Resurrectionists in Kilrea
In the 1700 and 1800s, there were insufficient corpses to meet the needs of teaching centres and hospitals (especially with many new ones opening in the 1800s).
Resurrectionists – commonly referred to as body snatchers or grave robbers – would often be employed by anatomists across Britain, during the 18th and 19th centuries to steal the corpses of the recently dead. Corpses became a much sought commodity. Indeed, riots were common at executions – as rivals fought to claim the body.
The general public despised grave robbers and their deeds. But legally, there was confusion. A corpse did not legally belong to anyone. The resurrectionists made hay within this legal grey area.
Nonetheless, in robbing graves, they ran the risk of physical attack. Graveyards did step up security, with night watch patrols after recent burials. Graves were sometimes secured with heavy slabs, metal fencing, and heavy coffins.
Grave Robbers Exhume Mary Thompson in Kilrea
1830 was a wet year across the land. In August there were several days of thunderstorms in the south.
But temperatures were reasonably mild. It was around 6 or 7 degrees fahrenheit, when on the night of 29th December 1830, the body of Mary Thompson was exhumed and carried away by resurrectionists, from the Meeting House yard, near Kilrea. It was a perfect night. The winter temperatures would have preserved her recently deceased body. And yet it was not cold enough, to make the ground difficult to dig.
Robert Norris appeared in court in early April 1831, charged on two counts – one of exhuming/stealing the aforementioned body, and a second of stealing the linen which covered the corpse in the grave.
Norris was but merely one of three persons being pursued for the despicable deed. The other two, William Harris and Hugh Harris, were still at large by the time of Norris’s trial. The devilish crime was proven conclusively by Mr William Maberly.
On exhuming the body, Robert Norris admitted to taking the cap off the head of the corpse and putting it into his pocket. The defendant then said that after putting the cap in his pocket, he went on to proclaim: “Old Moll Thompson, you will now have a free passage to Scotland.”
The three ruffians then placed the body in a sack and made their getaway.
Norris was found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years. William and Hugh Harris, who were said to be vagrants, were sentenced to be transported for seven years or to find security.
With respect to body snatching, the general public started to become more aware that bodies were needed for medical research. In 1832, Westminster passed the Anatomy Act, allowing anatomists access to workhouse corpses, and at a stroke, the grave robbing business was dead.
Though the new law twas a year too late for poor Mary Thompson!