and informed his employers of what had been taking place. He was at once dismissed, and, having no other means of livelihood, he joined the resurrection-men.

He saved money, and afterwards purchased a hackney coach, which he himself drove. Like most of his companions, Holliss came to a bad end.

Harnett, the younger, had been to France, and had brought away with him a large number of teeth, which he valued at £700; these he entrusted to his daughter, who left them in a hackney carriage. The driver found the teeth, and, not knowing how to dispose of them, consulted his friend, Holliss. Holliss offered £5 for the teeth, and promised an extra sum if they sold well.

Harnett had made known his loss to Holliss, so that he knew perfectly well to whom the teeth belonged. Thinking that he could make more money by selling them privately than by trusting to a reward from Harnett, he began to dispose of the teeth to dentists. Harnett made enquiries of some of his customers as to whether they had lately been offered teeth for sale, and was shown some lately purchased from Holliss; these he was able to identify.

Holliss was at once given into custody, and was tried at Croydon; he escaped transportation through a flaw in the indictment. Whilst he was in gaol awaiting his trial, Harnett seized Holliss’ house and all his household furniture for a debt of £83.

Holliss was afterwards mixed up in a horse-stealing case, and ultimately died in great poverty and wretchedness.

Joseph Naples

“N.” or Joseph Naples, the writer of the Diary, is described by Bransby Cooper as “a civil and well conducted man, slight in person, with a pleasing expression of countenance, and of respectful manners.”

He was the son of a respectable stationer and bookbinder, and in early life went as a sailor into the King’s service. He was for some time on board the Excellent, and served in that vessel in the engagement off Cape St. Vincent. Then he returned to England, and, having spent all his prize-money, went on a vessel cruising about the Channel.

From this he ran away and came back to London; here he obtained a situation as grave-digger to the Spa Fields burial-ground. A man named White enticed Naples into the resurrectionist business; this soon caused him to lose his situation.

White was stopped by the patrols, and a body was found in his possession. He managed to escape, but it was proved that the body had been taken from Spa Fields, and Naples was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. He escaped, with another prisoner, from the House of Correction by making an opening through a skylight in the roof, and afterwards scaling the outer walls of the prison by means of a rope.

He was retaken through information given against him by Crouch, and it was only by the mediation of Sir Astley Cooper with the Secretary of State that Naples escaped additional punishment. In the list of prisoners written out by himself, and printed by Bransby Cooper (Life of Sir Astley Cooper), Naples thus describes himself: “Josh. N—— ‘Resurgam Hommo,’ for trial.”

The writing and spelling in the Diary show him to have been a man of superior education to most of his class. He continued in the resurrectionist business up to the time of the passing of the Anatomy Act, when he was taken on as a servant in the dissecting-room of St. Thomas’ Hospital.