Haverfordwest's Invasion of the Body-snatchers

Grave situation: The body of Henry John was disinterred and stolen from the graveyard.

Grave situation: The body of Henry John was disinterred and stolen from the graveyard.

In keeping with the time of year I thought to continue in the vein already set and divulge a blood curdling incident from 1823.

The medical profession at this point was in turmoil.

Throughout the 18th century the number of executions for the paltriest of crimes had ensured that bodies for dissection (the only way that doctors/surgeons were trained) were plentiful; the body of those executed invariably being to be handed over for dissection purposes after the sentence had been carried out.

It is tempting to suggest that by the first quarter of the 19th century a marginal degree of enlightenment among judges was the cause of fewer death sentences but sadly such is not the case; they had been instructed to ensure a regular supply of labour for the colonies and as such transportation took over as the most common punishment thereby causing a shortage of bodies.

And so, although most certainly not a new trade, the profession of body snatching reached its zenith. Provided a body could be supplied within three days of death (a good fresh one) medical people, especially those in training, were willing to pay between £8 and £15. An agricultural labourer’s annual wage at this time was £15.

The country was in the deepest of recessions and the workhouse beckoned. Further motivation was provided by the fact that although a crime, grave robbing did not attract the death penalty; those who purchased the body were not guilty of any crime at all.

Yet another cause of immense frustration for the poor, who represented 95 per cent of the population, was the fact that the wealthy were able to surround their graves with iron railings or other form of protection.

No entry: The historic church is now closed to the public.

No Entry: The historic church is now closed to the public. Picture: Western Telegraph.

And so the graves most commonly robbed were those of the poor, yet any knowledge gained by medical practitioners was going to be universally directed towards the wealthy. It became a habit to watch over the deceased prior to burial followed by family members, if available, taking it in turns to watch over the grave for the first three days. In bigger cities, watchtowers were constructed in cemeteries.

The records of St Thomas Church in Haverfordwest reveal that in May 1823 the body of Henry John was disinterred and stolen. It is the only documented record of body snatching in the area. Further documents in the Record Office disclose that the body was found a few days later in the cellar of a public house ‘one street away’ minus all of the internal organs and the head. Although the identity of the grave robbers isn’t revealed, the person responsible for at least the purchase of the body, if not the ordering of the disinterment is given as a trainee doctor named Brigstocke, a stranger to the area. Nothing is recorded either at the time or later to suggest that any of the ‘resurrectionists’, as they were sometimes called, were found and punished or that anything happened to Brigstocke.

Elsewhere in the country, Burke and Hare had taken the profession to a new dimension in Edinburgh when they started murdering people and then selling the bodies. They found that it saved all of the digging (and waiting).

After murdering 16 people they were caught and Hare was induced to give evidence against Burke who was executed in 1828. This and a similar spate of murders for dissection purposes in London led to the Anatomy Act of 1832 which granted licenses to medical people. This provided for the use of bodies of unclaimed people, especially from Workhouses.

It became something of a perk for workhouse masters to improve their income by selling the many deceased.

But although there is nothing further documented or recorded at the time, the St Thomas story doesn’t end with the report of the grave robbing. There is a tantalising potential sequel. One hundred and twelve years later, on the August 24,1935, there appears in the obituaries column of the Western Telegraph the death of Dr Charles Arthur Brigstocke of Northfield House, Haverfordwest aged 93. The report suggests that he was known to townspeople as having been extremely eccentric, notably in that he dressed in Victorian fashion right up to his death. He had continued practising until aged 87 and had been Medical Officer for Haverfordwest until he was 89.

He was, in addition, the chief surgeon of the old hospital on St Thomas Green. He would have been born in 1842. There is no mention or suggestion that he was in any way connected with the grave robbing incident, although the dates do make it possible that he was the son of the original Brigstocke.

grave diggers

In 2012, hundreds enjoyed the re-enactment of the grave robbing in St Thomas' cemetery as part of the Ghost Walks. On the last evening, about 200 people sat in St Thomas Church and watched a short comic play themed on the grave robbing incident - marking the last time the church was used before its doors were closed forever.