Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Resurrection Men: Trials

Resurrection Man: the Diary of Joseph Naples

Trial and Punishment

Thomas Light in the Newgate Calendar


Tried for stealing dead bodies from St. Giles' Churchyard

The resurrection-men of London, like other combinations of workmen, struck for higher wages the other day, and refused to supply the Edinburgh and Glasgow schools of surgery with dead bodies, under an advance of two guineas for each subject. These sacrilegious ruffians assigned as reasons for such demand the increased difficulties and dangers attendant upon the robbery of a churchyard, even in alliance with the sexton of the parish, and the great scarcity of sound subjects after they have resurrectioned them, from the more corrupt manner in which men now die, as well as live.

A numerous gang of these grave robbers was not long ago apprehended at Deptford near London; and one circumstance will, perhaps, give the reader some idea of the habits of these singular thieves: having been at their usual pot-of-beer club, the men on duty for that night were rather late in going to work; so that before they had got their regular load, daylight broke in upon them, and the bustle of persons passing and repassing by the churchyard compelled them, from fear of detection, to hide themselves in the very tombs where they had, during the preceding night, been disturbing the peaceful ashes of the dead.

Thomas Light, alias John Jones, alias Thomas Knight, who was lately indicted at the Middlesex sessions, for stealing dead bodies for dissection, but did not appear for trial, in consequence of which a bench warrant was lately issued against him, was, on the 13th October, 1812, with his accomplice, one of his bail, named Patrick Harnell, charged by Watts, a horse-patrole, in having been the night before found in the act of stealing three dead bodies from St. Pancras or St. Giles's burying-ground, which are separated by a wall only, by the horse patrole of the Hamstead and Higbgate district.

Light attempted to escape, but was secured; and, from the frequency of such offences, strong indignation was excited. It was not clear from which burying ground the bodies were stolen; and, therefore, the magistrate ordered notice to be served on St. Giles's parish officers, to attend the final examination, on a future day, and remanded the prisoners. One of the dead bodies was that of a female, apparently of eighteen years of age -- a second, a boy of about twelve -- and the third, a new-born infant. The sack into which they were all crammed was taken to the Elephant and Castle public-house at Pancras, in the hope of their being owned and re- interred. It appeared on a second examination that the dead bodies had been paupers who had died in the poorhouse of St. Giles's, and had been buried in the burial ground belonging to the said parish; and from whence they had been taken. The prisoners denied having any knowledge of the transaction, farther than seeing two men with the sacks, who made their escape.

Light was at length brought to trial at the quarter sessions, in October, 1812, for this most unnatural kind of theft. Besides the suspicion upon him in the affair at Pancras, above-mentioned, it was proved, that one evening he was stopped in Great James-street, Bedford-square, on his road to an eminent surgeon's, with the dead body of a man; but the proof failed of his having stolen it out of a churchyard; and, though not a shadow of a doubt remained of his guilt, he for a while escaped the punishment of his crime.


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.